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Veterans and wild mustangs teach each other how to connect

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Bunch works with Liberty, a wild mustang, at the EquiCenter ranch in Honeoye Falls.
Beth Adams/WXXI News
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Bunch works with Liberty, a wild mustang, at the EquiCenter ranch in Honeoye Falls.

A complex and sometimes tense dance between a man and a horse was playing out in a pasture at the EquiCenter ranch in Honeoye Falls on a late August morning.

The man was retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Bunch. The horse was Liberty, a formerly wild mustang who, until several months ago, never had any contact with humans.

"I've learned more from that horse than any therapist has ever taught me," Bunch said.

Horse trainer Emma Minteer is a short distance away, closely watching the movements of Bunch and Liberty.                          

"It's exciting, and it's a process," she explained. "It's like a trust-building exercise. That veteran has to build trust with that horse."

Someone else is watching closely, too, and she doesn't like what she sees.

Freedom, another wild mustang mare, neighs loudly and positions herself in front of Liberty, trying to protect her. 

"They're out of their natural surroundings," Jonathan Friedlander said of the horses, "so there's a lot of stress and anxiety, and that, in many cases, mirrors our veterans who are facing post-traumatic stress. A lot of hypervigilance, a lot of anxiety and stress as they're trying to re-integrate and get back into the herd." 

Friedlander is president and CEO of EquiCenter. The nonprofit has an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to find good homes for some of the tens of thousands of wild mustangs roaming free in 10 western states. There's not enough food and water on those federal lands to sustain the existing herds.

But before Mission Mustang reaches that goal, the wild horses have to be "gentled," or domesticated, so they can work with people. That’s what veterans volunteer to do.

It can be a slow process. Bunch has been working with Liberty for about six months.  The key, he said, is understanding how horses read body language.

"If I came in the pen tense, or thinking of things, or in the moment had some sort of issue, the horse would pick up on it," he said. "Sometimes, she would respond negatively and not do what I was trying to get her to do." 

There have been times when Liberty sensed something was up with Bunch when he wasn't even aware of it himself.  She might be picking up on something he has struggled with since retiring from military service more than 10 years ago.

Bunch said he sometimes feels disconnected from people; he said this has to do with his almost 28 years of service, including tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

"It's one of those things that many of us veterans face," he said. "We're not weak, we're not broken, but it's like a sinker on a fishing line. You're just weighted down."

A contributing factor, he said, is the fact there are fewer veterans around who one might confide in, unlike previous generations, where it wasn't hard to find a comrade who had also served in World War II or Vietnam.

Back in the pasture, Bunch was trying to get a rope halter around Liberty's neck.  He approached the mustang. She got nervous and backed off.

As galloping hooves thunder through the pasture, Minteer shouted to Bunch so Bunch can hear her: "Change sides! Change sides! No, right there -- you went straight at her. Use your hip and your shoulder. When you go straight at her, what happens? She pulls away from you."

Bunch kept trying to approach Liberty, and the two started to connect after about 15 minutes. The mustang followed Bunch as he walked in slow circles. That's known as "joining up," when a horse demonstrates that they trust a person. Finally, she let him put the halter on.

"To have a horse like her do that soon after you started working with her ... that's a bond that's really cool," Bunch reflected. "It's hard to explain, but learning how to let go, having that reciprocity given to you by an animal that's larger than you, that is forgiving and patient, is remarkable."

Next, Bunch led Liberty into a training ring to work more closely. He positioned himself at the mare's side and practiced lifting her leg to expose her hoof, the way a farrier would. It's all part of the process of getting Liberty used to the kind of interactions she'll have with people once she finds a new home.

As life is changing for the mustang, Bunch has noticed a change in himself since he met Liberty in mid-March. His family has noticed it, too.  He said he's been more social.

"I've done more since I've been working with Liberty than I did all last year. I went to a farm and table dinner in Medina, which I wouldn't have done last year. I would have said, 'Nah. I don't want to go out, 'cause nobody's really gonna get it, understand me.'

"And now, (training with Liberty ) has opened up a wonderful door and I don't know where this path is going to lead. I don't have any expectations right now. I'm just riding it where it will go."

Mission Mustang is a pilot program. The Bureau of Land Management hopes to replicate it nationally. To help with that effort, EquiCenter is preparing a kind of "how to" guide of the process, collecting data on everything from the progress of the horses and the veterans, to how to raise money to fund the effort. As more mustangs go through the training and find new homes, space opens up for new arrivals at the ranch.

In July, the first mustang EquiCenter sold through the program was auctioned off. Trooper went to a veteran in Ohio who was looking for a mustang who was trained with the gentling method.

"Yes, our veterans were sad to see Trooper go," said Friedlander, "but at the same time, they were very proud and I think they felt good about the fact that he was going to go on and help another veteran."

You don't have to be a veteran to purchase one of the mustangs. EquiCenter has a buyer application here

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.