The taming of the wild
Thirteen-year-old Hayden Atkins nuzzled his yearling palomino mustang as he prepared to take her to the show ring, placing his cowboy hat gently on her head.
"You couldn't touch her. They had never been handled," Hayden's mom, Lacy Atkins, said of Flicka, a Warm Springs Indian Reservation rescue horse that Hayden spent nine months gentling.
"The first thing we did was we used bamboo poles on them to touch them," Hayden said.
Working with his 4-H leader Kitty Lauman, Hayden was able to train the young foal, and last week he showed her during the 4-H Horse Fair at Crook County Fairgrounds.
"Kitty is an amazing trainer. It's wonderful the way she works with the kids. She teaches them everything that they need to know about gentling a horse," said Hayden's grandmother, Mary Lee. "And he doesn't live on a ranch, so Kitty has taught him every aspect of caring for the horse, all the dirty clean-up messes and everything."
Lauman is a horse trainer by trade and has property on the Madras Highway.
"My claim to fame, you could say, is wild horses," Lauman said. "My grandfather was John Sharp, and many people knew him as basically the Oregon Horse Whisper. He was pretty phenomenal. I learned from him."
She started the Calvary Riders 4-H Horse Club in Crook County when her kids were old enough to join 4-H about six years ago. The club now has 16 members.
"I wanted to help the kids and give them a place to ride and to work," she said.
A couple of years ago, her friend, Shontae Thomas, called her up. Thomas helps rescue wild foals on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
"The Warm Springs foals were losing their mothers due to cutting back on the herds, and so they needed an outlet, so that's where she stepped in," Lauman explained.
Through the Warms Springs Horse Network, Thomas has rescued several hundred foals each year over the past few years.
WSHN is a nonprofit organization that homes orphaned foals from the Warm Springs Reservation and also provides educational avenues for adopters, support and networking.
"It was almost Christmas time two years ago, and she was posting on Facebook that she had five babies that still hadn't been adopted," Lauman recalls. "So, I called her and I told her, 'I got a plan.' I said, 'You give me the babies, and you give me feed to feed them, and I'll find kids who want to train them.'"
That's how Lauman's Wild Foal Program began.
"The youngest were 3 months old, the oldest 6 or 7 months old, and they had never been handled, never been brushed or anything," Lauman said. "They were totally wild."
That first year, five 4-H kids stayed with the Wild Foal Program from start to finish. This year, eight kids completed the program.
Although the Wild Foal Program is not through 4-H, her 4-H kids are allowed to use the wild foals as their 4-H projects.
Using her grandfather's bamboo pole technique, Lauman taught the kids how to gentle their horses.
"It was a bad winter, and those kids came out, they worked those babies every day and gentled them," Lauman said of early 2017. "I would basically teach them to do things and show them how to do things."
If they had problems, she was there to step in and make sure they stayed safe.
"The kids have easily done well over 99 percent of the work with the babies. I do very, very little other than just keeping them safe," Lauman said.
Last November, Hayden began working with Flicka and would go for a few hours five days a week.
"It's a family ordeal," his mom said, adding that her younger children often go along and help with the horses.
Last Thursday through Saturday, those gentled Warm Springs mustangs took to the show ring during the 4-H Horse Fair.
During the ground training class, the 4-H students spent up to 15 minutes with the judge, showing her what they had taught their horses, whether it was posing, backing, driving or hobbling.
"I taught them how to do it, but then they have taught the babies to be responsive to it," Lauman pointed out.
At the conclusion of the 4-H Horse Fair, the Wild Foal Program participants decided whether or not they wanted to adopt their foals for $150 from the Warm Springs Horse Network.
Lauman hopes that next summer during the 4-H Horse Fair, her students will have worked with their horses enough to start using the saddle.
"That would be the next step," Lauman said. "What we're kind of trying to hint at is next year we're hoping to have some owner trainer babies in."