A New, Unique Strategy for Wild Horse Rescue

Freedom Horse Farm will rehome mustangs and train them for dressage and horse therapy

By Charlotte Bausch
Danica Yates, a dressage instructor and member of the Freedom Horse Farm, pets her horse Crystal in the Triple Take Arena west of Kalispell on June 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On a bright, cold morning at Triple Take Arena, Danica Yates leads a mare through a morning practice session. The horse lifts her head as she trots around the ring, each step perfectly aligned to her rider’s command. Looking at her, primly groomed beneath her bridle, it’s hard to believe that when Yates rescued her three years ago, she was wild.

The horse, Crystal, had been living on rangeland with no human supervision until Yates found her and brought her back to Triple Take near Kalispell. She is one of several horses Yates has rescued throughout her years as a trainer.

Yates hopes to save many more with her new horse rescue venture, Freedom Horse Farm. The nonprofit, which Yates founded with Michele Binstock and Rochelle Lombardi, will find homes for mustangs in holding pens managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They will also train them in dressage and offer horse therapy.

The organization responds to an urgent need. According to Yates, there are currently 47,000 mustangs currently in off-range holding pens, removed from the land in an attempt to control the wild horse population. These horses need new homes, but last year only 3,660 were sold or adopted, said Yates.

Freedom Horse Farm aims to find adopters, but its rescue process also features an unconventional strategy. After bringing wild horses out of BLM holding pens, Yates will train them in dressage, a highly skilled riding technique that is also an Olympic sport. With this training, the mustangs will be able to compete and participate in shows. While it might seem counterintuitive to teach previously untrained animals such an advanced sport, Binstock said the mustangs have an advantage in being a “clean slate” for training.

Many people think of dressage as stuffy, formal riding, but Yates said that it’s actually “the most ancient, most classical form of horse riding.” Through this training method, horses learn to be in tune with their riders, sensing their movements. While other equestrian sports might be about speed or energy, dressage, Yates explained, “is about harmony.”

The connection between horse and rider fostered by dressage will help the rescued horses to participate in the second arm of Freedom Horse Farm’s program, horse therapy. The therapy will be provided by multiple licensed therapists and eventually by Yates, who is currently in graduate school for counseling. It will cater to a broad range of clients and focus on improving communication in families.

“Dressage is about connecting with the animal,” Yates said. “So the therapy we’ll do with the rescue horses is connecting people with themselves.”

The combination of dressage and horse therapy is unusual for a wild horse rescue, but Binstock said that by training the mustangs to a higher level, Freedom Horse Farm will show the value of horses often left behind as worthless.

“We want to let people know that these horses aren’t just throwaway horses,” Binstock said. “These horses can be used. They can be great partners.”

To help fund these ventures, Lombardi, who owns Going to the Sun Gallery in Whitefish, plans to fundraise through auctions and artwork. She’s making a bronze cast of Crystal that will be sold at auction, with proceeds going to Freedom Horse Farm. At the arena, the molded clay is set on a mounting block in front of its live counterpart, who showers it in dust as she trots past.

In the future, there will be more auctions and support from the gallery’s artists, as the rescue takes steps to launch its program. Freedom Horse Farm is just getting started. The founders plan to purchase their own land for the horses and will soon hire therapists to begin their horse therapy program.

At Triple Take Arena, one of Yates’ students brings out another rescue horse named Mo. Mo wears a bridle with little gold plates across his forehead, and nuzzles his grey-speckled flank against anyone who reaches out to stroke him. Before Yates found him, Mo was destined to be slaughtered.

The student leads Mo into the ring, joining Crystal and Yates. The horses stretch out their long necks, elegant and practiced, as though they’ve been accustomed to saddles their whole lives. Together, they whirl around the arena, picking up speed.

Freedom Horse Farm will be at the BLM Wild Horse Sales and Adoption Event on June 27-30 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. For more information about the organization, go to Freedom Horse Farm’s website at http://www.freedomhorse.org/about/.