A wild mustang from the open ranges of Nevada is settling in to domestic life on Cheryl Karrels’ rural Port Washington farm
Like many young girls, Cheryl Karrels loved horses. But she never outgrew her passion for all things equine — a passion that peaked recently when the Town of Port Washington woman adopted a wild mustang.
The gelding arrived at Karrels’ farm about three weeks ago, and the bond between the two of them is already evident.
“We’re becoming very good friends, aren’t we,” Karrels said to the horse as they walked around his pen late last week.
“He’s an awesome horse. I’m fascinated by him. They (mustangs) are pretty special horses. I feel like I own a part of American history.”
In some ways, it’s hard to believe the horse, named Cisco, isn’t domesticated. He stood calmly in his pen for photographs and followed Karrels on a lead through a series of obstacles she set up for him. He even offered his leg to her when she asked him to “shake.”
“It’s a slow process, learning tricks like that,” said Karrels, who is the Town of Port Washington clerk. “And he knows when I’m out of treats because he stops performing.”
When he first arrived, Karrels said, even something as typical in a country setting as a bicyclist traveling along the road near his pen caused Cisco to panic.
“He was running back and forth like crazy, bucking,” she said.
While it’s said that the horses can be tamed to the point they can be ridden in three months, Karrels said she’ll probably wait longer before riding Cisco, in part because he’s younger than most wild mustangs that are adopted.
“I’ll put a saddle on him this year,” she said. “I hope to ride him this fall, but I don’t want to rush it.”
The handsome, almost black roan horse — his color will eventually turn to a dark steel gray, Karrels said — has come a long way since he arrived at his new home.
Cisco, who’s 14 hands (about 56 inches) tall, was adopted through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of managing the wild mustang and burro herds in the Western U.S.
The horses, which were declared by Congress to be living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, are descended from domestic horses, some of which were brought over by European explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries.
Typically, mustangs live in herds that consist of a stallion and a group of mares. Colts are kicked out of the herd when they are 3 to 5 years old, Karrels said, and run wild on their own until they find their own mares and form their own herd.
Cisco “was apparently kicked out early,” she said, noting he’s about 3 years old, and then became a “nuisance horse.”
“He kept going to a rancher’s barn and making a mess of it,” she said. “They shooed him out but he kept returning. After the fourth or fifth time, they called the BLM and they captured him.”
Cisco was put up for auction on the federal agency’s website, where Karrels found him.
“I looked through pages and pages of horses,” Karrels said. “Once I saw him, it was like lightning. I knew he was the horse for me. I could see him here.”
The base bid for a horse is $125, she said, adding the agency has strict criteria that bidders must meet in regard to where the horses will go and how they will be kept.
It’s up to the new owners to transport the animals to their forever home.Normally, Karrels said, it would cost $3,000 to $5,000 to move a horse from Nevada to Wisconsin.
But working through a network of people who work with the mustangs, “I did it for a lot less,” she said.
With the support of her husband Brian, Karrels bought the horse. Cisco was loaded on a trailer on a Saturday and arrived in the Town of Port the following Monday.
“He hid in a corner of his pen for probably the first half-day or so,” Karrels said. “I would go in and touch him, but you could see he was in shut-down mode.”
After a good rest, Cisco began to perk up, she said.
Cisco, like other horses adopted through the bureau, was given some initial training by a tip trainer, whose job is to “start to gentle them,” Karrels said.
She started acclimating him to his new home and life on the farm, spending time in the barn, singing and cleaning, and taking him to his pen outside.
She’s set up a training course in his pen that she changes every few days, with cones and obstacles for the horse to walk on and over as Karrels leads the way. When he’s alone in the pen, he sometimes knocks the obstacles over, bites or licks them and plays with them. It’s all part of the learning process.
“You can’t just put him in a pen and think you’re going to be able to do anything with him,” Karrels said. “I come out three, four times a day. Sometimes it’s for 10 minutes, sometimes it’s two hours. He’s finally settled in and wants more time with me.
“I try to expose him to as much as possible. He plays with these things, and it desensitizes him. He gets used to all these things he didn’t encounter in the wild.”
The sessions have one other important goal — to build trust between Cisco and Karrels.
“That trust between him and me has to be unbreakable,” she said.
It seems to be working. Instead of waiting for her to approach him, Cisco now comes up to her on his own, Karrels said.
“It’s pretty special, the first time they come to you and touch you rather than you having to go up to them,” she said.
And when Cisco got out of his pen while she was away one day, he came to her when she yelled, “Cisco, where are you?” He had been in the barn, and he allowed a friend of hers to walk him back to his pen.
Cisco’s personality has begun to emerge as he’s learned to trust her, Karrels said.
“He’s pretty laid back, pretty accepting,” she said. “I feel like he’s always thinking. He’s eager and willing to please. He can be playful.
“I’ve heard from other people that mustangs are very loyal and trustworthy.”
Cisco isn’t the only horse at the Karrels farm. Karrels also has Ben, a 12-year-old Kentucky mountain horse while her husband has Jade, a 16-year-old quarterhorse. Fancy, an 18-year-old paint, belongs to Karrels’ daughter Cass.
Karrels also has an 18-month-old curly paint horse named Oakley who’s being trained at a friend’s farm.
So far, only Fancy has been exposed to Cisco, and they get along fine, Karrels said. “I get the feeling Ben is jealous of him. Jade strikes out at him, I think to let him know that she’s the boss here.”
Cisco will be a trail riding horse, Karrels said, adding she can already envision riding him through the woods behind her home.
“My dream is to someday take him back to Nevada and ride him where he used to live,” she said.
Photo Credit: CISCO, A WILD MUSTANG from Nevada who has found a new home in the Town of Port Washington, got a pat on his back from his owner Cheryl Karrels. Photo by Sam Arendt