Kelly Bustillos had only ridden occasionally during her life, yet she enjoyed the role of horse show mom for her teenaged daughter. When her daughter lost her equestrian zeal, Kelly felt a void in her life: She missed the horses. After yet another stressful day as a health care worker, she decided it was time to get her own horse. The self-described soft-hearted animal lover also felt compelled to get her horse through one of the equine rescue sites in the region.
Kelly and Sammy
Kelly ended up adopting Sammy, an 8-year-old black Thoroughbred gelding, from an organization that rehomes ex-racers. She felt confident in her decision, bolstered by the fact that Sammy came with detailed vet and farrier records. His adoption fee was $650, and included a contract that transferred Sammy’s ownership to Kelly. The contract also included a stipulation that if she ever became unable to keep Sammy due to finances or personal health reasons, she had to return him to the organization. That clause didn’t deter her.
“I knew he’d been adopted out before to a young girl who’d ridden him on the trails for a couple of years. When her family couldn’t afford him any longer, they returned him so he could be adopted out again. So I’m actually glad that part of the contract is there, otherwise I wouldn’t have him.”
According to Kelly, “Sammy has turned out to be the dream horse I always wanted. He’s amazing. He’s pretty much bombproof on the trails and he puts up with my mistakes during my lessons.”
Although she never planned on getting a stablemate for Sammy, it wasn’t long before she adopted another horse. The circumstances, however, were quite different than those surrounding Sammy. Kelly was browsing through recent posts on the Facebook page of another equine rescue group. Rather than adopting out former racehorses, this group worked to save horses from the shadowy realm of low-end auctions and feedlots. On this particular day, Kelly saw that they were pleading with someone to provide a temporary foster home for a pretty gray mare named Pearl.
“They’d seen her at the auction, where she’d come in with two other mares,” says Kelly. “The other two sold, but not her. They tracked her down to a dealer, and knew she’d be shipped to slaughter in a few days. It was an urgent problem because they didn’t have any open corrals at their facility. So I figured since Sammy has brought so much joy into my life, why not do something to save this mare?”
Thus Pearl arrived at Kelly’s barn. While Pearl was indeed pretty and sound, she came without any health records or any kind of history regarding training. Even worse, it became immediately apparent that Pearl lacked Sammy’s ground manners and laid-back temperament.
“When Pearl first came here, she was crazy,” Kelly says with a heavy sigh. “She’s a big mare, and I’m not a big woman, so she’d get wound up over nothing and pretty much run over me. She didn’t know how to tie or cross-tie. She was so frazzled that I had to groom her while constantly moving. I kept thinking, well, I’m only fostering her, so this is temporary.”
At one point her riding instructor told her to send Pearl back because she was afraid Kelly was going to get injured. Yet Kelly decided to make a commitment to working with Pearl. “I knew that if I sent her back because of her behavior, she’d be euthanized. It’s a non-profit rescue group, and if a horse demonstrates that it’s not going to be adoptable, they can’t afford to spend money just warehousing it. It’s a better end than the slaughterhouse, yet I felt in my heart that with time, I could do something with Pearl. Or maybe I just felt sorry for her.”
Regardless of her motivation, time was indeed what Pearl needed. Kelly’s allegiance to Pearl won over her riding instructor, and the two of them came up with a step-by-step plan to school the mare, starting with basic ground manners. Each handling session was short and focused on one clear objective, like standing quietly in the cross-ties. Once the mare complied, she was rewarded and put away. As Pearl came to understand the routine, she began to trust Kelly.
“When she started to nicker at me when I drove up, I knew I’d won her over,” Kelly states. “Things progressed pretty fast after that. She was easy to bridle, and didn’t buck under saddle, so somewhere in her past she’d been broke to ride. But she didn’t have any real training. She had no clue how to turn. Then I discovered that unless I dismounted really slowly and methodically, she’d flip her head up and fly backwards the moment my feet touched the ground. Fortunately, that no longer happens, but I had to summon up some courage. I learned what the phrase ‘cowgirl up’ really means.”
It took about five months before Kelly was confidently riding Pearl. Ironically, that coincided with the rescue group calling and saying they had room for Pearl.
“I couldn’t send her back,” Kelly explains. “She has too many quirks. I know exactly how to deal with them, but someone else won’t. Because of her issues, Pearl forced me to become a better horsewoman. I figured it was a fair trade to give her a home.”
Kelly shares that she doesn’t regret skipping the traditional methods of horse shopping. “I have two horses that I love, and they didn’t cost a fortune. I also get some satisfaction from knowing that now there are fewer unwanted horses. It’s not many, but it’s two.”
During her lengthy show career on the hunter-jumper circuit,Cindy Hale won more than 20 medals for hunt seat equitation. She
currently serves as a judge at local and regional open horse shows.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!