20 questions with Mustang trainer Rob West, who will hold clinic in Buchanan in April

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Rob West riding Moonshine Lady in the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Virginia Horse Center.

 

Training any horse is no easy task, but for the trainers who take part in the Extreme Mustang Makeover events around the country, the challenge is made even more difficult by four-month time limit and a horse that’s never been handled.

Rob West, of New York, says he has found his true calling in showcasing the potential of Mustangs. “It just doesn’t get any better than this. I am given a lump of clay to mold and sculpt the way I see fit, until I have a masterpiece to present 120 days later.  …  We take these scared wild animals and we ask for their trust. And guess what? They give it to us.”

If you were at the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Virginia Horse Center, you may remember West and his red roan mare, Moonshine Lady. Their Native American-themed freestyle routine featured the mare jumping over barrels while a tarp flew overhead, earning them a Top Five finish. Moonshine Lady then was purchased at the competition’s auction by a family in Virginia. But that was not the end of West and Moonshine’s story together.

Not long after going to her new home, the mare jumped her pasture fence to escape a new pasture mate and disappeared into the dense woods. West, tipped off by a fan in Virginia that had heard about her disappearance, traveled to Virginia to help find his beloved partner. (See Rob’s account of training the mare, competing, learning that she was missing and how she ended up going back to New York with him by clicking here.)

The story of how the trainer traveling to Virginia to help find the horse he trained touched New Freedom Farm founder Lois Fritz. She later contacted West and they formed a friendship. Now the Buchanan, Virginia, nonprofit,  which helps veterans suffering PTSD find healing through horses, has announced it will be hosting a Westang Equine Confidence Building Clinic on April 28-29, 2018.

Read about New Freedom Farm here.

The clinic’s basic goal will be to make a braver more confident horse and rider. The clinic is open to all disciplines and horses. There will be an trail obstacle course and a chance to have fun playing equine soccer on your horse. All experience levels are welcome. There is limited space available. The 2-day clinic will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The clinic costs $150.00 for both days and includes daily lunch. One day clinic is $85.00. Private sessions on Friday afternoon or before or after each clinic day available for $50.00/session. Audit only (includes lunch) $20.

Veterans who want to ride in the clinic are half price and veterans who want to come and audit the clinic are free (includes lunch). Call 540-855-1158 or email newfreedomfarm2016@gmail.com with questions or for more information.
$50 nonrefundable deposit due by April 10 to secure a spot.

We spoke to Rob about his start in the horse industry, the challenges of training a wild horse and his equine teachers/partners along the way.

Q: Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer?
I work mostly with both troubled or problem horses with issues ranging from bucking and rearing to bad ground manners and starting young and most times unbroke horses. Although I do not refer to my method as breaking. I call it gentling. When done right, it can be a nice experience for both horse and rider.
Q: When did you get started in horses? What is your riding background?
I started riding at the age of 3 and got my first Shetland pony “Cupcake” on my 4th birthday. My mom wouldn’t allow me to show until I was about 9 years old. Her idea was that I should love the horse first and showing came second. I am glad she was so wise, because that’s exactly what happened. I then began barrel racing and gymkhana gaming shows. I instantly loved it and excelled at it.
MM012Q: What makes your stable/business different than others? What’s your specialty? What do you take the most pride in?
My specialty seems to be that I can gain the trust/respect of a horse almost right away. The horses bond with me and love me to a point that they can overcome their fears by putting their faith in me. My business is very much like a lot of others. All sorts of obstacles and desensitizing tools to make a more bombproof horse, but I believe its how I deal with the horses that makes my barn different. When it comes down to brass tacks, I care. I never started this as a business. I started helping horses because they needed it, and I care so much about them. When I see a distressed horse my heart goes out to them. The thing I take the most pride in is that I can speak to these horses in their language. I can regain their faith in humanity even if we don’t always deserve it. I believe that every horse that I encounter and work with is all the better for it.
Q: Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?
My philosophy is simple. Make deals and don’t break them. Offer a horse an option and reward it with release of pressure or with praise. NO HAND TREATS. Your horse will not love you because you give him mints. He will however begin nipping and pinning his ears because you aren’t getting the treat when he wants it. I can’t say enough how important praise is.
Q: What is your favorite characteristic about Mustangs?
Its hard to pick just one. They are loyal to a fault. They will also do anything you point them at. Once you have a Mustang’s heart they will literally walk through fire for you.
Q: What is the most difficult part of training a wild horse?
The hardest part for me is far and away letting them go. I try to build a wall and not get attached by telling myself that I am training someone else’s horse for them, but it doesn’t work. I am devastated every time I say goodbye.
Q: How did you learn about New Freedom Farm?
The founder Lois messaged me after hearing I drove from New York to Virginia to find a mustang that I trained that had gone missing. We became instant friends with a mutual respect for each other’s passions.
Q: What will be the main goal taught to the riders at the clinic at New Freedom Farm?
I try to keep an open mind and invite whatever is presented to me, but I always strive to have both more confidant horses and riders in the end. I want to show how we teach our horses on the ground first and then transfer that to the saddle. Its safe and effective.
Q: Who are your riding mentors? How have they influenced your riding?
I don’t have a trainer that I follow. However I have picked up quite a bit from many of them. Like I’ve said before, I am a student of the horse and they teach me more than any other person ever has. On the national level I admire Monty Roberts and Guy McLean. I also had the pleasure of being guided by some people as a child that were great horseman like my neighbor Joan Norman and another strong influence named Richie Fisher.
Q: If you could spend the day riding with any horseman, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
I would have to choose Bobby Kerr. I have met him twice and I just love what he does for
Mustangs. He is a talented horseman and a showman of the highest caliber. We have similar ideas and a flair for a wow factor filled performance in our freestyles. I am not at his level yet, but I am on my way.
Q: What was your proudest moment in the saddle?
My proudest moment has to be finding my lost mustang Moonshine Lady after she was missing for eight days. We covered many miles and exhausting hours. She heard me speaking on my cellphone and came out of the dense woods to find me.

And like magic, all of a sudden, Moonshine turned right toward me from the darkness of the thick woods. I had begun recording her walking toward me. She heard me talking to Mike on the phone, and came to my voice. As I videotaped her, I called her name. My voice cracked and I just lost it crying my eyes out. It was the most beautiful moment in my whole life with horses. I saw the love and trust as she looked at me as if to say, “What took you so long. I was scared.”

— Rob, on finding Moonshine

Q: Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?
My favorite horse movie is “The Black Stallion.” When I saw that movie with my mom as a boy, I have to admit that I wished it could be me stranded on that island with that horse.
Q: What is the one item a rider shouldn’t leave home without when attending your clinic?
Probably their cellphone or camera. Its amazing how much you forget. So if you can record it, or have someone else record it for you, then you can always go back over it later or for years to come.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give new/young riders?
Enjoy your horse. Don’t get caught up in showing and pressure unless you like that. Its supposed to be fun, so make it pleasurable.
Q: If you could try any other riding discipline, what would it be?
I have tried many, but I really do like Dressage. Mounted shooting is a blast, too.
Q: What is the best thing about riding/training horses?
I look back on some people and horses alike that are happier because they met me. I love to get their success stories all the time. I mean some were at the point of selling their horse or giving up riding altogether and I was their last ditch effort. That makes me smile.
Q: What would be your idea of a dream vacation?
I want to travel the United States with my horse trailer and just trail ride every inch of it.
Q: What horse industry/riding trend do you wish would go away and never return?
There are way to many to list but the dying crab canter in western pleasure riding really
bothers me. That is changing at this point though.
Q: Tell us about the best horse you’ve ever ridden.
The best horse I have ever ridden is whichever one I am riding at the time. As corny as that sounds, they are all so amazing. I often refer to myself as an architect that has to carefully uncover each precious artifact. Each horse has those hidden treasures.
Q: If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you ride?
Secretariat. From what I’ve heard, he was all heart.

 

 

 

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New Freedom Farm making dream of healing humans through horses a reality, to hold grand opening Oct. 8

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Lois Fritz with Liberty and “CatDog”

Lois Fritz knows firsthand about the healing powers of horses. After a series of difficult times, military service and personal losses, the forensic nurse found herself in a spiral of depression and anxiety and in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder. When she became an empty-nester, those symptoms worsened, and her therapist suggested she try something new. That’s when, at 40, Fritz first felt the healing touch of horses.

Her first time in the saddle launched Fritz on a whole new path in life. Soon, she was the owner of Chip, a horse given to her by her then-fiance. Levi followed. And then Dutch, Eli and, last of all, a yearling mustang named Cecilia. Fritz was living in New Jersey but wanted to move to Roanoke, where her mother-in-law lived. After the death of two family members, Fritz realized life was too short to not follow her dreams.

About a year ago, she and her five horses arrived in Buchanan, Virginia, where she and husband Mitchell, affectionately known as “Mr. Budget” to thousands of Fritz’s Facebook fans, found a place where she could share her recipe for healing.

While other programs rely on therapy models and specific paths to recovery, Fritz believes that what veterans suffering from PTSD often need is no rules and the freedom to just live in the moment.

“Horses were the only thing that made me calm,” she said, of her own experience.

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The program at her New Freedom Farm follows the “no-plan plan,” she said. Veterans are given the chance to come to the farm and be present in the moment, enjoying the peace of spending time with the four-legged residents. But the humans aren’t the only ones who have known trauma.

It began in March with a call that 10 Thoroughbred broodmares, heavily pregnant, were in a kill pen in Pennsylvania, days from slaughter. Their owner had declared bankruptcy and sent the 10 mares to auction together. As she had no experience with foaling, Fritz was reluctant to take on the responsibility of a broodmare about to give birth. But with empty stalls in her new barn, she agreed to take in one of the mares and give her a safe place to foal. That mare, Maybelline, who was rescued by a Vermont rescue called Gerda’s Animal Aid, would quickly go from being a temporary foster to an adopted forever resident of Fritz’s farm.

Maybelline, 16, registered in the Jockey Club as Murphy’s Code, had been injured in her first race. She was royally bred — by Pleasant Tap and out of Royals Galore, a granddaughter of Nijinsky, and was bred every year since her retirement from the track. It was a Facebook comment made about Maybelline’s “new freedom” that ended up giving Fritz’s farm its name and forever cementing Maybelline in its story.

The mare gave birth a few weeks later, on March 29, to a filly named Liberty. The foaling was difficult, and the Fritzes had to make several trips to the Harry T. Peters, Jr. Large Animal Hospital at VA-MD Vet Med at Virginia Tech over the next few weeks for both the mare and foal. Today, Liberty plays happily in her paddock at the farm but still has myriad health problems, including a slight wry nose, an undeveloped lung, and a compromised immune system that will forever limit her future.

Through Maybelline, the Fritzes’ eyes were opened to the plight of kill pen horses and particularly pregnant mares set for slaughter. Soon they were called on again to help a heavily pregnant mare in a Pennsylvania kill pen. This time, it was a bay Tennessee Walker that needed their help. The Fritzes opened their hearts and their barn to the soon-to-be mom.

With no background information on the mare, they could only guess when she would foal. Fritz took to sleeping in the barn, waiting for the new arrival. For a month, she slept outside the mare’s stall. On the 33rd night, Fritz checked the mare, who seemed no different than she had for all the nights prior, so Fritz decided to go to the house for just a few hours. When she returned, there was a surprise waiting to meet her: a beautiful bay filly, already dry and standing with her mom. That foal would be named Silver Justice, after Fritz’s rescue mentor, Gerda Silver, who runs Gerda’s Animal Aid. L’Oreal has developed a special bond with one of the farm’s most loyal volunteers, Emma Beard, who has started riding the mare and taking riding lessons herself.

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Emma Beard and L’Oreal

Then came Martha and George Washington. Martha was a loudly colored paint mare who was in a kill pen in Louisiana. She was not heavily pregnant, but she had a young foal at her side, George. In just two hours, $1,600 was raised to get Martha to safety. And then, a Facebook follower paid the mare’s “bail” to get her out of the kill pen. Fritz took another chance and agreed to give her a home at New Freedom Farm. Martha arrived sick. She had no milk for her very dehydrated foal. She had many skin wounds, rain rot, an eye infection and swellings. At first, George had to be bottle fed until the mare’s milk came back in. With medical attention and plenty of love, both mare and foal have been brought back to health.

Most recently, New Freedom Farm rescued two scruffy ponies, Patriot and Lincoln, also from the Bastrop kill pen in Louisiana. Lincoln in particular was very ill and had to be rushed to Virginia Tech with fluid on his lungs and a high fever. But on the trailer ride to Blacksburg, about an hourlong journey from Buchanan, his lungs cleared and his fever disappeared. While his sudden turnaround has not been explained, he thankfully has been healthy ever since. Although it is obvious the ponies haven’t been handled much, they are doing well and enjoy when children visit.

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Maury

Among all that outpouring of love for horses in desperate need of kindness, The farm also took in a couple rescues — Maury and Piper — from Gerda’s Animal Aid to help lessen the rescue’s load.

All those rescues were accompanied by the juggling of five quarantines, each 28 days long. Buckets of bleach, isolated pens and visits from the vet became everyday activities at the farm that had never intended to rescue a horse. It now has 19 horses, ponies, mules and donkeys under its care.

The mares and their babies now safe in the paddocks, attention has again shifted to the original intent of New Freedom Farm. On Saturday, Oct. 8, a ribbon-cutting and grand opening will be held at the farm, which was granted its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status on July 1 and is now regularly receiving visits from veterans and police officers.

Scheduled to be held rain or shine from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 6118 Lithia Road in Buchanan, the grand opening will feature a patriotic opening ceremony, flag raising and Disabled American Veterans honor guard, vendors, a special performance by horse trainer Amelia Efland of Stem, N.C., live music, raffles, a silent auction, demonstrations, and children’s activities with the Botetourt County Farm Bureau Women. A BBQ lunch will be available for $8. Some of the vendors/organizations will include Harmony Farm Sanctuary, Angels of Assisi, Barn Cat Buddies, the Lions Club, Botetourt County 4-H Horse and Pony Club, Scentsy, Spurrs Big FixCowboy MagicRockingham Co-Op, Gil Murray Photography, Mike Lee StudiosBotetourt County Horseman’s AssociationPerfectly Posh, and Paris Emporium. The silent auction will include items from far and wide, including a special edition Breyer horse model of an Arabian connected with Amethyst Acres of Buchanan. Admission is free.

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New Freedom Farm in Buchanan, Virginia

Two of the rescued mares will take part in the opening ceremonies under saddle. L’Oreal and Martha both proved to be broke saddle horses. Maybelline is also trained, but Fritz explained, “Well, she was trained to be a racehorse… ” to describe how she did under saddle. All the residents of New Freedom Farm will be on hand to greet visitors.

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Silver Justice

Donations to New Freedom Farm are tax deductible and help pay for care of the rescue horses and the work with veterans. The Fritzes keep their own expenses separate from that of New Freedom Farm, including the care of their original horses. The farm also has six volunteers and is always looking for more. New Freedom Farm has attracted a few sponsors in Spurr’s Big Fix and Cowboy Magic. The farm often holds fundraising efforts for their many needs such as hay drives, fencing efforts, and T-shirt and hat sales.

What does the future hold for New Freedom Farm? The Fritzes hope to build more fence and run-in sheds for the pastures plus a picnic area for visitors to use. The three foals will eventually go to training.  And, most important, more veterans will be coming to the farm to find a little peace.

For more information and find out how you can help, find New Freedom Farm on Facebook or visit its website.

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Lois Fritz with Liberty (left), Silver Justice and CatDog