LaBelle Kids Turn Mustangs Into 'Pocket Ponies'
The LaBelle Silver Spurs 4-H Club took on a daunting task this summer — to train wild horses to become adoptable within 100 days. Hurricane Irma pushed back the club’s auction, though, for two extra months, and the mustangs are, now, hardly recognizable.
That neighing is coming from Renegade. His trainer, 16-year-old Gabriehl Shock, says he’s just saying, "Hi." He’s as curious as ever —even after his five months of training.
Shock says that’s because a good trainer breaks a horse’s will, but not their spirit — and she would know. This is the eighth horse she’s trained — and Renegade is her fourth mustang.
“He is the best one that I have done so far. Hopefully, we have a good turnout and somebody..." Shock pauses, as Renegade loudly neighs. She shushes him, laughing. "And somebody wants him," she said.
Renegade had a bolting problem when Shock first met him back in May, but Renegade, she admits, was otherwise easy compared to some of the mustangs other members of the club were dealt.
One worrisome little horse was Miami. His trainer, 14-year-old Judith Warren, said this about Miami back in June: “It's very hard ‘cause he's always putting his head down, and he doesn’t know yet what to do.”
But, at the Veterans Day show, Warren’s tone had completely changed.
“He’s a whole lot better from what he was before because, now, you can actually come up to him, you can put your arm around him, you can pet him," Warren said. "And, before, if you tried to approach him, he would just run away.”
Warren wraps her arms around Miami’s neck to hug him tight. Miami calmly continues munching on weeds alongside his buddy, Spirit, who’s been trained by Warren’s friend, Morgan Lujan.
“This one’s lucky," Warren said. He’s with me.”
“I’m keeping mine," Lujan seconded.
Lujan had actually housed Spirit at her family’s home for the entire training period, so he went home with her as always. And, now, Spirit’s friend, Miami, would get to go home with Warren as the first horse she had ever trained — and, unanimously, the most difficult of the dozen mustangs.
Shock, an experienced trainer, explained how she had gotten Renegade around, within the first couple weeks of training.
“I crack a bull whip by him, so I teach him to know loud sounds," Warren said, just as someone cracked a bull whip in the distance. She laughed. "Like that, and just to be ready for anything.”
Shock’s mother, Julia Sutherland, is the club’s leader.
“These guys can train horses better than some trainers who do domesticated horses because they’ve had to pay attention to their horse’s behavior a lot more than just the money behind the horse," Sutherland said. "They don’t get paid for this.”
Sutherland speaks from experience. Her position with the club is volunteer, but her day job is training horses.
“If they actually were to get paid an actual job like I would, it would be a $1,200 job," she said.
The trained mustangs started at auction with an opening bid of $25 with an optional fee for additional fee — usually around $150 — that would employ the kids to continue training the horses they had been working with. Sutherland says what keeps the kids, particularly the older ones, coming back each year is the opportunity to do something fulfilling.
“When we do a horse program, the teenagers are really, really thankful for a program like this that teaches them life skills,” Sutherland said.
When asked if the kids have any other options, Sutherland said, "Not really here."
"Not in LaBelle," she said. "I don’t see it. I mean, I’ve been here 15 years, and I have seven kids.”
Sutherland’s youngest is fittingly named Sevyn Shock — with a "y," she clarified, just like her mustang, Hazyl.
Shock was the first one to admit the time extension, granted by Hurricane Irma, was beneficial for some kids who made good use of the extra time beyond the initial 100 days with their horses.
“For me, it was a good thing," Shock said. "For others, I think it might not have been such a good thing because I think they wanted to get their mustang adopted. They had a time frame. And, it was supposed to be just a little after the summer, and now, it’s obviously carrying into the fall.”
Hendry County took some of the worst of Hurricane Irma, and now, another storm is headed their way – with Gov. Rick Scott’s veto reducing the state’s funding for 4-H by a million dollars.
Sutherland said she is, understandably, concerned, but there are, thankfully, donors and sponsors that could potentially keep them afloat – though, not for long. Her biggest concern is what will happen to the community’s character if they lose this program. She says, out and about in their small town, it’s obvious which kids are part of 4-H.
“You will see respectful kids," Sutherland said. "You will see kids who honor their families, who honor vets, who honor the country they live in.”
Sutherland’s daughters opened the show with an armed service medley, before their mother announced to the crowd what was in store for them.
“A 6-month-old baby from Arcadia, a baby mustang," Sutherland said over the arena's speaker system. "You’ll be able to see 1-year-old yearlings, 2-year-old yearlings, and then, we’ve got some 5 and 6-year-old animals.”
Of the five adoptable horses shown, four were immediately adopted.
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