Horse Shelter Diaries LLC


              Gimme Shelter-- Trainers Rally for Rescues
                                                                                 May 27, 2015
            Adopting a horse from a rescue group, it seems, is not so different from getting a dog at the pound. You take your chances—but could easily end up with a best friend for life. Gazing into all those sad eyes, you search for a sign that separates one set from the others, and will one day open the story of how this creature came to be your destiny, your soul mate, your “Who rescued who?”—and not just any shelter pet.
            The difference between a dog and a horse, however, is that someone is going to come between that love-struck prologue and the forever after, and that person is the horse trainer.
            Yes, your new horse—like your children— has to first go to school and learn how to adapt to becoming a useful, well-mannered member of society of whom you can be proud. In the normal course of things, the trainer would meet the horse through her customer, who is you. But who is being served when the horse has no owner?
            The role of the teacher in the life of a horse is the focus of a new documentary by Donna Wells, whose film "She Had Some Horses" from 2012 was a study of women and horses. This time, Wells spends a year filming an intriguing project by The Horse Shelter, one of New Mexico’s largest rescue organizations for horses.
          “Gimme Shelter—Trainers’ Rally for Rescues” is a contest modeled on the reality-TV show Mustang Makeover and its sequels, which pair trainers with wild horses rounded up on public lands. The Horse Shelter’s version, now in its second year, sets the same 100-day training period followed by competition and auction, where all the horses get new homes.
            What intrigued Wells about the local contest, besides the fact that these horses had been rescued in New Mexico, was the focus she could put on the role of the trainer, and how they must fi t the complex needs of a living individual into a set of artificial constraints. It is a rehearsal for what the horse will go through when adopted.
            We spoke with one of the trainers, Michelle DeCanditis of the North Valley, who is competing for a second year. DeCanditis features prominently in Wells’ film because of what happened with her horse last year, a gray mare from Gallup named Blue.
            Blue had been at the shelter for four years, and was “a mess,” DeCanditis said. Judged to be about 8 years old, she was in reality (according to her vet) closer to 14. The trainer didn’t exactly choose Blue. She misunderstood the lottery process, and ended up with a horse that she later realized had really chosen her.
            After 100 difficult days with Blue, contest day arrived, “and I thought, people are going to think these horses are trained! ” DeCanditis said. “I was worried, knowing they could end up back at the shelter. I was freaking out.”
            Her clients already knew that she would not be able to send Blue off into the world so ill-prepared, and they helped her win the bidding for the mare with $1,700. “The last thing I needed was another personal horse,” DeCanditis sighs, stroking the old girl’s muzzle. But “I don’t see getting rid of her.“
            The organizers, too, learned from her experience—repeated to some extent with most of the teams last year. A horse with history is like the unruly classroom in an inspirational-teacher movie: You fight, laugh, cry, and grow together, and then suddenly it’s time to let them face an uncertain future alone. Nearly all the horses last year ended up living within “eyeshot” of their trainers, DeCanditis notes.
            For this year’s event, The Horse Shelter chose young horses, 3 to 6 years old, in recognition of the reality that 100 days of training is nothing more than a solid foundation, even without the extra work of deciphering a horse’s history.
            It’s what many of the nine trainers discovered on the challenge last year. “Loal Tucker told me when I interviewed him that he was very much against this at first, because he said you can’t spend 100 days and end up with a rock star,” Wells explained. “But as he began to do it and see value in it, he ended up feeling very privileged. Loal’s philosophy is training for the long term, and certainly he believes this is just the beginning.”     
            DeCanditis was relieved this year to have a young horse, Sabine, an athletic mare who was favored by one of her clients who volunteers at the shelter. “She’s going to be whatever she is in three months,” the trainer says, “and that doesn’t have a lick to do with the date in July, but what happens after that. My job is to build a foundation.”
            Just as with dogs, it is for want of this foundation that many horses end up at a shelter to begin with. Uncontrollable and unwanted, they have never learned to operate within boundaries.
            Urbanites tend to treat horses as pets, DeCanditis explains, coddling them until they are too dangerous to ride. “Others treat them as recreational vehicles,” good for a weekend spin and then parked in the barn. “You would never get in your car and just see where it takes you, and do no maintenance. It’s not good for the horse, because the horse has no tools for how to be in the world. With a lack of clear boundaries, they run all over you.”
            Like Loal Tucker, DeCanditis sees horse ownership as a relationship that is built over many years, requiring personal growth in both horse and rider. “On the positive side, we do have (in New Mexico) educated urbanites who, when they can process that their relationship is not just about riding on the ditch, takes on a whole different life.”
            An occupational therapist by profession, with a clinical specialty in hippotherapy, DeCanditis understands horsemanship as potentially therapeutic. “I’ve shown (horses) a lot, but that is not what this is,” she said. “This is a thinking, feeling individual who does not exist on your timeline.”
            Last year, a competitive streak led her to push Blue, who did not have a good canter going into contest day. “I had to pull back and say, it’s taken months to get this horse to trust you. Do I want to blow it all for a stupid canter?”
            With Sabine, too, DeCanditis says she pushed too hard too early, misreading the horse’s friendliness as willingness to go with the flow. “The moral of the story is that I always learn something—about myself on a deep psyche level, but also about my (training) process.”
            Wells said she was touched to see that all the trainers, despite differences in philosophy and method, “wanted to make sure the horses were on a good path.” Seeing the potential for good is at the heart of horse training, as one participant told her, regardless of where the horse is now. “These horses are priceless,” Erica Hess told the filmmaker, “and I feel like we’re just mining the gold that is in each of them.”
            The reward is not unlike seeing what happens in therapy with humans, DeCanditis says. “Once you give someone a skill set, all the negative behavior is just a diversion, and there’s no need for it. You could say it’s all just a lack of confidence.”
Gimme Shelter – Trainers’ Rally for Rescues
Saturday, July 18
10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Santa Fe Rodeo Grounds
Free admission
Competition begins at 11 a.m., with horses available for adoption afterward. Exhibitions, entertainment, food vendors and merchandise.
The Horse Shelter:
Founded in Cerrillos in 2000 by animal-lover Jan Bandler, The Horse Shelter was the first in New Mexico to rescue abused, abandoned, and neglected horses. Not long after founding her tax-deductible nonprofit, Bandler died of cancer in June 2004. Her work is being carried on by the organization’s board of directors, led by Bandler’s daughter, Jennifer Rios, president; three full-time employees; and approximately 50 volunteers. The shelter cares for some 80 horses at a time on 50 acres (expandable to 300) outside Cerrillos, with the goal of rehabilitating horses and finding them new homes.