Mustang Camp brings wild equines to Lemitar

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Positive reinforcement can do almost anything.

In the case of John Irick and Patricia Barlow-Irick, it is their livelihood. The Mustang Camp, run by Iricks, works because positive reinforcement works.

Elva K. Österreich/El Defensor Chieftain: Intern Robin McGee learns to gentle wild mustangs with a quiet voice, gentle hand and plenty of positive, edible reinforcements at Mustang Camp.

Bringing together wild horses, a couple of mules, a zebra and people from across the world who want to learn about training techniques, John and Patricia are proving the impossible is possible. They brought their operation to the old sale barn in Lemitar last fall and it became a New Mexico non-profit organization on Jan. 1.

“Having more than 100 training pens means we can finally prove wild horses can be gentled and adopted in a factory-like process in significant numbers,” John said. “We intend to make this the national center for training and training research. Science can solve the national mustang crisis.”

Mustang Camp moved to Socorro County to improve winter training conditions and get more public awareness and exposure for the adoption program, Patricia said. The organization provides gentling, training and adoption for mustangs of all ages and utilizes modern animal training technology as is used to train marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, she said.

Previously in Largo Canyon in the back country of northern New Mexico, Mustang Camp has moved 34 wild born mustangs south and expects more horses, captured on the Carson National Forest and delivered by the Farmington Bureau of Land Management office.

The horses are owned by the government and most are currently available for adoption at the regular adoption rate of $125 to those who qualify. The Iricks are paid through the Mustang Heritage Foundation for the work they do.

Elva K. Österreich/El Defensor Chieftain: Patricia Barlow-Irick and her zebra Spot take a moment to communicate silently at Mustang Ranch.

Gentling the wild animals makes them easier to adopt out, Patricia said. Fewer of the adoptions are failures. Many people don’t know what to do with a wild animal and end up returning them if they can’t work with them.

It’s cheaper for BLM to send the horses to Mustang Camp and pay to have them gentled and processed than to have to keep the animals in long term holding areas where about 500 horses are still waiting to be adopted, sometimes for years.

Most of the horses currently available at the Lemitar facility were captured from the Jicarilla Ranger District of the Carson National Forest. The horses are trained to halter, lead, tie, have their feet cleaned, and load on a horse trailer. Mustang Camp provides delivery from the facility.

Patricia said Mustang Camp is one of the few remaining private training and adoption programs under the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program. It has been operating from Largo Canyon, in Rio Arriba County, since 2009. More than 400 wild horses have been through the camp for the United States Forest Service and BLM. For 2012, Mustang Camp was responsible for just over four percent of all horses adopted out by the national Wild Horse and Burro Program. Mustang Camp horses have been adopted out all across the United States and as far away as Austria.

The mission of the camp is to minimize captive horse suffering, promote modern methods of horse training, and create successful adoptions, Patricia said.

The facility has a month-long intern program, training people from all over the world the positive reinforcement techniques they have developed.

Currently there are three interns learning at the facility. Robin McGee is from Pennsylvania and spends her days touching, talking to and working with the horses at the camp.

The internship programs provides food and board to qualifying interns. There have been maybe 40 interns during the camp’s existence, Patricia said.

“We’ve had people from everywhere between Finland and Australia,” Patricia said. “In the winter they come down from Alaska and Canada.”

She said the facility would also like to see area residents who are interested in developing animal training skills apply for the free winter internship program. There is also a volunteer program in place for those who would like to donate some of their time to be around the animals.

The training the horses receive takes advantage of their natural instincts.

“They really have a strong drive to be bonded up with their herd, whether people or horses,” Patricia said.

She has a PhD in behavioral science and has written a book on the techniques used at the facility, “How 2 Train A _______,” based on the idea that “from aardvarks to zebras, applied behavior science has a rational prescription for creating behavior change.”

“The training technology we use is applicable to all animals,” Patricia said. “The techniques are well known but not used so much by the public.”

People are welcome to visit Mustang Camp on Sunday afternoons to see the horses and Spot, the zebra, who is not available for adoption.

People interesting in adopting a mustang can make appointments for other times as needed.

Mustang Camp is at 20 Duke Lane in Lemitar. Take the Lemitar exit off the interstate, turn west and follow the signs.

For more information, visit http://www.MustangCamp.org or contact John at 505-419-9754 or MustangCamp@gmail.com.