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The horse gentler:

24 Nov

Erda horseman trains mustangs and prepares living symbols of the West for adoption

The eye of a survivor: a close-up of Reno, a mustang I rode last spring.

The following originally appeared in the November 10, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Cliff Tipton stands beside a fence on the north end of his 5 acre ranch in Erda, taking in a crisp November morning.  Chickens promenade about a tall stack of hay bales.  A calico cat tiptoes toward a row of stalls where a collection of horses silently look on.   The setting couldn’t be more serene.

The 52 year old cowboy isn’t a man of many words—until the conversation finds focus on those horses.  Unshod and intrinsically rugged, these aren’t the average domesticated horse.  That’s why the fences are 7 feet high.  They’re wild horses—mustangs.  And for Tipton, each one represents a labor of love.

Tipton and his wife, Janet, founded the Intermountain Wild Horse and Burro Advisors in 2003.  The non-profit organization promotes the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro adoption program and works to prepare mustangs for adoption.  Cliff and Janet volunteer about 1,500 hours apiece each year assisting the program.

“It’s their eagerness, their survival instinct,” Tipton said when asked about the mustang’s appeal.  “They’re a clean-slate horse.  There’s no interbreeding.  Once they understand something, they’ve got it.”

The American mustang descends from once-domesticated horses that strayed or escaped from ranches in the late 1800’s.  Those free-roaming feral horses banded together into herds and have roamed the West ever since.  The BLM estimates that 29,500 mustangs roam public rangelands in 10 Western states.

The mustang’s frayed appearance and regal gait are the personification of independence.  In 1971, Congress declared mustangs “Living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

“Mustangs have a survival instinct,” Tipton explained.  “They’ve had to struggle and fight for their food and water all their life.”

Tipton has always loved horses.  A native of New Mexico, he’s worked with them on ranches all his life.  After living in various parts of the Intermountain West, Tipton finally settled in Tooele County in 1996, when he met and married Janet.  Together they operate Flying T Acres Ranch in eastern Erda.

The vocabulary of the horseman reflects his unique view of his relationship with the horse.  Horses are trained, but they’re not tamed.  They’re “gentled.”   Tipton doesn’t call himself a horse whisperer, per se, though he studies and employs natural horsemanship techniques.  “Horse gentler” is the term he prefers.

“When you train a mustang you’re not domesticating him, you’re becoming his partner.  You’re creating a bond.  I’m not his superior, I’m his friend.  I want my horse to want to be with me, not feel like he’s forced to be with me.”

Tipton gentled his first mustang a decade ago.  He says working with a mustang as opposed to a domesticated horse involves a definite learning curve.

“A mustang’s thought process is totally different,” he said.  “The basics are the same, but you have to break it down a little better for a mustang.  It took me time to learn that.”

Approaching a mustang for the first time is a challenging task.  After all, he’s lived his entire life to that point in survival mode.  He’s keenly aware of his surroundings and is exceptionally cautious.  Acclimation to human presence is the first step in forming the relationship.

Tipton uses a bamboo pole to touch the horse while maintaining a safe distance.  He inches closer as the horse’s natural fears gradually give way to trust.  Working on the horse’s own timetable is paramount; he does everything on his own terms.  Once the distance is closed, Tipton reaches out to give the horse its first human touch.  The partnership begins.

“I get a halter on him, then we start the leading process and it all takes off from there.”

Tipton then works on trailer loading, saddling, and riding.  He still remembers his first ride on that first mustang.

“We didn’t quite know what to expect from each other,” Tipton recalled.  “But there was a definite point when it clicked, and it was just like somebody handed me a million dollar bill.”

That joy wasn’t Tipton’s alone.

“The horse was same way,” Tipton said.  “His eyes were big.  His whole demeanor changed.  He moved lighter—he was happier.”

Thus began a long and fulfilling career of mustang volunteerism.  The BLM sends Tipton about 30 mustangs per year to be gentled.  He and IWHBA’s 85 member volunteer force train each mustang as much as time will allow before they’re adopted out.

“We have adopted out over 130 horses in the last 5 years,” Tipton said.  “We want to instill a partnership with the rider.  It doesn’t make a difference if you’re inexperienced or if you’re the most advanced rider out there—you listen to each other to do what needs to be done.”

Training mustangs to the halter point can take anywhere from a few minutes to two weeks, depending on the horse.  On average, Tipton halters a mustang within 4 days, and he’s proud of his work.  In 2007, he was selected from a pool of 220 horse trainers from across the United States to compete in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Worth, Texas.  The completion allows horsemen to showcase the results of their gentling techniques.

For the completion, Tipton was assigned a 4 year old bay named Hercules from the Warm Springs Herd in Nevada.  Tipton and Hercules were given 100 days to form a partnership and train before performing in Fort Worth.  They placed 17th overall.  Hercules accompanied Tipton back to Erda after the competition and has called the Flying T home ever since.

Last weekend, Tipton served on the organizing board for the Mountain Valley Mustang Makeover in Heber.

“We had an awesome course up in Heber.  We had mountains, trees, running waterfalls, and other obstacles.  It was a very unique trail,” he said.

While he specializes in mustangs, Tipton works with all breeds.  He creates courses similar to the competition courses for his summer training series, which is geared toward helping horses gain the trust of their handlers.

“It’s a passion,” Tipton summed up.  “I love all horses and I love the mustang because they’re just a clean pure slate.  It’s their purity, their heart.”

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