By Amélie Bellefille
Photos by Raquel Frohlich, RGF Photography
This story is part of our series “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges. Here, meet a remarkable rider named Amélie, a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, and the Mustang mare who taught her how to trust again.
How long have you had Kàra & how did you meet her?
After the Las Vegas shooting, it was very hard for me to connect with people again. My ability to trust was shattered, and I had a really hard time communicating and healing from it. It left me with deep psychological scars. My close friends sent me twice to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapy with war veterans and trauma survivors out of the state. During this time, an equine therapist named Johnny Urrutia (Equine Therapist but also Executive Director of Idaho Horse Therapy) took me into some sessions with horses. I reconnected immediately and was able to talk and reconnect with people little by little. He advised me to get a horse. After meeting an American Mustang mare at the therapy center, Johnny suggested I should look into adopting a Mustang of my own. He mentioned that it would be a good thing for me as; just like humans with trauma, Mustangs have trust issues and some trauma too. The groundwork and the connection you are getting through the process of developing a relationship with a Mustang would help me in my healing journey. He gentled (the process of originally taming a Mustang) and trained a bunch of Mustangs himself and was very aware of what I would be getting into: connection, trust, listening to ourselves, connecting with our emotions, and being more aware of our own body responses. Working with a barely gentled Mustang is like looking at a wild child through a mirror. I saw a lot of myself in Kàra…
I adopted Kàra through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) during spring 2018. She was waiting in a 24′ by 24′ of 6′ fence pipe pen at a Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) trainer in Palmdale, waiting to be gentled.
When I parked, there was a bay mare, staring at me from far away. There were multiple Mustangs at this place, but she was the one looking. Very intrigued. Maybe she thought, “That’s my human, finally!” The TIP trainer put her in a round pen for me to see how she moved and to make sure she was sound. Then, she asked me to try to get into the pen and get her to move using the approach-retreat method, which I was aware of. After a couple hours, Kàra ate hay and carrots from my hands. The moment she took a step and stayed with me, instead of running away, was magical. She looked at me with these big eyes and let me touch her nose. I cried. We knew. That was it. She picked me.
She was delivered to me in early June 2018, just 8 months after the Las Vegas shooting. She was barely gentled, with a halter on her head and a short lead rope tied to it. It was very challenging. I spent a lot of time observing and waiting in the pen for her to accept me moving, without fearing for her life.
I taught her to give her feet, be showered, accept a saddle, be lunged, and so on; basically everything from the ground up.
Then, in 2019, I sent her to Norco to train with Luke Castro, a Mustang trainer, as we had two incidents (the first in which I hurt my pelvis badly and the second in which I was bucked off onto a hard floor, landed on my head, hurt my rotator cuff, and could not do anything for a couple months). He put some miles under saddle and did additional groundwork and desensitization. When she came back, I sought the help of Romana Hartke, a trainer at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, who specializes in young and green horses, to teach Kàra and I. She took us under her wing for over six months – until we could fly on our own – and she added some “buttons”.
She was not the first horse I started from the ground, but she was the first 8 or 9-year-old that was completely untouched. It was kind of a wild roller coaster!
Was Kàra born in the wild or in captivity?
Kàra was born in Fallon, Nevada, in captivity. She was in the womb of her mother during the round up (Calico Round up – not the prettiest one. A lot of horses died during this roundup, and it appears that it was traumatic). Kàra lived in captivity until she was almost eight years old, but she was rarely, if ever, handled during that time. She had a couple of transfers from Fallon to other facilities, including Ridgecrest, where she was pulled out before I met her.
How has Kàra helped you overcome the traumatic event you lived through?
One thing I can say is that Mustangs are very straight forward – opposite of many domestic horses. They can see right through you from 30 feet away. They are way more in touch with feelings and emotions; energy and body posture are a big thing. You cannot pretend. You cannot lie to a Mustang. Kàra helped me so much to reconnect with people. Mustangs are like people, they carry their own trauma. For Kàra, although she never knew the round up, she was born right after and carried her own baggage.
With Kàra, I did not have to tell my story and repeat the traumatic event again and again. She helped me rebuild trust in myself, but also in my environment. She helped me be more aware of my emotions, and how I feel, by reflecting whatever was going on in my own body. She is really the mirror of my soul. You learn to let your guard down, work on managing your fear, and go for it. You have to trust them. Respect. Leadership. Stay calm- really calm. Breathe. They require a lot of self control and awareness. Take a chance. Take the opportunity to reconnect.
Kàra and I both entered our healing journey together and grew from the day we met. Like partners, hand and hoof in the same direction: be the best we can be, but together. I see her as my guardian angel. Whenever I feel down, she puts her head in my arms, her forehead on my chest, and we cuddle for a while like that. She has her way of calming me down and relieving the stress. She keeps me grounded.
She is still spooky, especially from noise or movements coming from behind her. It’s okay; I do not turn my back to a door either.
What do you wish others knew about horses being able to help the mental health of their humans?
Years ago in France, I worked at an equine-assisted therapy center for adults with trauma and children with mental and physical disabilities and challenges. At the time, I saw the difference a horse could make in a child’s eyes, bringing a smile to a boy with autism or teaching a little girl to learn to balance and interpret depth on a horse. I would have never guessed one day I would also go through equine therapy myself.
I firmly believe equine therapy helps all kinds of trauma, while also helping with trust and building self-confidence. Working with horses helps you be more comfortable with yourself and others. It also helps you gain the ability to help others heal, too.
Horses have a way of getting into your mind and heart to help heal. I do believe they heal the bad and bring the good into our heart and soul. They also bring peace and calmness. There is an absolute connection we can get from horses (and especially from Mustangs, who have a special bond with their human partner) that we cannot get from anything else (except maybe dogs!).
Tell us about how your mare inspired you to start your business.
As my partnership with Kàra grew, I found the need to get her one-of-a-kind tack. I wanted her to shine. We got a second chance at life; we needed to show the world we are sparkly, fun, and all smiles. She inspired me to create some boots and saddle pads at the end of 2018. As a former fashion designer, it was easy for me to design and test some products on her. She’s my favorite supermodel. I started creating some sparkly saddle pads at first in basic colors. Now, I carry various colors and am expanding my product range and style as Kàra and I evolve together and focus more towards dressage. She is a very girly horse, and I am a tomboy. I was very traditional before Kàra. It is funny because I think she is the one who has brought out my more feminine side, through her affinity for cute and fun colors. Most of the products I make are designed with Kàra in mind, and the colors are inspired by her.
She has pads in an emerald turquoise, a golden olive green, a sparkly navy blue, a sparkly charcoal, and a shimmery metallic rose gold. I would have never ridden in these colors ten years ago! Now, I am all about getting her on trend and creating fun styles and sets for her and for other equestrians. It all started with designing some products for Kàra, then for some friends, and now, it is a small business with its own Shopify store and social media followers. I think about designing for Kàra and any rider who wants their horse to shine and be different. I also create my products to make my horse as comfortable as possible. As a Mustang, I feel that she is very sensitive to pressure or any discomfort and tends to let me know what is bugging her, so I must really listen to her. That’s why all my pads are made in mesh with a specific cut and material to help the air flow better. It is very important for me that Kàra has the best products that fit her and are very comfortable. For instance, a bad fit, a pressure point, or a section rubbing her skin would cause her to buck or show a big disagreement. That’s her way of mentioning something is wrong.
What is it like having a Mustang partner? How would you compare a Mustang to other breeds you have known?
It sounds very cliché, but Mustangs are very straight forward. Domestic horses are also a mirror of our soul, but I’ve found that they do not have this special connection that you can get with a Mustang. I have two domestic horses back home in France. One is retired and one is now partially owned by a dressage school. Mustangs are untouched. They are a blank page bringing some big challenges. The wild part of them forces you, as a trainer, to open your mind to a whole different understanding of the notion of “pressure”. Once your Mustang bonds with you, they will do anything for you. When I park and walk through the aisles, Kàra hears me and calls. I whistle back. I believe Mustangs have a very strong herd connection. They are big thinkers and analyze everything – in the wild, they must have this ability in order to survive. They are very aware of anything that is in their surroundings, from a coyote many yards away to a fly landing on a leaf. There is always something new with her that I am learning.
Having my American Mustang changed my life 180 degrees. Adopting a Mustang is a unique experience. They are so versatile, able to do anything and any discipline. I would highly suggest folks consider adopting a Mustang. There are more than 50,000 Mustangs waiting in facilities to be adopted. Take a chance. Take your time. Be patient. It’s not the end goal that matters with horses, it’s the journey.