Not once in 10 years of captivity had the wild Mustang been touched by a human being. Abused and neglected, he was terrified of people, recoiling in fear and flaring the whites of his eyes every time someone approached. It was said of this horse that he was forever wild and untrainable. Harsh attempts to break him had only made this horse more dangerous. Who would even want such a horse?
The answer to that question came from of two retired professional fire-fighter medics: Melanie and Jim Bowles wanted the Mustang. “He was a mess when we arrived to get him, a shell of the horse he once was,” Melanie said. Malnourished, mistreated, and too pathetic to put out in the big pasture with their other horses, they gave him the front yard of their Arkansas farm home where they could watch him and maybe, just maybe, give his life back to him.
A beautiful dun colored horse with black mane, tail, and feet, he kept to himself in the yard, avoiding people coming and going from the Bowles’s home, even though they would stop to watch the wild horse and offer a few soft words. But the turning point came more quickly than they expected.
Less than two weeks after the Mustang had arrived at Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, run by Melanie and Jim, she was doing laundry in the garage with her back to the open door. She heard a slow clump-clump on the driveway, and knowing it was the Mustang, she dared not turn around or the horse might run.
As the Mustang carefully approached her in the garage, Melanie’s only move was to put her hand behind her back and wait. She could hear the wild horse getting closer, then all was quiet. A few seconds later, whiskers and warm breath touched her hand. She knew the healing process had begun.
Born to wild horses running free in eastern Oregon, the Mustang had been one of many captured in the federal government’s wild horse control program and auctioned off to new owners. Melanie said these wild horses sometimes become unintended problems because they go to people who, in spite of good intentions, have no experience with horses, especially wild ones.
Given the name Pawnee, the Mustang is now part of a herd of 63 rescued horses that roam freely in the 160-acre open pastureland of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary in the mountains of western Arkansas, near Mena. Never again will these horses, mules, and donkeys be mistreated, abused, or abandoned. They are not for sale, and they are not being trained to ride.
“They have given enough,” Melanie says. “Now we are trying to return everything man has taken from them. They are here for the rest of their lives, and nothing is expected of them.”
The horses have unrestricted run of the huge pasture area, where they function as a herd. Their frequent contact with humans, including medical care and hoof trimming, prevents them from becoming wild. Even Pawnee now permits his owners to brush him and pick up his feet. And he has passed the ultimate test of a horse’s trust by allowing hands to be cupped over his eyes.
Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary actually had its start in Florida. Jim and Melanie were both fire-fighter medics working in a high stress situation. In an attempt to simplify their lives, they purchased a house and five acres of land near Sarasota.
Most of their neighbors owned horses, and Melanie started looking to find one for herself, even though she knew nothing about horses. She bought a horse, only to discover it was absolutely the wrong horse for a novice. Undaunted, she soon had two more horses.
But while looking for a horse to buy, she witnessed horses that were being abused and neglected, and she saw a need to do something about it.
Then her father, for whom she had great respect, died, “And it really hit me: what was I going to do with my life?” she recalls. Her question about doing something worthwhile in life was answered as horses soon became her passion.
She and Jim created the sanctuary as a non-profit organization and started taking in troubled and unwanted horses. They were soon caring for 30 horses and had increased their land area to 50 acres, all while both of them were still working full-time.
Both of them were eligible for retirement, so they looked for a larger sanctuary location and found 320 perfect acres in Arkansas. In 2005, 40 horse were trucked from Florida to their new Arkansas home.
Their approach to restoring these “damaged” horses to a natural lifestyle involves weaning them off medications as much as possible and giving them plenty of space to live free and forage to their hearts’ content. Grass sustains the horses most of the year, with hay and minerals provided in their mild winters. Ten acres of the sanctuary are reserved for horses with special conditions, severe cases that probably would not do well trying to run with a healthy herd.
“Our intent is to return horses to a natural lifestyle,” Melanie said. “They are herding animals, yet everything we do with them is from our perspective, for our convenience, not the horse’s. Even keeping them in stalls isolates them, but it makes it easier for us to handle them.”
Melanie and Jim did not leave all their friends and family back in Florida. Melanie’s niece, Sarah, and her husband Stephen also made the move to Arkansas and work with the sanctuary horses.
With growing national awareness of what is taking place at Proud Spirit, Melanie doesn’t have to go looking for horses in need. “They come to us,” Melanie said. “Usually someone will call and tell us about a bad situation, or a horse that has been confiscated, and we go get it.”
Sometimes the animals literally find them. Jim and Melanie woke up one day to find a snowy white donkey at their door. Did the donkey know to go there himself? Or was he deliberately dropped off? They are still unsure how he got there, but they know he was not wanted at his former home. He showed up on July 4, so he was named Liberty and remains a popular guest to this day.
Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary operates without organizational support. There are a few individual contributors, but for the most part it is funded “out of our own pockets,” Melanie said. “It’s a decision we have made. We live simply so the horses can simply live.”
Melanie has written two books about Proud Spirit. The Horses of Proud Spirit was the top-selling horse book on Amazon for a number of weeks after it came out in 2003. Her second book, Hoof Prints, More Stories from Proud Spirit, was published last spring. Both books are available through Amazon.com as well as major book store chains such as Barnes & Noble. All proceeds from the books go to the sanctuary.
An Emmy award winning documentary on Proud Spirit has been produced by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). It is available to local PBS stations, and viewers may call their stations to request that it be aired.
Article by Gary Martin
Photos by Mike Boyatt