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Mustang Makeover: Thetford Man Trains Wild Horses From Nevada

  • Chris Butler lets his horse Mariah graze while on a ride in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014. Butler was riding from his home to the grocery store. He often likes to stop by the side of the road and hangout-- he calls Mariah his Zen horse. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Chris Butler lets his horse Mariah graze while on a ride in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014. Butler was riding from his home to the grocery store. He often likes to stop by the side of the road and hangout-- he calls Mariah his Zen horse.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Not far from his home, Chris Butler rides Mariah while ponying Skye along Godfrey Rd. in Thetford, Vt., on May 13, 2014. Butler often works with his Mustangs this way to get them use new situations. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Not far from his home, Chris Butler rides Mariah while ponying Skye along Godfrey Rd. in Thetford, Vt., on May 13, 2014. Butler often works with his Mustangs this way to get them use new situations.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Butler, of Thetford, Vt., talks with Sarah Spencer, of Hanover, N.H., about her horse Haha. The horse had just arrived at Pirouette Farm in Norwich, Vt. on May 17, 2014. Butler works at the farm helping to turn out horses, feed them and muck out stalls. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Chris Butler, of Thetford, Vt., talks with Sarah Spencer, of Hanover, N.H., about her horse Haha. The horse had just arrived at Pirouette Farm in Norwich, Vt. on May 17, 2014. Butler works at the farm helping to turn out horses, feed them and muck out stalls.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Butler and Jenn Bolay hang around their fenced-in yard with their dogs and horses on a cloudy evening. Bolay owns the home and property in Thetford, Vt., and her horse Kid, right. Butler is her housemate and has three Mustangs. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Chris Butler and Jenn Bolay hang around their fenced-in yard with their dogs and horses on a cloudy evening. Bolay owns the home and property in Thetford, Vt., and her horse Kid, right. Butler is her housemate and has three Mustangs.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • In the yard at his home in Thetford, Vt., Chris Butler finds just the right spot on his Mustang Skye for a good scratch on May 13, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    In the yard at his home in Thetford, Vt., Chris Butler finds just the right spot on his Mustang Skye for a good scratch on May 13, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jenn Bolay hands Chris Butler his beer while hanging around the campfire at her home in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014.  Butler and Bolay are roomates. Often in the evening they have a small campfire, let their horses into their fenced in yard and enjoy the evening. Butler said he would much rather be outside then in. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Jenn Bolay hands Chris Butler his beer while hanging around the campfire at her home in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014. Butler and Bolay are roomates. Often in the evening they have a small campfire, let their horses into their fenced in yard and enjoy the evening. Butler said he would much rather be outside then in.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Butler lets his horse Mariah graze while on a ride in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014. Butler was riding from his home to the grocery store. He often likes to stop by the side of the road and hangout-- he calls Mariah his Zen horse. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Not far from his home, Chris Butler rides Mariah while ponying Skye along Godfrey Rd. in Thetford, Vt., on May 13, 2014. Butler often works with his Mustangs this way to get them use new situations. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Chris Butler, of Thetford, Vt., talks with Sarah Spencer, of Hanover, N.H., about her horse Haha. The horse had just arrived at Pirouette Farm in Norwich, Vt. on May 17, 2014. Butler works at the farm helping to turn out horses, feed them and muck out stalls. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Chris Butler and Jenn Bolay hang around their fenced-in yard with their dogs and horses on a cloudy evening. Bolay owns the home and property in Thetford, Vt., and her horse Kid, right. Butler is her housemate and has three Mustangs. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • In the yard at his home in Thetford, Vt., Chris Butler finds just the right spot on his Mustang Skye for a good scratch on May 13, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Jenn Bolay hands Chris Butler his beer while hanging around the campfire at her home in Thetford, Vt., on May 16, 2014.  Butler and Bolay are roomates. Often in the evening they have a small campfire, let their horses into their fenced in yard and enjoy the evening. Butler said he would much rather be outside then in. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Thetford — Chris Butler was hanging out with his mustangs in the yard when 7-year-old Skye playfully bumped him from behind. He patted her, and after a few seconds the lean, black mare went back to chomping grass.

Horses communicate with their bodies, said Butler, a former Army and Vermont National Guard corporal whose hair is still military short. A nudge might be a reminder that he’s “part of the herd,” or a request for attention. While a lot of people wouldn’t tolerate that sort of behavior from a horse, he wasn’t bothered.

“I totally allow my girls to be in my space,” he said. “My space is their space.”

He and his “girls” — Mariah, Skye and Payton — live on an 11-acre farm in Thetford owned by Jennifer Bolay. In addition to Butler, Bolay and the mustangs, the farm is also home to two goats, three dogs, and Bolay’s quarterhorse.

The mustangs are “BLM” horses, members of herds managed by the Bureau of Land Management. With grazing land precious in the drought-ridden Southwest, the wild horses and burros have been at the center of a controversy that has pitted animal advocates and ranchers against one another.

The agency has long been under fire for its regular “gathers,” in which the animals are rounded up by trucks and helicopters to be adopted or sent to long-term pastures. The BLM says the roundups are necessary to prevent overpopulation, which would lead to unsustainable grazing. According to the BLM website, because of federal protection and a lack of natural predators, wild horse and burro herds can double in size about every four years. Some ranchers say more animals should be removed, to protect the land, while various animals activists oppose the gathers, claiming the process is inhumane and that placing the horses and burros in captivity is wrong.

Butler, 48, who has visited the rangelands where the wild mustangs live, tries not to get too politically involved. “The only thing I can do is work with the aftermath,” he said. “I just work with my girls and try to give them all I can.”

His horses, all part of the same herd in Nevada, came to him after their owners became overwhelmed while trying to train them. And it’s no wonder. With domestic horses, you can just get on and ride, but mustangs are a different story, he said. “They start out wild, and they never forget that part of themselves.”

Butler spends about seven hours a day with the mustangs, just being near them, riding, or “ponying” them, that is, leading another horse from atop the one he is riding. “It takes thousands of hours to feel each other out … and have them trust you and trust each other as a team,” he said.

To him, the work is well worth it.

He’s owned all sorts of horses but is partial to the rugged, “rangy-looking” animals. With mustangs, you can go miles and miles and miles, said Butler, who has a pickup truck but prefers to travel without relying on fossil fuels. “They’re basically my wheels.”

It’s not unusual to see him riding along Route 5 or Route 113, making short trips to nearby grocery stores. But sometimes he goes much farther afield. He’s ridden Mariah to his mother’s house, 58 miles away in Lempster, N.H., he said, playfully pronouncing the name of the town with an “-ah” at the end. On long trips, he alternates between walking and riding. The ground-level view connects him with folks he wouldn’t otherwise see, he said. “I like to meet people organically.”

When it comes to working with horses, Butler takes an unusual tack. “A lot of what we are doing is totally opposite of the regular horse world,” he said.

He doesn’t use halters, except at first, when the mustangs are hard to catch. Recently, he’s been getting to know Payton, who came to him just a few weeks ago. She’s not the most skittish mustang he’s met, at first, although when she first arrived at the farm he couldn’t catch her or even approach her. On a recent afternoon, she hovered just a few feet away from him, grazing. Butler walked up and touched her, and she stood still for few moments before slowly jogging away. “This is huge,” he said.

He uses a bitless bridle, which is more comfortable for horses and enables him to communicate more directly with them, he said. “You get so focused on the bit, you forget to ride the horse.”

Also, he doesn’t shoe his horses. They just aren’t necessary, said Butler, who has a barefoot trimming business. “In what athletic event do we put on giant metal shoes?”

For him, training horses is about loving them and being “a benevolent leader.” It’s possible to intimidate and boss horses around until they give in, “but you’re not on their team,” he said. Building a relationship by spending a lot of time around them and doing what they like to do might take longer, “but in the end you get such a better creature.”

Which is not to say they don’t work hard at times. “They know what they have to do when we are cruising around,” he said, who also takes them skijoring, mounted shooting and trail riding. “They enjoy it. They do it for us.”

Butler, who grew up around Lake Sunapee, has been involved with horses since 1977, when his aunt gave him his first mount. An energetic person, he loves to travel and meet other horse lovers and their animals. When he was in the service, he spent time with Bedouins in the desert of Iraq. He’s also visited South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and most recently traveled to Nepal.

Over the years, he’s worked on a number of horse farms, including one he leased in Georgia. These days, he is on call at Pirouette Farm in Norwich, where he also worked several years ago. He still remembers his first glimpse of the farm. “I rode over that hill and saw Pirouette,” he said. “It’s so beautiful.”

Riding up to the barn, he introduced himself to the owners. “ ‘I have to be here in any capacity,’ ” he remembers saying. Arriving on horseback wasn’t as unusual as one might think.

“It’s a very horsey street, so a number of people ride up and down the road,” said Mary Piro, who owns the farm with her husband, Bob Piro. They talked for a while, and Butler told him about himself and asked if they needed any help.

“He’s a great worker, and he has a lot of horse experience, so it was really a natural fit,” Mary Piro said.

When he’s not in Norwich mucking out stalls, feeding the horses or leading them out of the paddock, he’s usually working on the Thetford farm, communing with his beloved mustangs.

Horses have a natural ability to stay present, a state of mind he tries to emulate, Butler said. “They’re so happy, just in the moment. It’s good energy.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.