Debbie L. Rhodes was thinking to herself, "Well, here we are and I'm stuck with him," as she tethered the potbellied wild horse at the Mission Trails Stables in San Juan Capistrano.
The 1 1/2-year-old-mustang she bought for $125 from the Bureau of Land Management was a good buy even though it was a beggarly looking maverick. "I just felt sorry for him," she recalled. "He looked so bad."
The buy was made at a government sale at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base near Oceanside.
From the time she was a child, Rhodes, 33, had wanted a horse of her own, but she bought the mustang on a whim. "I went with a friend who wanted to adopt a burro and this horse just kept staring at me," she said. "What could I do?"
She said just about everyone suggested she forget the $125 and put the horse out to pasture.
"Those same people today now have offered to buy him," said Rhodes, who works as a printer in San Juan Capistrano. "He's really sweet, likes people a lot, is easy to ride and he can learn anything."
Even though it was the first horse she owned, Rhodes wanted to break it herself, but smartly decided to get help from a real cowboy. "I don't think I really could have done it myself," she conceded.
At first, "I was afraid of the horse, but he finally let me get close and I found out he liked to get brushed. I would sit there for hours, talking and brushing him. Then he let me put a halter on him."
When Rhodes finally saddled and mounted him, "he got scared and started bucking like a rodeo horse and threw me off. I think I frightened him when I slapped him on the butt, but that kind of settled him down and he never bucked me off again.
"Now he's my buddy."
In fact, "he follows me around, almost like a dog. The first time I put him in an arena he jumped the fence and came after me. I guess he figured he was supposed to stay with me."
That was three years ago, but Rhodes says despite the effort to break and train the mustang she would buy another.
She named it Lassen after Lassen County in Northern California where the horse was taken in a roundup. "I like the name," she said.
"If I had a ranch I would probably have 10 of them," said the one-time Cerritos College art and graphics student who lives in Laguna Niguel. "The mustangs make great horses and are smart and really strong. They have great personalities."
Rhodes, who sometimes goes hang gliding and rides a dirt bike, has become somewhat the talk of the stables because she owns the only mustang there. "I'm not famous," she scoffed. "I just happen to have a different kind of a horse."
But she is like a doting parent and sometimes treats Lassen with chocolate chip cookies. "He would follow me forever to get them," she said, "but I think he loves me without them."
Buying the horse changed her life. Said Rhodes, who is single: "I guess it's kind of like having a child."