She Feels at Home Among Wild Horses

Associated Press Writer

His name was Sobe, and he had a crazy eye.

Corine Elser has endless patience with the horses she loves, and she loves most horses. But Sobe was different. From the start, he wanted nothing more than to eject her from his back.

"There are too many good horses in the world to put up with the cranky ones," she said. "We were walking around all nice and calm, he saw me out the corner of the eye and just blew up and I wasn't ready for it. He was thinking on a way to get me off.

"He bucked me real hard the day before. I thought, 'Aw, I got him rode and got him stopped and rode him about another hour.' I guess I got too cocky. I guess he showed me.

"He was just one of those horses that didn't like people."

Elser is smart about horses; she's smart about a lot of things. She graduated from high school with straight A's, one of five valedictorians in her class -- a woman whose brains could have taken her a lot of places, though her heart led her to horses.

She was smart enough to get rid of Sobe quickly. He ended up putting his rebellious nature to good use, bucking professional rodeo riders.

And Elser? She stayed where she's been since a few weeks after her graduation: 350 miles from home, living alone in a rented mobile home, training wild mustangs rounded up from the high desert country of eastern Oregon, and following a path that has been clear to her since she was a "teeny-tiny kid."

"Everybody told me my entire life, 'You have to get a college education,' " said Elser, who just turned 20. "But I always said, 'We'll see about that.' "

When she first came to live in the high desert, her days were filled with dust, balky horses, tobacco-spitting buckaroos and the clang-bang of horses running through sorting chutes at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wild horse corrals, where she served as a volunteer.

After just two years, she is a respected horse trainer in buckaroo country, out on her own, with more than 100 clients. Home is a single-wide rented mobile, the main virtue of which is that you can't get lost in it. She has stunning views of the Stinking Water Mountains, and all day long she lives the life she loves, teaching horses to do their best for humans.

"Horses are kind of in your heart and in your blood, I think," she said, plopped down on a couch in Wrangler jeans, a flannel shirt and English-style low-heeled riding boots.

Elser grew up in El Monte and later San Dimas. She was riding horseback at 3, and jumping a pony with no hands in kindergarten. At 12, she adopted her first mustang, a filly from the desert near Bishop, Calif. She named her Phoebe and rode her with an English saddle. She competed in hunter and jumper competitions.

Elser was never happy going to school until 10th grade, when she and her family moved to southwestern Oregon. At Hidden Valley High School -- the mascot is a mustang -- she started taking agriculture classes, and joined Future Farmers of America. She competed on the equestrian team in events such as steer daubing, where you mark a steer with a paint stick from horseback, and the soils team, analyzing the suitability of farmland for crops and buildings.

Shy about getting up in front of crowds, she turned down the chance to give a graduation speech, as well the chance for a full scholarship to Eastern Oregon University, said her agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, Lowell Bickle.

"I talked to her about how as smart as she was, maybe she'd want to be a veterinarian and come back to the horse industry that way too," said Bickle. "But she loves the training of animals. Not everyone wants be a doctor or lawyer and such."

Elser got her first look at the BLM wild horse corrals her senior year, when the soil analysis team went to Burns for the state championships. She found the website listed an opening for a summer volunteer and got the job, which paid $5 a day. Within a week or two of graduation, she had driven her jacked-up pickup to Burns and set up housekeeping in a little trailer her parents bought her as a graduation present.

"Her heart was out there," said her mother, Cheryl Elser. "I had to deal with my feelings of losing her. At the same time, I knew that's where her true happiness would be. To me, she's smarter than the rest, not pleasing anybody but pleasing herself."

Gary Rose, one of the wranglers at the BLM corrals, said, "She was greener than grass when she first came. Even though she was green, she had a way with those colts."

Corine Elser was supposed to be a volunteer for just the summer, but when a new bunch of mustangs came in, the wranglers asked her to stay to help out. She brought out her own horse, and spent the winter with Rose and his family, eventually starting colts for him.

Rose's highest praise for Elser is that "I can holler and scream at her and she don't care."

Now, "she's as good a hand as there is around this part of the world for starting colts," said Rose. "Sometimes I think she's too gutty. She broke her arm here last spring getting in a wreck with a colt somebody brought to her. Anytime you swing a leg over one of these son-of-a-bucks, there's that chance."

Out moving irrigation lines one day, Elser suffered a severe concussion when her horse stepped in a badger hole and apparently fell on her hard enough to break the cinch strap. A neighbor found her on the ground but still sitting in the saddle, the horse grazing next to her, the reins in her hand and no memory of the previous few days, let alone what happened.

Working with a young Kiger mustang stud named Storm, Elser buckled a shining white plastic riding helmet over her long blond hair before climbing in the saddle. "I'm not a cowgirl," Elser said. "I wear a helmet. When I came out here they said, 'OK, you're weird.' "

Riding through the sagebrush, she usually wears a ball cap instead of a cowboy hat, which is more likely to get blown off and spook the horse.

The stereotype of a cowboy climbing in the saddle of a wild horse and yelling, "Let 'er buck!" is far from what Elser does.

Elser builds trust and understanding in the horses she starts. That way there are fewer problems down the road. If a new horse is too skittish to handle, she will sit outside the corral, reading a Dick Francis mystery, while the horse gets used to her. When she can get close enough to touch the horse, she starts grooming.

"A lot of brushing out their mane and tail, and I try to find that itchy spot," she said. "Because once you find that itchy spot, they kind of go, 'Wow, humans are really good. They'll give me massages and get my itchy spots.'

"Normally, they really like their tail or their butt scratched, or in front of their withers, under their belly. It kind of really depends on each horse. They kind of start closing their eyes and they really drop their head. If you really find a good spot and they're relaxed, they'll stretch their head way out and stick their lip out and kind of wiggle the air back and forth, you know? It's really funny.

"If you can find that little good spot, they're pretty much conquered."

Elser can tell a lot about a horse from its face. She looks at the whorl of hair between the eyes to assess intelligence. The lower the whorl, the smarter the horse, she said. And on the side of the face is what she calls the unpredictable bump. When a horse has a big one, "One day he is dog gentle, and the next day he just wants to run."

Before trying to ride horses, Elser spends days, weeks, months sometimes working with them. Even when they are running around the corral dragging a halter rope, she is teaching them.

"I want him to turn toward me when I say, 'Whoa,' " she said, dust rising around her as Storm circled the corral. "When he shows his butt to me, that's disrespect. It all has to do with body language. I have my energy focused on his hind end. When I step in front of him, I back up, to release the pressure. It's called opening the door, and they want to come toward you.

"Once you get that much trust in them I like to present them with as many scary things as possible -- plastic bags, milk jugs full of rocks, and just a bunch of rattly stuff," Elser said. "Once they realize that scary object is never going to hurt them, then they start to really trust you."

For Storm's first ride of the day, she ran him around the corral to tire him out, then stood a long time with one foot in a stirrup, her hands on the saddle.

"If he decided to start bucking now, all I have to do is step out instead of being bucked off," she said before swinging her leg over the saddle. "It makes a big difference."

There is a lot of repetition to what she does, but Elser doesn't mind. She doesn't find it boring.

"You're always having to think of ways to change a horse's thinking," she said. "Each horse is different."

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