Mona Jerome, 2007

---Photos (Kari Wehrs) and text (Emma Bouthillette) created while studying with The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.---

Last Chance
Mona Jerome strives to rescue wild mustangs

by Emma Bouthillette

“New horse coming through,” a man’s voice warns. “May be jumpy!” With that, attendees of the Equine Affaire (Springfield, MA), move to the side of the aisle. Mona Jerome, of Biddeford, guides a caramel tawny mustang through the crowd and into the display stall for the American Mustang and Burro Association (AMBA). The mare holds her head high, chocolate mane brushed to the side revealing off-white markings of a brand along her neck.

Jerome guides mare she calls LC, short for Last Chance, into the stall. Running wild in Susanville, California, LC was captured at 12 years old and sold by agents of the Bureau of Land Management. Usually horses of LC’s age are bought by dealers and resold to meat markets in Canada or Europe. Jerome and other members of the New England Chapter of AMBA saved the mare from an untimely death in April of 2007. 

Jerome was hesitant to take on another horse because it would mean an added expense of $100 a month. However, she couldn’t bear the thought of another mustang lost to slaughter. Now, the mare resides at Jerome’s Bush Brook Stables. The Equine Affaire is LC’s first public appearance and her opportunity to attract an owner.

During her two hours on display, LC stands, hooves cemented in place. The mare keeps her eyes on Jerome as Jerome talks to the people passing by. Peering in, they comment: “Oh look, a mustang,” “See, it’s branded,” “I thought they were smaller.” Jerome can only boast about the mare on show. LC’s ears perk as she hears Jerome say, “This is one smart mare. Real sensible.”

Back at Bush Brook Stables, Jerome says, “It is all about the horse. How can we help this horse live a good life in the world she has to live in? Humans made it so she couldn’t live in her world.”

Jerome is referring to the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM estimates 29,000 wild horses roam on chunks of government-owned land in ten western states. Ranchers rent the same land to drive their cattle. During the 2006 fiscal year, 9,926 mustangs were captured and removed. The BLM justifies their high removal rate with statistics showing that the mustang population could double every four years if unrestricted, competing with rancher’s cattle and threaten the food and water resources. 

The horses that are removed from their habitat when they are younger than ten years old are auctioned at various sites around the country. Those over ten, like LC, are placed in a general sales program and often end up as ingredients in dog food or as an expensive delicacy on European or Canadian dinner menus. 

Jerome, a sturdy, but petite 69 year old, has worked with horses her entire life. Before purchasing her first mustang in 1980 after her four children moved out of the house, Jerome rode and helped at local stables. Bush Brook Stables was established as a home for her first mustang, and expanded to accommodate more horses over the years. As the stables grew, Jerome boarded horses and taught riding lessons. By 2002, she was tired of catering to horse owners, and abandoned the business to create the nonprofit Ever After Mustang Rescue. Now she devotes her life to that cause. Since its inception, Jerome has successfully found good homes for at least twelve horses. 

“It makes me very sad every time a horse comes in here and I know it should be running free,” says Jerome. She’s aware that within a few years, mustangs will have all but vanished from the western frontier. Some people believe that domesticating these symbols of the Wild West is an unfair solution, but it is the only solution. Jerome knows they would die otherwise.

Currently Jerome is a foster mother to 20 mustangs and 8 horses of various breeds. Despite her age, she works harder than ever before. Her work takes up to 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Everyday, Jerome is out the door by 8:00am. She feeds the horses, leads them out to the pasture and she spends the rest of the morning and sometimes early afternoon mucking out the stalls, changing water, filling feed, and throwing down hay. After a quick mid-day break, she either trains horses or takes care of odds and ends around the barn. Around 5:00 pm she brings the horses back to their stalls for the night. 

Jerome dreams of creating a paid barn hand position to reduce her load and free her to work directly with the horses. “You have to give them a lot of confidence because they don’t have a lot of confidence in this world,” says Jerome. LC received little to no handling prior to arriving at the rescue. It will take time to teach her that humans are not a threat and actually beneficial. 

On November 1, 2007, Jerome dribbles red and yellow non-toxic acrylic paint onto a canvas, and then piles on some diced apples and carrot shreds. She hands the canvas to a volunteer to hold out to Beau, a handsome Palomino, who Jerome calls a “lifer,” having surpassed ideal adoptable age. As Beau finishes the pile of treats Jerome sees an image in the blur of red and yellow. It is the final of four horse “paintings” made that morning to be auctioned at the Second Annual Variety Show. Last year similar paintings were auctioned, the highest sold for $65. 

“That variety show is going to save our lives if we make enough money out of it,” says Jerome, hoping to raise at least $3,000 to cover the past month’s bills. Each horse costs Jerome $100 a month, not including vet bills. With 28 horses, raising money is a constant battle for Jerome. 

Jerome says she keeps the business running on “donations, fundraisers, and a couple of small grants.” While these horse paintings are something different for horse enthusiasts, they are time consuming and not highly profitable. Other fundraisers have included a skating party, spaghetti dinner, open houses at the stables, and a bottle drive run by summer residents. Even though the bills pile up, Jerome says she doesn’t worry about the money so much. “I keep a lot of this in prayer. I think prayer is very powerful and somehow all our needs are met,” says Jerome, putting her faith in God.

Having trained many horses in the past, Jerome knows it will be difficult to find LC a home at the age of 12. While the mare could surpass 30 years, most buyers are looking for a young horse, just as most people prefer to buy kittens or puppies. However, being able to say that an older mustang can stand still while being groomed, does not kick when its hooves are being cleaned, and does not bolt or buck with a rider in saddle, will improve LC’s odds.

Jerome is able to mount LC by mid-October. She admits to being out of shape and uses a blue stool to saddle up. She used to be able to hop right onto a horse from the ground. Placing the stool down beside the hanging stirrup, Jerome takes two steps up. LC is uneasy with Jerome’s new height. LC backs up before Jerome can place her boot in the stirrup. The few predators mustangs have in the wild usually attack from above. The mare wants to see Jerome in order to not feel threatened. Jerome gets back down and tries again. For fifteen minutes they play this game. Jerome steps up. LC steps back. They try again. 

Finally, Jerome is able to push her body weight up on the stirrup before LC has a chance to move. She ends up lying on the saddle, her torso teetering over the right side and her legs dangling from the left. LC is surprised by the added weight of Jerome. LC cranes her head to the side and watches Jerome. Jerome reaches forward and strokes LC’s neck. Before long, Jerome can feel the saddle shifting. Slowly, Jerome slides to the ground and readjusts the saddle to try again. 

This time, the horse cooperates and Jerome sits straight up on the horse. LC refuses to move when Jerome prompts, but Jerome sits like a queen on her throne. She isn’t frustrated that LC won’t budge. In fact, she is thrilled to have finally sat on top of LC. “Oh what a good girl!” she cries. “I’m just busting at the seams.” 

Two weeks after the Equine Affaire, no one has shown interest in adopting LC. The mare is loose in the indoor riding ring while her stall gets cleaned. She has room to run around and piles of hay to eat, but she is not satisfied. The appeal of the pasture calls - as LC jumps the five-foot metal gate. Her front legs clear, but she doesn’t maintain the lift in her jump, clipping the gate and bending it nearly in half.

Later on, Jerome finds the mangled gate and LC in the pasture. “That’s a $100 gate,” she says covering her face with her hand to hide her aggravation. “She probably hurt herself,” she adds. The last thing she wants to see, or needs is LC on the ground with a broken leg. Jerome is already exhausted from spending a good chunk of the night checking up on a sick mare. While that mare doesn’t need the vet, there will be no choice if LC has broken her leg. Back in January 2007, one horse broke a leg falling on ice. The vet bill was $4,300. 

LC grazes just past a grouping of other horses. Jerome shivers from the damp cold as she intently watches LC. As the mare takes a step forward, Jerome notices that she favors her right hind leg. The leg isn’t broken, but Jerome is still frazzled. She rushes to clean the back row of stalls and returns shaking feed in a tin can to call LC. As the mare wades through the thick mud toward Jerome, it is obvious her leg is just sore from hitting the gate so hard. 

Jerome leads LC back to her stall. The horse reluctantly enters. While Jerome is relieved LC is not badly injured, it raises a new concern. Jerome has taught LC many things since April, but she has not erased the mare’s instinct to run free.  

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