- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

COILA, Miss. (AP) - A riding camp in Carroll County has taught nine girls to train horses that might otherwise have been euthanized.

Ride A Rescue Training Camp is a project of Mississippi Horse Rescue (www.mshorses.org), the nonprofit started in 2012 by Stephanie Billingsley, formerly of Greenwood.

Billingsley runs horse sanctuaries at two Mississippi locations, both family homes: Muleshoe Ranch at Coila and Twelve Oaks outside of Madison. She is the daughter of longtime former state Sen. Bunky Huggins of Greenwood, who died in 2006.

The purpose of Billingsley’s nonprofit is to take in unwanted horses and to train them in preparation for adoption.

One day during the camp, dark storm clouds pile up over a low-slung barn and riding corral in southwest Carroll County, and driving rain pounds the roof.

Inside, a row of girls, ranging in age from 10 to 16, sit lined up in high-backed oak kitchen chairs outside a riding ring, cheering on rider Abby Donahoe of Clinton and her mount, Ivy.

Trainer Christy Galey, who lives with her family at Muleshoe, circles Ivy with a light rein in hand, talking quietly to 15-year-old Abby, both trainer and rider constantly locking eyes with Ivy’s.

A petite woman in short cutoffs and multicolored cowboy boots, Galey wears a bright blue T-shirt that says: “Real Cowboys Ride Rescues.”

Billingsley explains that Galey is teaching Abby how to establish herself as the alpha in her relationship with Ivy. This method of natural horsemanship training comes from an Australian, Clinton Anderson, and it has spread rapidly in the United States.

Based on mutual respect and understanding of the power dynamic between horse and rider, prey and predator, the method gives riders the confidence and knowledge needed to establish safety and consistency with their horses - in this case, horses with troubled and compromising histories.

“You have to establish that you, the rider, are alpha in this predator-prey relationship,” Billingsley says. “Horses want to use their natural instincts, and they want leadership more than they want friendship.”

Galey won’t let Abby ride Ivy until their relationship has been established on the ground, at eye level. Galey snaps a rein at Ivy’s flanks, her chest and her legs, initiating specific movement with each flick.

“She’s desensitizing her,” Billingsley says, “teaching her not to panic or spook when something touches her or comes into her line of vision.”

Satisfied that Ivy knows what’s expected of her, Galey allows Abby to mount the pretty reddish mare, safely tethered to a rope lead that Galey will maneuver until it’s time to let her ride free.

“These girls will volunteer for me at Twelve Oaks and Muleshoes this summer, riding and continuing to work with the horses they’ve been paired with during camp,” Billingsley says.

It’s a tough proposition, expensive and time-consuming, taking in unwanted horses and preparing them for adoption. But Billingsley, her trainers, volunteers and donors do it for their love of horses, and to assure that once an animal is placed, the adoption is successful.

Ivy came from a kill pen in Bastrop, Louisiana, where she was auctioned at a low price, then put on Facebook at a higher price - Billingsley calls it a ransom - for rescue.

Had a generous horse-lover not bought her, Ivy would have been killed and used for human consumption in Europe and Asia, according to Billingsley.

“Someone bought her just to save her, then sent her to us,” she explains.

Other rescue horses may come from families that can no longer afford to keep them or whose riders have passed on. Some are the result of irresponsible breeding resulting in too many animals.

Some come to Mississippi Horse Rescue abused by former owners.

“They’re scared of everything,” Billingsley says. “Their basic instincts are skewed. They have to get over seeing you as a predator who might hurt them.”

The girls at this week’s camp are experienced riders, Billingsley says, who will be even more accomplished and comfortable with horses following the training.

Riding English style in shows and competitions, the girls know the basics of managing an already trained horse.

What they’re learning here, Billingsley says, is how to mold a horse that hasn’t been trained, or that might have been traumatized and displaced, requiring it to be completely retrained.

“The horse wants and needs a leader.”

“Horses can’t speak English. These girls are going to have to learn to speak horse,” says Galey.

Abby Donahoe is riding Ivy without a lead now, carefully interpreting Galey’s instructions on pressure and release, on how to guide her successfully.

“We keep it soft in this initial training,” Billingsley says, pointing out that Ivy doesn’t have a bit in her mouth and is being guided strictly by touch. Galey is pleased.

“There’s a lot going on here,” she says. “Ivy is only 2 years old. She’s green. This is only the second time she’s been ridden. And it’s been raining and storming.”

After several successful turns around the ring, Abby dismounts and guides Ivy into the barn. Another horse and rider prepare to take their place, and Abby accepts congratulations from her cohorts.

The rain and sky have lightened up, and Ivy looks relieved as she stands steady next to Abby.

Outside the barn, several horses stand still as statues, drenched by the rain on top, dry beneath their wide stomachs. Billingsley looks around, smiling.

“These horses will help these girls be better riders.”

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