You might have met Marvel at the Four Corners Agricultural Exposition.
He’s a perlino mustang whose coat glows golden, with cool blue eyes that easily gaze at humans with trust.
He used to roam Mesa Verde National Park.
Marvel is the first horse to be gathered and trained from the park, after being rejected by his band and wandering onto campgrounds to get water.
Park staff and the National Mustang Association of Colorado proceeded to remove and domesticate him.
They knew just the person to help: Patricia Barlow-Irick, longtime horse, burro and even zebra trainer, whose love for horses stemmed from her childhood in Durango interacting with her grandfather’s neighbors’ horses.
She’s trained about 600 horses.
NMACO approached her when discussions of rounding up the Mesa Verde mustangs began to take shape.
The horses generally have never experienced human touch.
Barlow-Irick now lives on a ranch in northern New Mexico, where Marvel was trained for months after being gathered in September.
“I just basically played with him all winter,” she said.
He was never really scared of people because of his experience on the campground, she said.
“He figured out people were good – people were a potential resource,” she said.
But first, Marvel was held at Mesa Verde, and then transferred to Trail Canyon Ranch in McElmo Canyon, owned by NMACO President David Temple.
On the first day of training Marvel, 20 people sat in a circle around Marvel’s pen, handing him hay.
“He didn’t go to everybody. He had his favorites. But that's pretty good for a wild horse – that he could calm himself down enough to go, ‘Oh, I’ll go over to this one. Now this one,” Barlow-Irick said.
At the ranch, Marvel was gelded and vaccinated.
Although Marvel initially didn’t let people touch him, “he was clearly not really afraid,” said Lynda Larsen said, managing director of NMACO.
“He seems really smart, and he likes to engage, and he likes to learn and do different things,” she said.
Cortez resident Bonnie Loving saw Marvel at the Four Corners Ag Expo and asked to adopt him.
She had followed the story of the Mesa Verde mustangs, and even protested when park staff didn’t provide them with water in 2018 during the drought, although the park contended that it was not their responsibility to manage trespassed animals.
“So ever since then, I wanted to get involved and try to help those guys out,” she said. “And I've always wanted to adopt one of them when they were rounded up.”
She describes Marvel as calm, easygoing and loving.
Loving attributes this to how he was rounded up.
Loving has two other mustangs, who are now growing old. They were rounded up by helicopter in Wyoming and Nevada and held in Bureau of Land Management facilities.
“There was just all that stress. So they were completely different when I got them compared to Marvel,” she said. “Marvel is so calm, and I know he's had training. But still, when they have that trauma, they hold on to it for a long time.”
She’s interested to see what the temperaments of the other mustangs to be gathered from the park will be, and how much the roundup process may contribute to their dispositions.
Marvel is still young – only 3 years old. When he’s older, say 6 or 7, Loving may pursue competitive trail riding with him. But it will ultimately be Marvel’s decision, she said.
“I think they're (mustangs) the most loyal horses you can have,” Loving said, adding, “It's hard to put into words but they're really a one-person horse, like healer dogs.”
With that loyalty comes commitment.
“If you adopt a mustang, just plan on being that forever home for him,” she said. “Don't plan on just bouncing him around because it will hurt his spirit. You’re going to change him.”
Marvel serves as an example for what NMACO hopes to accomplish with other horses at Mesa Verde.
The organization advocated for gathering the horses that roamed there in a “better, non-adversarial capture method,” Larsen said.
Rather than chasing and retrieving the mustangs with helicopter roundups, NMACO has helped to capture the horses by using hay, water and salt licks to corral them.
NMACO volunteers have periodically brought water to the horses, helping them to associate humans with resources.
“The park is just really good about working with us, collaborating on the capture method, and then turning the horses over to us,” Larsen said
There have been debates about how the horses are classified.
Although many of the park’s horses were born and live in the wild, they are not classified as wild by the federal government. The park is not designated as a wild horse herd management area under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
“The presence of trespass livestock is inconsistent with the park’s mission to preserve the cultural and natural resources within the park,” stated an Oct. 8 news release from the park. “Additionally, Mesa Verde National Park does not have the legal authority to allow livestock use within the park under 36 Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 2.60.”
Dryer summers also pose a risk of dehydration to the horses.
A Mesa Verde spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The park has about 90 horses, and about 30 to 40 will be gathered each year, Temple said.
“Our goal as an advocacy group is to find good homes and take care of these horses that are having to have this done to them for no fault of their own except for that they were born out there in the wild,” he said.
NMACO is hoping that the “easy” and “non traumatic” horse gathering method will be effective not only in the other Mesa Verde horse gatherings, but in other areas where horses are gathered, he said.
Establishing protocols, like how long to keep the horses in pens and how big the pens should be, could be useful to other efforts, he said.
NMACO plans to capture the horses in bands, so they won’t be separated, he said.
“We have a big job in front of us to juggle and find homes for that many horses,” he said.
“If they don't learn to fear humans, and they’re trainable, and more tractable because of the way they’re captured, that can be a huge game changer for wild horses generally,” Larsen said.
Genetic testing of Marvel showed about a quarter Spanish ancestry, as well as some Puerto Rican Paso Fino, Swiss and French montaña blood, Larsen said, calling him “super unusual.”
A perlino is not a species, but a horse known for its creme-colored coat, pink skin, blue eyes. A perlino often may be distinguished from a cremello horse by a slight reddish hue in its mane and tail.
Marvel’s genetics came as a surprise, and suggest a possibility that other park horses might also have Spanish lineage, Barlow-Irick said.
“Once they have enough genetic analysis of those horses, they might actually realize that those horses have been there for hundreds of years, and they're actually part of the landscape,” she said.
By teaching people how to care for mustangs, Barlow-Irick is changing the fate of the horses.
“There’s a lot of mustangs that kind of languish,” she said. “Even a lot of mustangs that are adopted, people don’t do anything, and they just leave them in the backyard, and they’re afraid of them.”
Misconceptions about mustangs exist, she said. Some owners think that merely chasing mustangs until they get tired is effective, she said.
But it’s not, and it’s “pretty common practice,” she said.
She instead prefers using positive reinforcement techniques with the horses – especially older ones – with rewards like food and scratches.
“Horses are creatures of habit, and whatever habit they form, they will prefer to do that over anything else,” Barlow-Irick said. “So I just give try to give them good habits.”
Mustangs are “really just afraid,” Barlow-Irick said.
According to her, people should give them two things: predictability and some control of their own life.
Barlow-Irick is dedicated to her craft.
So much so that when she saw a zebra described as “untrainable” and “dangerous” listed for sale on Craigslist, she offered to train the animal for free.
After two months, she was ready to give the zebra back to its owner. But the owner was going through a divorce, and was no longer able to house the zebra or her horses. Barlow-Irick offered to board the woman’s horses for a year in exchange for the zebra.
But zebras aren’t suited for cold weather, and thus the zebra sleeps inside Barlow-Irick’s greenhouse.
“After how many years this has been, I’m tired of having a zebra in the house,” she joked.
Barlow-Irick teaches classes, has written books and maintains websites about her training experiences. For more information, visit magicmustangtamer.com and mustangcamp.org.
Barlow-Irick will assist in training the other mustangs to come out of Mesa Verde.