Amelia Peters — South Pomfret’s own wild horse whisperer

  When young Amelia Peters adopted the first of the five wild mustangs now under her loving care and watchful eye, it offered what could prove to be the learning experience of a lifetime.

Together with her older sister, Endine, Amelia – then just 12 – was being homeschooled in the fall of 2020 by her mother, Cathy Peters, and father, John Peters Jr., during the pandemic shutdown at Woodstock Union High School/Middle School. An enthusiastic and accomplished horseback rider since she was a small child, Amelia had begun competing in regional equine eventing competitions earlier in 2020, contending in the dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country competitions that are part of the three-part equestrian eventing discipline, first on one of the family’s quarter horses and then on a thoroughbred.

But following a series of conversations with her parents, Amelia soon opted for a different type of horse to raise, train, and potentially compete with in eventing — the wild mustang, technically a feral animal, adopted through the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and its wild horse and burro management program. The BLM manages and protects the wild horses and burros on nearly 27 million acres of land across 10 Western states.

“You need a pretty agile horse for those three eventing disciplines,” Cathy Peters told a visitor to the family’s Runamuck Farm in South Pomfret as she gazed appreciatively at her daughter and the five wild mustangs now under the teenager’s expert tutelage in a dedicated paddock. “We had domestic quarter horses, but they are not big on the jumping part. [Amelia] rode some of them for a while, but she didn’t have a lot of good luck with that. She ended up on a thoroughbred, which was okay, except the horse was older than we would have liked and nervous. We knew we needed something else for Amelia — and nothing that we ended up exploring was really right or it was way out of our budget. I had wanted a mustang since I was a kid — and so we talked about maybe trying that. Amelia knew somebody whose daughters do eventing and they bought a mustang that was really good with kids, wasn’t very big, liked doing everything, and, as is the case with mustangs, was pretty inexpensive.”

The brown mustang, a yearling named Chess, was the first wild horse in Amelia Peters’ soon-to-expand herd of mustangs. Amelia adopted Chess through the BLM and the family ventured off to a holding facility in Wisconsin to pick the horse up and transport him back to Vermont. But because the mustang was so young, Amelia couldn’t ride him in competition. That’s when the nimble young equestrian found out about events called Extreme Mustang Makeovers — competitions involving adult and youth riders who’ve adopted or purchased a wild mustang, spent no more than six months domesticating and training the horse, and then working with the animal in the competitive arena, performing a range of handling exercises, riding tasks, and tricks. Adopted from a facility in Ohio, a gray mustang named Lucifer was the second wild horse in the South Pomfret teen’s burgeoning herd. “He is so smart and so sweet, so cute and mellow, not at all like his name,” Cathy Peters joked about Lucifer, dubbing him her daughter’s “favorite horse.”

The term “horse whisperer,” popularized by a 1995 novel by Nicholas Evans adapted for the screen by director/actor Robert Redford in a 1998 film of the same name, is frequently used to describe a trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of a horse, based on modern equine psychology. Sagacious, articulate, self-motivated, and mature well beyond her 14 years of age, Amelia Peters is an exemplary whisperer. The first step in bonding with and training a wild mustang entails simply having the horse allow itself to be approached and touched by its handler. The challenge of “gentling” the horse comes next — a much more holistic, empathetic name for what those uninitiated to the equine world might think of as “breaking” the animal for riding, labor, or other endeavors. While grooming another of her five charges, six-year-old Sierra — the latest addition to Amelia’s corral — the teen spoke enthusiastically, with first-hand, seemingly intuitive knowledge, about the process of gentling a largely feral horse.

“It depends on the horse. Foxy, (a tall, red, one-year-old mustang), and Lucifer were both pretty easy,” Amelia offered. “Foxy was super people-oriented from the start, so I didn’t really have to get her used to being around me. She initiated touch — I didn’t have to teach her that it was okay for me to be in the corral with her or to be touching her. Lucifer was more reserved, so I had to approach him instead of the other way around. He wasn’t skittish, but he was almost shut down. They don’t really acknowledge what is happening,” Amelia added, calling attention to a behavior wild horse trainers see frequently. “Some horses just tune out, so I was able to touch him all over on the first day, but he wasn’t really there for me. He was still afraid — he just didn’t show it in a big way. He didn’t run away or anything, but he wasn’t really engaged.

“You have to work to open them up and find out what their personality is for training to really take hold,” Amelia continued. “Lucifer was a little bit like Foxy in a way, in that he would touch me and take food from me, but anytime I would try to approach or touch him, he would just take off. And then there was Atlas. He would come and investigate me — he’d touch me and take food from me. But any time I would try to touch or approach him, he would just take off. So I got him used to being touched from a distance with a long whip or a stick — obviously not hitting him with it — just to get him accustomed to it with my being a little further away. Once I could touch him and he realized I wasn’t going to eat him, he was fine,” she added with a hint of laughter.

Amelia Peters adheres to a training philosophy known in the horse world as R-Plus – “positive reinforcement training,” as she describes it. It’s similar in technique to the training used with dolphins, who also have a propensity to shut down cognitively and emotionally, rather than engage in actual training, instruction, and learning. “It’s behavior and reward — when they give you a behavior you want, you give them a reward for it. When horses are afraid, a lot of them will just freeze — their eyes may be glazed over, they’re not blinking, their lips may be tight. They’re just standing there, thinking if they do [disengage] everything will be okay. And when you let them go, they take off, having not really learned anything,” Amelia explained. Sierra, it turned out, had received some training earlier in her life from a trainer who did not use techniques similar to those of Amelia and, though the Peterses take pains not to criticize the earlier trainer, they do note that Amelia has essentially had to “reprogram” the older horse to train it by her hand. “She has taken longer to train and proceeds more slowly than the others,” Amelia says of Sierra.

What is it that Amelia Peters loves most about her horse whispering ways and the beloved mustangs in her charge? “They’re a blank slate,” she commented. “When you buy a horse that is already trained, it may be easier in the beginning, because they already know stuff,” she added. “But eventually you find out the holes in their training where they haven’t fully finished a behavior or it may be that something was not necessarily taught wrong, but just not in the way that you would have wanted to teach it. Regarding a horse that hasn’t been trained, they will learn a behavior quickly if they haven’t already been taught in a previous way. They’re just an open canvas for teaching all kinds of things.”

Citing the mustang’s wild roots as a plus and not a minus in many instances, Amelia added, “They’re usually pretty sure-footed, so they know where they are placing their feet, and they’re usually built pretty well. They have to be to survive in the wild. Natural selection will pick the ones that are the best fit for the environment in which they are supposed to live.”

Remember that inaugural Extreme Mustang Makeover event that Amelia and Lucifer entered in the fall of last year, several months after the gray mustang first came under the compassionate care of the South Pomfret teen? Amelia finished in second place in the youth division in her first effort at competing on the makeover mustang circuit. Because of ongoing pandemic restrictions, the event was held virtually, with competitors taping their performances and then submitting them to competition organizers in New Jersey. “She did all of her patterns [with Lucifer] and it was raining all week, so we had to use the indoor facility at Highland Farm [in Royalton] for the videotaping,” Cathy Peters recollected. “But it worked out pretty well. Lucifer wore a costume with devil’s ears and he did all these tricks and [Amelia] came in second [out of ten competitors] on the first wild mustang she had trained entirely by herself.”

In addition to the copious work she does with her own mustangs — and all the time it takes out of each day for continued homeschooling with her mom, including math and science studies with difficulty levels well above those customary for a first-year high school student — Amelia Peters further fuels her passion for all things equine by working part-time at Highland Farm in South Royalton and at Skyline Dressage, acclaimed equestrian Susan Armstrong’s training facility in North Pomfret. Theres she acquires additional dressage training in the summer and takes on jobs riding other people’s horses, exercising them as needed. She also volunteers with the Rising Action Mustang Society (RAMS) in New Haven, Vt., where she does manual labor such as mucking and trains some of the RAMS mustangs.

Assertive, independent, and insightful, Amelia Peters regards her training, adoption, and animal husbandry operations as separate from her parents’ work as second-generation Vermont farmers. She’s even dubbed her efforts with their own monikers: Honeydew Mustangs (or HD Stangs for short) for her equine activities and Honeydew Goats for her caretaking of her family’s goat herd, which she also tends. It’s still early — Amelia will not turn 15 until November — but it’s highly likely a career working with horses is in the motivated teen’s future, whether as a veterinarian, farrier, or farmer. Cathy Peters speculates as much.

“The jobs don’t pay very well,” Amelia’s mom said. “It’s hard work and it usually doesn’t come with health insurance. So the question becomes does she want to go to school and get a job that pays well so she can support her habit or not get paid and just live a life kind of like ours, where when you are a farmer everything pretty much goes back into the farm. But you like farming, so you keep doing it anyway. She talks about what she wants to do, but she’s only in ninth grade, so she’s got plenty of time.”

As Cathy Peters headed off to help with autumn harvest activities at Moore’s Orchards in North Pomfret, which is owned and operated by her mother, Emily Grube, she was complimented on the two highly eclectic and engaged young women she and John have raised on their family homestead. Amelia’s older sister, Endine, who graduated from WUHS/MS in June, is an accomplished sculptor whose works have been exhibited at Artistree. She also teaches welding and has strong interests in building and construction.

“We’ve just fostered their ideas and allowed them to do their fun things, which is good because it’s one of those things that maybe a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to be able to do,” Cathy Peters said of her two daughters. I guess that’s good parenting, but we’re some pretty unique people ourselves. I’m pretty bland and plain, but the two of them are pretty fun.”

Looking back at the corral where all five mustangs were huddled around Amelia as she continued to care for them on Sunday afternoon, Cathy Peters concluded, “See — they all love her because they know that she’s doing fun things and they want to be a part of it.”