Rescue center in Webster transforms wild horses into trusting companions.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
Diane Delano has a huge heart for the majesty of wild horses she freely welcomes to her ranch in Webster, the Wild Horse Rescue Center (WHRC).
It’s especially true when the sounds of their joyous neighs and thunderous galloping hooves are replaced by scared yelps and panicked outbursts brought on by neglect, abuse or failed attempts to tame the animals.
“Mustangs are very spiritual, very beautiful animals and I want people to see that,” Diane says. “Mustangs belong in the wild as North American wildlife as they originated in North America, but when taken from it, they deserve to be treated with respect, loved and cared for with dignity.”
The wild mustangs come to the WHRC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to their welfare, rescue and preservation.
Diane, founder and operator of the center, says some of the horses come to the WHRC scared of people, very thin and neglected, or in need of a safe place for a new start after being deemed untrainable.
“It’s so important to rehabilitate the mustangs, not just so they are physically healthy but emotionally healthy, too,” Diane says, explaining that it’s partially the fault of adoption programs facilitated by the United States’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have made Wild Mustangs a hard-to-pass-up bargain.
“Sadly, people who cannot afford one horse elsewhere will buy four horses, since they are only $25 each,” Diane says.
Once purchased, new owners discover that caring for the wild mustangs is not as easy as they thought it would be. Additionally, it takes about $200 per month in hay and grain to feed one horse, so with those things in mind, many people sell, give the horses up or worse – they forget about them.
Diane picks up the pieces and turns their lives around.
“If you gentle one up to trust you, I can say that the Mustang horse will give you his heart,” she says.
The history of wild mustangs in the U.S. dates back to the 1800s when millions of them roamed free. Today, there are nearly 70,000 wild horses still roaming public lands, but they are protected by the Wild-Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The BLM has to protect the public lands, so it has taken to controlling the population of wild horses through roundups and private adoptions as a way of relocating them.
Sometimes people who adopt them cannot properly gentle and train them, or they go about it too aggressively. In turn, the mustang can become afraid and so wild that no one can touch, catch or handle it. They can also become reclusive, depressed, fearful and even physically sick from stress.
Just take Mr. Hollywood, a now very healthy 6-year-old mustang who sits with confidence at the WHRC. He will be featured at an art show spanning the entire month of October at the Ginsburg Gallery at Advent Health Orlando by Elie Wolf, a local wildlife photographer, who befriended him after visiting the center.
But Hollywood was afraid of being touched when he arrived. He didn’t want anyone on his right side, was difficult to halter and was head, neck and poll shy. And he would not allow anyone to brush him. He would not touch or take anything from a person’s hand.
Diane said the person who had Hollywood for more than a year adopted him wild; however, being that he was the first mustang she’d ever handled, it didn’t work out. Hollywood was being cared for physically, but the woman was not happy with the way he was still not trusting her and put him up for sale.
Diane acquired Hollywood, and with a clearer understanding of how wild horses think, started him on music therapy, used equine massages, reiki, craniosacral therapy and natural horsemanship methods to ease his fears.
Diane says it was all to help him become knowledgeable and brave and confident, as well as to be healthy in mind and spirit.
“One day Hollywood will make a great riding horse. He may even stay at the center and be one of ours,” Diane says. “He’s a whole new horse.”
Then there’s Awana. She, with two other mustangs, were sold (for $75) to a person in Jacksonville. All three were malnourished and completely fearful of humans. It has taken over a year to gain her trust and get her gentled, but Diane is confident that she too, will make a nice riding horse.
And Phoenix, a 3-year-old, was rounded up from Nevada and sold for $25 in Ocala in January. The people who bought him had him for six months. In June, he came to the center afraid, totally wild and terribly underweight to the point that his back and hip bones were showing, and you could count all his ribs.
Diane says today, “Phoenix is learning to trust and accept being handled. It’s like all of the sudden you have this horse that was so afraid wanting to interact and it’s wonderful. It’s extremely heartfelt working with these animals.”
At her center, Diane has about 31 mustangs, 11 other types of horse breeds like Tarpans, Quarter Horses, Paso Fino, Tennessee walkers and mini horses, plus three burros (or donkeys).
Diane also has 15 mustangs that could not be gentled that live free and wild on their own private sanctuary-type setting on a friend’s 600 acres of hay and cattle fields just eight miles away.
But that’s not all. Diane runs an international volunteering program where people age 18-80 from around the world stay at the ranch to learn how to gentle and train American Mustangs and help with daily care of the center and other animals there.
Proceeds from what the volunteers pay for lodging helps keep the ranch afloat and the animals fed and taken care of, though the coronavirus pandemic has put the program on hold. The center is primarily funded by donations from the public and seasonal events.
Historically, Diane says she’s been around horses since she was about three, but she did not become hooked on Mustangs until 1975 when she saw her first tame giant.
She started working with mustangs in 1989. As her love and appreciation grew, she started to help mentor people about caring for them. In 2001, Diane took in her first rescue, starting first on 2.5 acres in Mims, which grew to 39.8 acres. In September 2019, she moved to 42 acres she owns in Webster.
“I love working with the mustangs and they’re just like potato chips, you can’t have just one,” Diane says.
In September, Diane celebrated one year in Webster with a two-day open house for the community. At that time, Diane debuted her recently built educational center people can visit. It will include a museum about American wild horses, which will include maps showing Herd Management Areas in 10 western states where wild horses live. She said the museum will also include a lifetime collection of books and pictures featuring WHRC mustangs, along with information about which ones are available for adoption or in need of sponsorship.
Additionally, the museum is a home-base for a reading program called Horse Tales, featuring Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books; a program donated to her by the owner of Arabian Nights when it closed in 2015. Diane says the program encourages children to read, plus they actually get to meet a couple of the characters in the books – Little Black and Big Red – who live there.
Future plans include a resale store with horse tack and items for sale, tractor equipment, barn fencing for wild horses, and a riding arena. She’s also looking to build some little cabins on site for people to rent for a unique Airbnb experience, and she’s always looking for volunteers to visit or help with the animals.
Diane says whatever people visit for, it’s wonderful to see them fall in love with the mustangs time and time again.
“It is truly a life-changing experience for some. They come here to help the horses but in turn the horses really help them,” Diane says.
Diane has also come a long way. Today, it seems even the wildest of horses is no match for her magical, gentling ways.
“I use what I call pat-butt therapy, because when I can gently pat their bottoms like a baby and they don’t flinch or get afraid, I know they are completely tame and that I’m getting trust,” Diane says, adding that if anyone would like to contribute to the upkeep of a horse, the expansion of the rescue center or the museum build-out, donations are always welcome in her life’s mission.
“I have a will; I’ll find a way. Mustangs are our living heritage. They helped the West become what it is,” Diane says.
For more information about the Wild Horse Rescue Center, to book a tour or to donate, visit wildhorserescuecenter.org or call 321-427-1523.