Since he was a young boy, learning to ride horses and train them at his parents’ 100-acre horse farm in Accord, Michael Kefer had always dreamed of working with wild mustangs. “I first learned to ride horses when I was five years old, and when I was 14 I started training them,” says Kefer, who now, at 50, rescues and adopts out mustangs from his horse farm off Springtown Road in New Paltz.
Two years ago, Kefer had a successful fence-building business, mostly horse fencing. “I was booked out for two years,” he says. “But the pandemic hit, a good friend of mine died of cancer and another friend was diagnosed with cancer; and I started thinking that if I don’t do this [rescue and adopt out mustangs] now, I might never do it.”
So, Kefer sold his business, all of his equipment and vehicles and made sure he had just enough money in the bank to be able to board, feed and train the mustangs for five years. Just by looking at him astride his five-year-old rescued mustang Crow on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in the village of New Paltz, he seems to have made the perfect choice. Now the owner and operator of Black Crow Mustangs Farm – which also trains and boards horses, in addition to the wild mustangs – Kefer spends all day every day doing what he loves: working with and building relationships with the horses that he’s been able to procure from holding pens or slaughterhouses.
“Most of my horses come from Nevada,” he explains as he kindly talks to passersby on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail who want to pet Crow and find out what kind of horse he is and where he comes from. “I work with a lady in the BLM in Oklahoma.” The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a program where wild mustangs are adopted out to “good homes,” but sometimes those homes end up taking the horses to slaughterhouses for money.
“When I get them, they’re like a 1,000-pound deer on crack,” says Kefer with a laugh as he strokes Crow’s mane. “They’re wild animals and most of them have never seen a human being before — and if they have, it hasn’t been a good experience. They’ve been fighting for survival their entire lives, and so it takes a lot of patience and empathy and persistence in the beginning.”
Kefer has also worked with horses that had behavioral issues and were slated to be put down until he stepped in. What he does is to “walk into the field several times a day. I don’t look them in the eye; I just walk out to the field, turn around and walk back out.” He said he’ll do this several times in a row, in an effort to get the horse used to his presence and build its curiosity without alarming them. After coming in and out of the field several times over the first few days, he says, he’ll just “go out and stand still for ten minutes, or maybe an hour, until they approach me. Each horse is very different. Some will come up to me in a day and others it could take 30 days.”
Once they’re used to his presence, he’ll put the halter on them and begin to train them “on the ground.” “Everything I’m going to teach them to do, I want to do it on the ground first, so that I don’t get thrown. When I was younger, I would just jump on a horse and take the reins, and if I got bucked or thrown, I’d climb back on. Now? I’d need a hot tub and ibuprofen!”
Because these mustangs are wild, and have only been kept in holding pens by the BLM, they’re not used to any type of harness, stirrups or saddle. “I put the saddle on them and keep teaching them from the ground, because they need to get used to the feel of the saddle, the sound of the stirrups flapping, before I’m on there too.”
His approach requires a lot of time, patience and often the assistance of another trainer who will take the lead once Kefer gets on the horse, in case it gets jumpy. He uses reins, but no bits or spurs. His ropes are woven in a Mexican style that is regal. “I use pressure and release – that’s it.” He also has his horses in a set of gear that is handcrafted from a saddlemaker in Texas. “Their cinches and breast collars come from a lady in Texas. It’s mohair so that they can breathe and are comfortable.”
Before he adopts them out, he makes sure that he has moved them from the pen to the arena to the fields of his farm and the out to the River-to-Ridge Trail on the Flats in New Paltz. “That’s a great place to start getting them used to dogs and cyclists and joggers and groups of people without any danger,” he explains. “I walk them in circles, turn them around, calm them down until they’re used to it.”
His final step is the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail right in the heart of the Village of New Paltz. “If I adopt out a horse, it could be going to a family with kids or who have a dog or other horses. I need to make sure that they’re not going to freak out. So, it’s part of the training to take them on the Rail Trail every day.”
Crow, whom it took two days for Kefer even to approach, now soaks up the love he receives on the Rail Trail from walkers, runners, cyclists and families out for a stroll. “He could stand out here all day,” says Kefer with a laugh as people come and go, stroking Crow. “Each horse has its own temperament. I have some that are total athletes and could be or are in competition; and then I have Crow and another horse who are just so docile. I remember my grandfather saying that you haven’t lived until you have a 900-pound horse who wants to jump into your shirt pocket when they’re scared! That’s Crow. My horses trust me, and the hardest part is letting them go.”
To that end, Kefer makes sure that anyone interested in adopting out the horse spends time with him and the horse on several occasions. Then he’ll continue to work with them to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible.
Mustangs are iconic symbols of the Wild West that now have several modern problems. There is less land to survive off; there are people who want to profit from them and take them to slaughterhouses for a few hundred bucks; there are others who take the $1,000 BLM payment to house them and take care of them, only to maltreat and neglect them. What Kefer is doing is an act of love and devotion. “I’ve always dreamed of working with mustangs since I was a little boy, and I feel like this decision has not only helped me, because I love being with these horses day in and day out. It’s bringing me so much joy, but I know I’ve also saved their lives; and then there’s the person whose life is going to change for the better when they get the horse. It’s a labor of love.”
Currently Kefer has four mustangs and a total of 13 horses that he either owns or boards on his farm. His goal is to have enough resources and probably some more help in an effort to rescue and adopt out ten mustangs a year. To learn about how you can help save a life, one mustang at a time, go to his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/search/top?q=black%20crow%20mustangs or his Instagram at www.instagram.com/blackcrowmustangs.