May 15, 2009

Touched by Providence: College program that helps save wild horses also changes human lives

After moving from California three years ago, Jennifer Steager has found a new path in life as a student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she has drawn closer to God and begun to live her dream as a horse owner by adopting a wild mustang named Indigo. (Photo by Lynn Hughes)

After moving from California three years ago, Jennifer Steager has found a new path in life as a student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she has drawn closer to God and begun to live her dream as a horse owner by adopting a wild mustang named Indigo. (Photo by Lynn Hughes)

By John Shaughnessy

SAINT MARY-OF-THE-WOODS—For most of her life, Jennifer Steager never imagined that the path to living her dream and drawing closer to God would lead her to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a wild mustang named Indigo.

Until three years ago, the 32-year-old Steager had lived in California, where she taught American history to junior high and high school students. Seeking a change in her life and her location, she moved to the Terre Haute area, where she hoped to find a new teaching job and an affordable place in the country so she could raise horses.

Yet, at the time, she didn’t know that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is located nearby, that it has one of the finest college equine programs in the country, or that the college is involved in a U.S. Bureau of Land Management effort to save wild mustangs.

As the Sisters of Providence are prone to say, Steager’s life journey is the kind that has been touched by Providence.

“I’ve talked to a couple sisters here,” Steager says with a smile as she stands in one of the horse barns on campus. “I told them I wish I had known about this place when I was in high school. They told me there’s a reason that I’m here now. I may have taken the long road, but I’m doing now what I’ve always dreamed of doing.”

Her dream is to teach and train horses for a living. And on this blustery, sun-streaked spring day, Steager has found the horse of her dreams, thanks to an adoption program involving wild mustangs—horses that have been described as “the living symbol of the pioneer spirit of America.”

The horse is named Indigo, one of eight mustangs that were brought to the college in March from Wyoming, Florida and Montana.

The eight horses were selectively gathered from public lands—administered by the Bureau of Land Management—where the mustang populations were overcrowded, according to Lynn Hughes, Saint Mary’s director of college relations.

When the mustangs first arrived at Saint Mary’s, they kicked, they wanted to jump over the gates of the pen, and some even had a tendency to bite. Steager remembers how scared Indigo was the first time she saw the horse.

“I couldn’t get in the pen with him,” she says. “I couldn’t touch him. Humans were scary to him.”

Yet after a week of working with Indigo, Steager began to notice a difference in the horse and herself.

“I just fell in love with him,” says Steager, who is also a medic in the Indiana Air National Guard. “He’s very smart, he’s very curious and he has a sense of humor. He’ll do silly things to get my attention. The neatest thing is that he trusts me. He comes looking for me. He wants to be touched. He wants to be loved.”

For six weeks, she cleaned his stall daily and fed him twice a day. She also trained Indigo at least five days a week in trotting, cantering and standing quietly while tied.

Training instructor Sara Schulz noticed the growing connection between Steager and Indigo. She marvels at the transformation that Indigo and the other horses have made during the training period. There’s an element of faith at work during the process, Schulz says.

“I look at a horse as one of those magnificent creatures that only God could create,” says Schulz, who has taught 13 years at Saint Mary’s. “The horses put their care and well-being in our hands.”

After the six weeks of training, Indigo and the seven other yearling mustangs were put up for adoption in late April. Biding began at $125, a fee set by the Bureau of Land Management.

Four of the mustangs were claimed by the family of John Webb, a horse owner who lives near the college. Three of the horses were for three of his grandchildren—Jake, Emily and Jia. In a touch of serendipity, Jia is adopted, just like her mustang, Sanchez.

“I’ve always had horses, but I’ve never adopted mustangs,” Webb says. “I always thought it would be cool. It’s something for the grandkids and me to do together. We’re building shelters and stalls for them.”

Webb’s daughter, Maggie Higgins, adds, “We just love the mustangs. Just the fact that they needed a good home and someone to love them, that’s what drew us to them.”

Steager felt the same way with Indigo. She placed a bid to adopt the horse she had trained. Then she sweated as she saw other people eye Indigo. In the end, her bid won.

“I’ve always been fascinated with mustangs,” she says. “Being a history teacher, I’ve always taught about them being an integral part of American history. I never thought I’d own one.”

That’s the path of Providence, the sisters at Saint Mary’s would say. Steager has learned to believe.

“It’s always been easier for me to find my faith and talk to God when I’ve been outside,” she says. “When I work with horses, I see God at work. The mustangs have been through hard times. They’ve survived for hundreds and hundreds of years. They’ve adapted and overcome.

“I see a lot of God’s patience and love in me trying to work with them, and also in what they return to me.” †

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