Everyone’s heard the starfish story—thousands of beached starfish in need of help and a boy throwing them into the sea, one at a time. “I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference,” says the man. And the boy, rescuing one more, says, “It made a difference to that one.”
That’s what 79-year-old Mona Jerome of Biddeford has been doing for half of her life with wild mustangs, rescuing one at a time.
“I saw my first wild horse in one of those old movies and just knew I was going to have one someday,” Jerome says. “With horse people, you really don’t know why you’re drawn to them; it’s something that’s in you.”
Jerome married, had four children and worked as a nurse. And when she was 40, her husband Brad bought her an extraordinary gift: a farm on 63 acres in Biddeford and a 6-year-old wild mustang named Owhyee Lady (after the Owhyee Desert in Nevada where she’d been born).
“I got my first wild horse, and it just lit a fire,” Jerome says. “We spent a great deal of time together, competing in 30-mile races, all over the country. I slept on trails where we pastured her and in the back of pickup trucks.”
Shortly after buying Owhyee Lady, Jerome and her husband heard about other horses that needed help. Some were surrendered by owners who could no longer care for them, while others were seized by humane societies to protect them against mistreatment. And then there were the mustangs.
“Mustangs are where my heart was,” Jerome says. “The perception in those days was that you couldn’t ever train a wild horse. And the government was giving them away for $120, like they had no value. We kept adding stalls, and pretty soon we filled our barn. And then we built another barn, and we filled that.”
For decades, Jerome volunteered to help the Bureau of Land Management with mustang adoptions in New England, participated in workshops and attended clinics with nationally known mustang trainers.
“There’s a great opportunity to learn from a mustang,” Jerome says. “They’re highly intelligent. These are the horses that pioneered our West and fought in our wars. They’re part of our American history.”
And yet, the government has more wild horses than it knows what to do with. “There are wonderful horses going to slaughter just because they don’t have a home,” Jerome says.
So, in 2002, she founded Ever After Mustang Rescue Training and Education Center in Biddeford, a state-licensed nonprofit that cares for dozens of horses, trains them and finds homes for a few per year. Ever After tries to intercept mustangs bound for slaughter in Canada, while another rescue center in Florida tries to take in those bound for slaughter in Mexico.
“We don’t get them all,” Jerome says. “Every day I feel like a failure because some slip through the cracks.”
But she reminds herself that she’s made a difference to every horse she’s saved—and that every one of them, especially Owhyee Lady, made a difference to her.
“I cried a lot of tears in her mane after I lost my husband,” Jerome says. “Your horse is your greatest friend, your confidant. They don’t tell any of your secrets.”
Brad passed away in 2012, followed by Owhyee Lady in 2014. As hard as those losses were, Mona has more work to do, training horses and finding them “ever after” families that she hopes will cherish them as much as she did Owhyee Lady. Some of the mustangs find new homes with owners who love horses, both for companionship and riding, and others are in-house adoptions and remain at Ever After with lifetime care.
“We’re very selective about where they go,” Jerome says. “They’ve been in a bad situation, and we’re darned sure not going to put them back into one.”
Like all nonprofits, Ever After depends on volunteers, donations and fundraising. They’re currently renewing efforts to raise $400,000 for a new barn yard—having raised one-quarter of the funds so far.
“We have a horse in every nook and cranny,” Jerome says. “We need space for vet treatments, for clinics and for promoting our programs.”
Taking care of a horse—a single horse—is a lot of work, and Ever After currently has 26. Volunteers are asked to dedicate at least four hours a week, and some help out five days a week. With this level of support, Jerome says that when she continues to work 30 to 40 hours a week it is “by choice.”
But, also by choice, Jerome no longer rides. “When you get to be my age, bones break easier,” she says. “So I’m not taking any chances. I picture myself galloping across a field, but I won’t. I love all the memories that I have.”
Staying healthy enables Jerome to keep doing what she’s most passionate about—rescuing and training wild horses and finding them homes, as well as mentoring her granddaughter, Lydia Boothby of Kennebunk, in how to eventually take the reins.
Lydia, 26, has been working alongside her grandmother caring for horses since she was 6. “She’s very well qualified to take over,” Jerome says, “and she already has a few times when I’ve needed to be away.”
For more information about Ever After Mustang Rescue Training and Education Center, including how you can get involved, go to www.mustangrescue.org.
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough.