Story By Melissa Slaven Warren
Photography By Kristin Goode

Ranger, a four-year-old Quarter pony, started life on a somewhat sour note when his owner let him waste away to skin and bones. In addition to his nutritional neglect, Ranger suffered from a severe ligament injury to his hind leg; it was never mended, which left him with a limp.

Enter the volunteers of the United States Equine Rescue League (USERL) and New Hanover Stables, who freed and fostered him. In April Ranger’s luck in life got even better. The USERL selected him as one of 10 rescue horses to compete in its first LOPE Rescues competition, a “makeover” event in which unwanted rescues are paired with a trainer who will transform them into wanted, adoptable horses.

Lauryn Zepeda was an obvious choice when she was invited by the USERL to participate as a trainer in the LOPE Rescues competition. She grew up on a small family farm in Bolivia, surrounded by horses her entire life. Last September Zepeda won a national training competition with her Mustang, Gringo, also a rescue, and was featured in Horse and Rider magazine. Her unique training method, using a clicker and positive reinforcement, caught the attention of the LOPE organizers, who invited her to become part of their rescue competition.

Though Zepeda has owned horses 25 of her 26 years, she was 19 before she started training horses. It wasn’t until she rescued Gringo that she really felt compelled to train. “Gringo was very head shy, and I realized that traditional methods of training weren’t working,” says Zepeda. That’s when she first tried clicker training for positive reinforcement, and since then it’s the only method she uses.

Zepeda uses a tool that makes a clicking sound to indicate a desired behavior so that she can add a cue. The horse will remember it and repeat it, and then he gets rewarded. The clicker method is all about creating confidence between horse and trainer and is more positive than using a rope to control the horse. “Positive reinforcement, as I define it, means to seek out a horse’s strengths, reward the attempts and give him or her a choice to get paid for doing a good job,” explains Zepeda.

A trailblazer, she is self-taught in the clicker-training method.

“Clicker training in the equine world isn’t that common,” she says. Zepeda began researching the clicker technique used mostly with marine mammals at SeaWorld. She adapted the clicker to equine work, starting with a cue for the word “yes.” In the last six years she has taken her method from head training to having her horses perform activities like sitting or lying down, kicking a ball or performing other tricks. The liberation and freedom the horse feels make him want to participate with his trainer, which is a big part of the LOPE mission.

LOPE stands for Liberty Obstacle Pattern Event, and it fits perfectly with Zepeda’s personal philosophy of liberty training, which she describes like this: “90 percent of the time when you interact with the horse it’s not wearing a halter or tack. The horse isn’t restrained in any form and has the freedom to choose whether or not to participate with you and the things that are being asked of him.”

LOPE has partnered with the United States Equine Rescue League (southeastern North Carolina chapter) to create the first ever LOPE Rescues competition. In April, 10 rescued horses were partnered with 10 trainers randomly (the trainers drew the horses’ names) to embark on an eight-month transformation from unwanted to wanted equine partner. The horses come from a variety of situations — some with trust issues or permanent injuries. Zepeda explains there are other trainers who have super healthy horses, but they’re fighting with trust issues. “I got lucky with Ranger,” she says. “He has no trust issues, just his leg injury. He’s been great to work with.”

Trainers have eight months to nurture and develop their rescues and show them at LOPE events throughout the training period. The competition consists of two divisions — In-Hand and Riding with five teams in each division. Ranger and Zepeda will take part in the In-Hand division. The winner of each LOPE Rescues division will receive $1,000, donated by Cape Fear Saddlery.

The program showcases different skill levels of the horses and different training methods by the trainers. Zepeda is the only clicker trainer in the competition. “Though you will see me focus only on clicker and positive training, there are so many effective techniques and every individual should embrace whatever method is most fulfilling in their effort to communicate with their equine partner in a respectful and moral manner,” Zepeda says.

Leading up to the final competition in November are a series of event competitions that each trainer is encouraged to participate in to give their horse experience and exposure to potential adoptees. Ranger participated in his first show in May and placed third in Liberty, not only against other rescues, but also the regular, showing population.

The final competition marks the end of the eight-month project, at which time the LOPE Rescues horses will be available for adoption to qualified, pre-approved homes. Trainers have the first option to adopt their horse if they choose. LOPE will post the list of adoptable horses in early July. Zepeda is still deciding about adopting Ranger. As imaginable, she’s grown quite attached to him. “Ranger is so smart and he doesn’t need that much time put in,” she says. “What really appeals to me about Ranger is that he represents something more than himself. He’s not just a horse.”

Zepeda still has time to decide and right now she’s focused on Ranger’s continued progress and is excited to be a part of LOPE Rescues as it allows her to grow and challenge herself personally. “Before this experience, if you were to show me a horse in Ranger’s condition, I would have underestimated his ability to overcome it, and underestimated his potential,” says Zepeda. “It’s really opened my eyes and in the future, I won’t judge a horse as harshly just because he happens to come with some baggage.”

Signing up as a trainer for the LOPE Rescues competition essentially means becoming a foster for that horse. Though Triple Crown donates the grain, each trainer is financially responsible for the hay, boarding, show fees, and diesel and trailering expenses of their equine partner.

“Everything comes from our own pocket; we’re not getting paid to be involved,” Zepeda says.

Holt Oil Company is holding a fundraiser for Zepeda and Ranger at its Middle River CStore/Subway on Ocean Highway in Bolivia on Saturday, September 20. Twenty percent of all Subway sales all day will go to the cause, and Zepeda and Ranger will be there from 1 to 4 pm, showing off their tricks and providing photo ops with Ranger.

Side-by-Side K-12 Consulting is sponsoring her show fees, but any type of help is a relief. LOPE receives no funding and exists solely on adoption fees, contributions and donations of equine industry professionals, retailers and individual horse lovers. To help support Ranger on his eight-month transformation, visit Zepeda and Ranger’s website at: .