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Mustangs on a Mission Hit the Trail

Sara Sanderson and Olivia Maxwell are a month into their horseback ride from Mexico to Canada. Here’s an update from the saddle.

Mustangs on a Mission, an epic six-month horseback ride from Mexico to Canada, was featured in the April 2017 issue of Successful Farming magazine (read article). The ride is the brainchild of Sara Sanderson, who was inspired by a 2015 documentary, Unbranded, about four men who took a similar journey to bring awareness to the plight of wild mustangs in the West.

Sanderson’s plan for Mustangs on a Mission was to use the ride and resulting documentary to share how horses, nature, and faith can help with physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. “God uses horses in a very unique way to help us find healing and joy,” she said in 2017. A route was mapped out, spanning 3,000 miles of public lands throughout the American West, crossing Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

Time to Ride

Since that article was written, some of the original riders scheduled for the trek had to change their plans, but Sanderson wouldn’t let any obstacle come between her and her dream. “Over the last two and a half years, there have been changes to the team and trails, questions on what we have gotten ourselves into, doubt, and a whole lot of toughening up,” Sanderson says.

On April 2, 2018, Sanderson and fellow rider Olivia Maxwell set out on their journey, along with eight horses and a truck and trailer driver. Seven of the horses are Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-branded mustangs, and the eighth is a domestic horse. Each mustang is from a different BLM Herd Management Area, most from Wyoming and Nevada. Six of the horses were borrowed from friends, and two belong to Sanderson.

Sanderson and Maxwell camp alongside their horses most nights, but some nights are spent on ranches, horse rescue facilities, or other locations where they’ve been offered lodging and facilities for the horses.

Sanderson and Maxwell are hosting several events along their route, where the public can meet the team, and, in some cases, share a meal, witness a first-touch demonstration with a wild mustang, and take a day ride. For a donation, attendees can even ride along with the team for a longer stretch.

The Mustangs on a Mission team has been on the trail for nearly a month now, riding well over 200 miles. On their longest day, they covered 26.4 miles in 12 hours.

Update from the Saddle

Sanderson answered these questions for Successful Farming magazine from the saddle in the Tonto National Forest at the Barnhardt Trailhead, just south of Payson, Arizona.

SF: What has surprised you most so far?
SS: So far, I have been most surprised by the diversity of the Arizona landscape! We’ve also been surprised at the number of people we've been able to meet out on the trail. Since sharing our stories and helping people learn about Christ is our mission, this surprise has been a wonderful one!

SF: Prior to the ride, you had a goal of raising enough money to film a documentary during the ride. Fundraising is a difficult thing to do. Since that goal wasn't met, are you able to go ahead with filming? If not, how have your plans changed?
SS: We had set a high goal to be able to film a documentary of the entire ride. The purpose behind wanting a documentary was to have a broader reach of people. Since we have not raised the funds needed to have a film crew with us at all times, Olivia and I are doing some of our own filming and working with supporters who are professional videographers and photographers to still document the ride. We will still create a short video following the completion of the ride with whatever footage we can get.

SF: How are you finding the physical aspect of riding so much? Did your training prepare you for the magnitude of the ride?
SS: We were in no way prepared for the magnitude of the ride physically, but thankfully our bodies have adapted quickly! I wanted to cry at the end of our first day, which was 14.5 miles, but a few weeks later we did 26 miles and I wasn't even sore the next day. One thing we do to try to help the horses and ourselves is get off and walk for a while throughout the day!

SF: What about the mental challenge? What do you and Olivia do while you’re riding to keep yourselves from getting bored?
SS: The mental challenge of this ride is much more difficult to deal with and face than the physical challenges. I like to push my body physically to be more in shape and to see just how strong I am, but honestly, I don't always enjoy mental challenges. I spend a good majority of my time sorting through logistics in my head, figuring out what needs to be done, and planning for the future. Olivia and I reminisce on childhood memories and compare differences of how we grew up. Sometimes Olivia will sing and, thankfully, she knows a ton about birds and plants so she’s always filling me in on what we are seeing.

SF: How do you spend your evenings and days off?
SS: Most of our evenings are spent preparing for the next day (packing saddle bags, getting water ready, finalizing route, etc), taking care of horses and eating! Days off are spent scouting out the next trailheads, taking naps, journaling, and sending out updates for social media and making phone calls. We also love playing cards, swimming in lakes (when we are fortunate enough to be by them), washing our hair, and meeting people in the local towns.

SF: How is Olivia holding up? She isn’t as experienced of a rider as you.
SS: Olivia is doing great! She had one slipup one day when she forgot to tighten her cinch, which resulted in a minor wreck and an awesome poem! (See the Mustangs on a Mission Facebook page to read her poem.) Otherwise, she is as tough as it gets and a really hard worker.

SF: Who’s driving your truck and trailer with the horses that aren’t being ridden at the time, and what are their days like?
SS: We had one driver take us from Texas to the Mexican border, and then on up to Apache Junction, Arizona, before he headed back home. We were then joined by another driver who will be with us until Flagstaff, where we’ll switch drivers again. We have a whole crew of people who have been helping us get our horses where we need to go. Depending on the day, our driver does have some downtime, so they've killed time listening to audiobooks or reading. For the most part, though, our drivers are extremely busy caring for the horses we don't have on the trail, finding hay and water, and meeting locals.

SF: Now that you’ve been on the trail for nearly a month, do you think your six-month time line is going to be do-able?
SS: Well, our route has changed significantly! Our overall goal is still Mexico to Canada but instead of so much packing and overnight trips, we have changed to where we meet up with the truck and trailer nearly every night. The reason we've changed this is because people want to see what the big trailer and all the horses are about, and we want to be there to meet them. We are still attempting 3,000 miles in six months, and I think we'll make it! (Immediately following this interview, Sanderson had to update the route again due to wildfires in Arizona.)

SF: What makes you the most nervous about what lies ahead?
SS: Personally, I am most nervous about money and logistics. The riding is challenging and forces us to do some problem solving at different times, but the donations are out of our control. We cannot do this without the support of other people.

SF: What excites you most about the rest of your ride?
SS: People! I am most excited about meeting people. We've met people from different countries, different walks of life, all with amazing stories that we get to hear! I'm also very excited to continue to see God's creativity as we ride through the majestic landscapes.

Follow the progress of Mustangs on a Mission or make a donation at mustangsonamission.com. You can also follow them and see photos from the trail on Facebook and Instagram.

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