"BEAUTY AWAKENS THE SOUL TO ACT." - Dante
Patricia Soffel and her husband, Michael, are the founders of Sweetbeau Horses, a non-profit organization that works to find homes for American wild horses that are captured in the Bureau of Land Management’s periodic roundups. The story of how they came to this worthwhile pursuit is compelling and I recently had the chance to visit them at their mustang sanctuary near the Central California coast to see the operation. During this visit, I was able to interview Patricia to learn more about their work, running a working ranch, and some of the well-known wild horses that have called this their temporary home until being adopted.
Maria: Thank you, Patricia, for making time this week to show me around the ranch and answer some of my questions about the work you and Michael are doing here. We’ve been talking for some time and I enjoyed coming here last year to photograph the liberty clinic you had. I’m such a fan of the work you are doing here, as the protection of the American mustangs is near and dear to my heart. Let’s start with a little bit of background… you started Sweetbeau in 2017. But what were you and Michael doing before that? How did you decide that you were going to start a non-profit organization - especially one that takes such time and dedication.
Patricia: First, thank you so much for your interest in and support of our mustang rescue and training program. We are so fortunate to have had your amazing wild horse photography work to help present our wild horses to the world.
To answer your question, we decided to start Sweetbeau Horses just months after we sold our software company. I was born with the equine gene, so horses have always been a treasure deep in my soul. After hearing about a sanctuary that, after 17 years, had essentially “collapsed under its own weight”, and that 907 horses were scheduled to be sold to kill buyers, I jumped in. With enough money and thousands of people eager to help, we were able to take the owner to court, secure the titles to the horses and adopt all that were healthy enough out to qualified homes.
Michael only raised his eyebrows when I informed him that we were taking 25 of the stallions ourselves. And he has eagerly become an amazing rancher, finding new skills that he never thought he would use in his wildest dreams. We went into action, found a ranch, trainer and completed facilities that were perfect for training wild mustangs. Our first herd of 25 were gelded prior to arrival, but they were quite the eclectic and wonderful group. We are so proud to say that ALL of them have forever homes. We never looked back after the first herd.
Maria: Can you tell us a little about the operation and what it takes to intake wild horses, care for them for a time, and then find them “forever homes”?
Patricia: We have strict criteria for selecting our horses from BLM facilities, including only taking in those at an acceptable age so they will train well and have plenty of years in their new homes. We need to take as much time as they need to recover from their trauma and learn to trust humans. It’s different with every horse, and although some are definitely difficult, most fall in love with the affection, kindness and patience they receive. We typically keep them between 18 months to 3 years.
Mustangs can’t be adopted until they have passed our “test”. Most of all, they must be SAFE. Before adoption, they are taken to the beach, have gone camping and have done liberty work to become well-adjusted to their domestic world. The anticipation of parting with a horse when they are adopted is the most difficult part. But when we are able to match the the right person to the horse, all concerns turn to joy. We still follow every horse that has come through our program to this day.
Maria: This is fascinating to me, because you are taking wild horses that have never been confined - have never been in captivity before - and preparing them to adapt to living with humans. I can only imagine a wild horse coming here, having just been taken from the area it has always lived, having survived the roundup, being penned, and transported to various locations. I’m sure the horses are scared and distrustful of humans, yet you are able to somehow earn their trust and gentle them. How does this process work?
Patricia: Every horse that leaves the holding pens takes with them some form of trauma from the aftermath of being chased from the sky, separated from their family and friends, forced into trucks and holding pens. They are put into metal hydraulic chutes to receive vaccinations, castration, neck tags, freeze brand and cutting of their hooves. It’s fully expected that they may show in behaviors of fear, anger or just mental absence.
Our program is unique in that it was created to immediately receive these horses into a soft, quiet and nurturing world. Our trainers and handlers have no time limits to live by, so they can give these horses a great deal of attention before we ever ask anything of them.
We look for them to show engagement and curiosity with our interactions and wait patiently for them to decide to participate on their own.
A great example of building trust was with Ghost. As you know from your time with him in the wild, his spirit was indomitable. He was exuberant, fearless, rebellious, and truly full of himself. When he first arrived, his anger and fear were overwhelming to those of us brave enough to step into a round pen with him. But, asking nothing of him, we simply stood with him for weeks until he was no longer concerned with our presence.
After several weeks more, we offered the tip of a long whip to touch, which set him off in fits of snorting as he charged around the pen, yet we stood quiet and calm. Several weeks of this led to him finally taking alfalfa out of a grain bowl, if we were far enough away. Eventually he would grab a handful from us and dash away. Each boundary that we were able to cross was because he knew he wouldn’t be forced to do anything. No roping, no chasing around the pen, no cornering him or baiting him into being captured in anyway. He finally gained trust.
I have learned from Ghost, that if you listen, the horse will tell you all you need to know. He knew we were listening and therefore we became worthy of his time and effort. He has shared his true personality with all of us at the ranch and is once again joyful, fearless, rebellious and truly full of himself. But now we can climb on his back, and he will carry us over the teeter totter and any other obstacle that he finds amusing.
I use him as the example because he took, by far, the longest to hold out on showing his desire for attention and affection. Others have been touched in just days and are ready to accept a halter in a week or two and end up accepting a saddle in just a week or two more.
Maria: So, the work with the mustangs is only one part of the operation - albeit the most important. But you also have the administrative part of the non-profit, such as public outreach, fostering awareness of the issues, and fundraising. What does this entail, and how do you fit it all in, as much time as just running the ranch takes? Maria and "Ghost"
Patricia: As it was in our software company, Michael and I make a great team. He describes me as the risk taker, big ideas and creative engine, while he is the organized, steady, “let’s get it done” implementer. This has transferred extremely well into the efficient running of our non-profit.
The heavy lifting in this endeavor is in educating the public on the true crisis facing the wild mustang. Extinction is not too strong of a word. I have found that 80% of people I talk to about the subject, even the horse lovers, are completely in the dark about the numbers of horses rounded up and what happens to them once they disappear from the wild. I find that people who learn the truth want to support the rescue of these horses, even if it is one horse at a time.
Our program has rescued 44 horses and adopted out 24. It doesn’t sound like many considering the thousands that are at risk each year, but every one we adopt out tells his own story and helps educate our communities to take a stand for their freedom.
"Bandero"with Maria, his sponsor, choosing trust over fear.
Maria: Thank you so much, Patricia, for what Sweetbeau is doing to care for and protect the American wild mustangs that unfortunately are rounded up. Although we’d all prefer that the mustangs stay wild and free, for those that aren’t able to, you are providing homes and care for them. I’m so grateful for all that you are doing. For those of my readers that are interested in helping or learning more, how can someone best help with this very important work at Sweetbeau?
Patricia: Thank you so much for all that you do too, Maria. Your images speak volumes about the magnificence of these wild horses and inspire a desire in everyone to protect these icons of our American heritage.
For anyone interested in helping us in our mission to take mustangs with no future and train them to be safe and joyful partners, we would love you to go to our Facebook page or website to learn more. We will tell you about our horses, we will tell you how to sponsor a horse, and how to easily donate to our work. Our loyal supporters have made it possible for us to do our best work, finding new homes for these amazing horses.
You can find us at:
Sweetbeau Horses is a 501(c)3 nonprofit is dedicated to saving, training, and adopting Wild American Mustang to qualified forever homes. I’m honored to support and partner with them to further their mission. To learn more about their adoption program and other programs they offer, visit their website.
All the best,
An equestrian for most of her life, award winning photographer Maria Marriott combines her passion for horses with her art and the desire to bring public awareness to the American wild horses. Maria Marriott Photography is a proud supporter of non-profit organizations that tirelessly work to ensure the well-being of the American mustangs.