Constable: Maple Park rescue brings in Wheeling horse whisperer to tame Prince the Bully
"That's amazing," gasps Sue Balla, founder of Casey's Safe Haven, a holistic horse rescue and sanctuary in Maple Park where Prince arrived on Jan. 31.
"I've been with horses for 45 years," says Balla, who has worked with fiery stallions. "But I never had to deal with a vicious horse. And he was vicious."
Balla, 63, had heard stories of how the horse hated both humans and other horses, and she watched the video of Prince violently attacking a woman. But she still agreed to house the horse temporarily at her stables.
"He had an hour to live," Balla says. "They were putting him down."
Prince was in his new stall with the door open just a bit and the stall guard in place as Balla calmly told the horse he was in a safe place. There was no warning.
"He dove at me, bit me in the chest and flipped me over backward," says Balla, who got a huge lump and nasty bruise that would have been worse if not for her two sweatshirts and thick down coat. "Had I not been able to roll over and get the door shut, I don't think I'd be standing here."
Too dangerous to pass along to new owners, Prince was given a second chance at Casey's, as Balla didn't blame the horse for his aggression.
"He had no reason to like people. He lived in a box for 10 years," Balla says. She figures Prince, a beautiful, 10-year-old Andalusian-cross stallion with three white socks and a black coat, was taken out of his stall only to breed and never learned how to interact with other horses or humans.
"The first time he saw his shadow in the sunshine, he freaked out. He'd never been outside," remembers Nancy Young, treasurer for the horse charity.
"He walked like a drunk," Balla says. "He had no muscle, no coordination."
With his potential new owners abandoning him, Prince's fate was in Balla's hands. She decided to bring in Bornstein, a legendary horse trainer who wrote the book "Last Chance Mustang," about his successful and lasting relationship with a wild horse from Nevada that ended up in McHenry County.
Bornstein, who grew up in Highland Park but rode horses in the Northwest suburbs whenever he could, is a legal consultant who passed the bar but developed a livelihood training horses.
Bornstein started working with Prince in May and has made remarkable progress in more than five dozen sessions. But Prince did attack him three times in the beginning.
"It's literally like a train hits you," Bornstein says of the first attack when Prince bit him. "He gets you and pulls you back so you whiplash."
Bornstein waited until his shoulder healed considerably before posting a photo of the bite and bruising on Facebook. "The attack was immediately addressed -- not with violence, but with work," Bornstein says, explaining how the horse didn't know any other way to respond.
"His first inclination was violence," says Bornstein, who dodged Prince's most dangerous attack.
"He kicked at my face. He plays for keeps."
A fit 5 feet, 10 inches and 175 pounds, the 50-year-old trainer now works the 1,200-pound Prince with relative grace. "I think we get each other," Bornstein says, while gently petting Prince's nose and face. "It's not fear. It's respect."
The trainer can leave Prince "ground tied," meaning the 30-foot rope attached to the horse's halter isn't attached to a post but just lying in the dirt of the stable. In his previous life, Prince often had his feet chained together so he couldn't flee. Now, Prince and Bornstein have an agreement.
"He knows he can walk away," Bornstein says. "But he also knows I want him to stay."
He can make Prince walk backward with a simple movement of his hand. Prince is a smart horse and often gets bored with the tedious nature of training, so Bornstein can focus on several skills in a single session, all working toward the goal of making the horse a peaceful companion.
"The amount of times I've had my heart in my throat," Balla says, as Bornstein gently lifts and cleans each hoof. "What this man has done is flipping amazing."
Of the 25 horses currently at Casey's, most are waiting for new owners to step forward, but some are permanent sanctuary residents, such as Poppy the horse and Ginger the pony, who are both blind. Candy, a 41-year-old pony, has outlived all expectations and is still healthy. Rio, Balla's 28-year-old gelding, has the stall next to Prince, who was gelded in December, and Balla is hoping her old horse's mellow personality rubs off on Prince.
On Saturday, Sept. 26, Casey's is opening its doors for tours and the chance to meet Prince and Borstein. Tickets, which must be purchased by Sept. 22, are $30 and include a "goody bag," but only 40 people will be allowed in each time slot of 9:30-11, noon-1:30 p.m. and 2:30-4 p.m. Visit caseyssafehaven.org to make reservations and buy tickets.
As much as she has grown to love Prince, Balla says her hope is that Prince will one day be so well-behaved that he can find a "forever home." Is he just about ready?
"No," says Bornstein, who rewards Prince with an apple before letting him roam freely in a nearby corral. "But he's trying super hard."