Middendorfs find mustangs in North Dakota Badlands

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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The Middendorf family brought home the mustangs to enjoy them, and the horses have been both fun and a challenge. Pictured above are (from left): Brianna, Tami, “Blaze,” Emily, Erica, Joanna, Gary and “Sheila.” Not pictured are Kayla, a student at MSU – Moorhead, and Darrin, a senior at Sauk Centre.

Gary and Joanna Middendorf describe themselves as just typical dairy farmers. They are raising their family on the farm where Gary grew up near Sauk Centre.

Joanna grew up with horses, riding them a lot as a child. So when a milk hauler told them about a sale in Dickinson, N.D. in October 2009, that piqued their interest. They did some research online and decided to check it out.

A photographer and horse enthusiast, Marylu Weber, had posted the whole back story of some mustangs on the Internet. The parentage of each horse is shown, as well as the date each was born, along with many photos.

Weber started the North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry so the heritage of the wild horses would not be lost.

At Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the Middendorfs bought five wild mustangs. “We thought it would be fun for the kids,” said Joanna. “We wanted to get young horses because we thought we would have a better chance of handling them and training them.”

The horses they chose were already named: Sheila, Medora, Ellison, Rue and Little Mo. A palomino named Star Light also calls the farm home.

The horse that put up the biggest fight was Sheila. “We had to lasso her to get a halter on her,” Gary said. “She was always in a back corner and really shy. She was more stubborn than the other four and held out the longest.”

This spring, four of the mustangs as well as the palomino had foals. One was a month early and was stillborn and another died at four days old, but the other three are thriving.

“After Sheila had the colt, that settled her down,” said Gary.

The Middendorfs took their horses to an Amish farmer for about three to four weeks to be broken. A couple are pretty well broken for harness.

“Some just have a calmer disposition,” Gary said. “Three weeks after Sheila went to the Amish, we got a call that she was doing very well.”

All the mustangs are now back at home while the palomino is with the Amish. Two of the mustangs are completely broken.

“The Amish harness the horse being broken with an older horse, and the younger one learns the commands that way,” said Gary.

The Middendorfs also called a neighbor who works with horses and received some good advice.

“He got further in half an hour than I had in two weeks,” Gary said. “He gave me some good tips to do that, too.”

“Horses need time every day,” said Joanna. “We’d read that mustangs were ‘attachable,’ that they would come right over to us to be petted and be fed hay, and they have.”

“Sheila gets along well with Darrin; they have a better connection,” said Gary. “Now, since the foal, she is as calm as the others.”

“We just want to enjoy them,” said Joanna. “The kids just love spending time with the horses, and they really love the babies. They have done a little riding this summer and enjoy putting halters on the babies and taking them for walks.”

Joanna grew up on a farm near Grey Eagle. After she and Gary got engaged, Gary’s parents started looking for a house in Sauk Centre.

“By the time we got back from our honeymoon (in May 1992) they were moved into a house in town and we had this house to ourselves,” Gary said. “Dad still comes out every day.”

Gary had worked for a neighboring dairy farmer for 11 months during high school when the farmer had health issues. “It taught me to be more responsible; I had to get up to do chores before school,” he said.

In the years since Gary and Joanna took over the farm, they have added to and remodeled the barn, put up a new silo, built a heifer barn, a calf barn and a hay shed. They also put in a manure pit.

Twice they bought land and now have a total of 300 acres. They milk about 90 head most of the time, and raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa for hay and oats.

“Being a farmer — I like the independence,” said Gary. “And kids on a farm have jobs and learn a good work ethic.”

“I like being our own boss on a nice place to raise a family,” Joanna said.

“We have nice wide open space to run around,” said Erica, “and to have friends over.”