Adopting a Wild Horse Was the Furthest Thing from Jim O’Connor’s Mind When He Moved from New England to the West Coast

Wild things.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Diane E. Barber
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

After Jim O’Connor graduated from college with a degree in music in 1993, he went on a two-month motorcycle-riding adventure across the country. Six years later, the California lifestyle lured him away from his management job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He relocated with his girlfriend, Diana, and freelanced in the film industry before landing a production job with Warner Bros. In 2002 they moved from Hollywood to Hermosa Beach to be close to the ocean.

South Bay living certainly agreed with the couple. They married, and Jim made a career change and pursued law enforcement. This eventually led to him teaching a justice program at El Camino College.

Jim and Diana welcomed their daughter, Shannon, in 2010. With new beginnings at the heart of Jim’s life, it is not surprising that his childhood love of horses awakened and brought another wonderful change his way.

“I rode horses when I was a kid in New Hampshire,” he shares. “Since then I have gone on occasional trail rides and spent some time on dude ranches. I always wanted a horse of my own, but the timing was never right.”

He incessantly watched famous cowboy horse trainers on YouTube. A couple of years ago he started following Monty Roberts, whose farm is in Solvang. “I signed up for the first clinic I could with him, which was called Gentling Wild Mustangs, in the spring of 2022,” he says.

Jim stayed at a nearby campground and attended the clinic for five days. Unbeknownst to him, his soon-to-be new horse was there. Zeus had been transported to Solvang the previous week from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse and burro holding facility in northern California—his home for six months after a BLM wild horse helicopter roundup in Nevada.

“Monty’s farm manager went to the Litchfield facility and videotaped horses that caught his eye for potential training and adoption consideration,” Jim says. “Monty reviewed the videos and selected four to be moved to his Flag Is Up Farms. Zeus was one of them.”

When Jim showed up at the event, he was looking forward to the experience with no intention of adopting a mustang. But when Zeus caught his attention, he was immediately awestruck.

“The first time I saw him was when he came into a training pen with a herdmate,” he recalls. “His buckskin color and the scars on his forehead were very distinctive as were his attitude and mannerisms. He looked like a horse version of a rock star!”

None of the horses had been handled by people after the trauma of being removed from their wild habitat other than being corralled into pens, passing through chutes, and loading on and off livestock transporters. The primary objective of the clinic was to successfully put a halter on them and have them willingly be led around. Much of the participants’ time was spent approaching the horses and backing away while gaining trust.

“By the second day, there was a running joke: ‘Jim is going to adopt that mustang!’ At the end of the clinic, I wanted to but didn’t know if it was possible,” Jim says. “I went home to think about it and discuss it with my family to be sure I was prepared to take him on.”

After a week passed, Jim decided to proceed with the adoption. His application was processed and approved by the BLM in July. Zeus remained in training with the Flag Is Up Farms team to prepare him for joining the O’Connor family. Jim commuted to Solvang every week to spend time with Zeus while he explored stabling options in the South Bay.

“I looked at a few places. When I walked around Peter Weber Equestrian Center (PWEC), I knew that was where we were supposed to be,” Jim says. Fortunately, a stall was going to be available in November—the same time frame that Zeus was going to be released to his new owner. After Zeus moved in, winter storms limited their riding activities and slowed the acclimation process of the mustang to his new home. However, with the guidance of trainer Sierra Wilkinson at PWEC, they have made great progress.

While fostering his daughter’s love of horses, Jim’s short-term goals with Zeus are to achieve more consistent Western-style riding and groundwork in the arena and enjoy the scenic trail riding on the Peninsula. As for long-term plans, his sights are set on competing in working equitation and preparing Shannon to also ride him one day.

With patience, perseverance, kindness and compassion at the end of the reins, Jim and his new equine friend are forging a life-changing partnership. Because of the fluctuating environmental, commercial and political impacts on America’s iconic wild horses, Zeus is no longer roaming free with his herd. But with the spirit of the Wild West living on in his heart, he is one of the lucky captured mustangs who found his way to his forever family.

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