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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Emmalee Rich, 2-year-old, pets a burro at the 12th annual Wild Horse and Burro Festival in South Jordan Friday.

SOUTH JORDAN — Tim Ruflin looked speculative as he stared into the eyes of No. 6701.

The sorrel filly looked back at him, and then turned her hindquarters for a firm scratch.

"I'm really liking her," he said with a sigh, chewing on all the possibilities that could come with an equine companion.

Ruflin, at 28 and sporting a cane because of a leg injury, beat the crowds Friday afternoon at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center, 2100 W. 11400 South, to check out the 12th annual Wild Horse and Burro Festival put on by the Bureau of Land Management.

The two-day event, which started Friday and continues at 9 a.m. Saturday, is offering 20 horses and burros for adoption and also features a variety of competitions in which the once-wild mustangs demonstrate skills honed through domestication.

A traumatic brain injury has left Ruflin with a bum leg — a disability he says is erased when he's on the back of a horse.

"For me a horse is my legs. It is how I get in the mountains. It's just peaceful. I'd rather be on a horse than on a treadmill or in some physical therapist's office."

To that end, the business major at Westminster College is hoping to form a nonprofit organization this summer to arrange equestrian outings for people with disabilities or victims of rape or abuse.

"That bond you build, that trust you have with a horse is amazing," he said, pointing to the mustangs in the pen, "and these are really good on trails."

Not long afterward, Debra Manning from Central Valley, Calif., ambled over with her flashy bay, Kennis Wildflower (Kennis is Gaelic for beautiful).

Manning, who was there to show the mare in the driving competition, adopted the mustang in 2006 on her birthday as a gift to herself.

"If a 63-year-old can get a mustang, anyone can. I've never had a horse trust me as much as this one. She can be lying down and I can just go and sit with her and she doesn't mind."

Of course, there were a few bumpy moments in the early stages of their relationship such as when Manning's newly acquired horse wouldn't budge from the trailer after they arrived home.

"She stayed in that trailer for 90 minutes. I finally started singing 'Michael, Row Your Boat A-shore,' " an African-American spiritual first noted during the Civil War.

"Now she loves it when I sing to her. I'd give up a lot of things before I'd give up her," Manning said.

The festival continues Saturday with a grand entry by Aces Wild, a local group of riders aboard mustangs adopted from the BLM.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com