It’s nice to see when mainstream media turns its attention to our world. James Card of the New York Times wrote the following article:
On the brown dirt floor of Tennessee Miller Coliseum, Dale Lively covered the eyes of his mustang by wrapping a cloth around its head, then rode it toward a small wooden bridge.
Named El Cuatro, the sorrel gelding was born three years ago on the high plains of Stewart Creek, Wyo. El Cuatro grew up wild, avoiding mountain lions and bears. Until 100 days earlier, the only human contact he had was being rounded up by rangers from the Bureau of Land Management.
El Cuatro stepped onto the bridge, trusting Lively’s guidance at the reins. Lively halted. He pulled out a revolver and blasted three shots in the air, but the horse did not flinch.
The performance was part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover (extrememustangmakeover.com), a national competition in which horse trainers have about 100 days to turn a wild mustang into a well-behaved steed.
The bureau manages mustang herds in 10 Western states to prevent overpopulation. Because of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, horses cannot be culled. Instead, they are rounded up and the bureau tries to find them a good home.
In 2007, the bureau teamed with the nonprofit Mustang Heritage Foundation (mustangheritagefoundation.org) to increase adoption of wild horses. The executive director of the foundation, Patti Colbert, conceived the mustang makeover after watching reality shows on TV.
“I knew that in the horse industry, you have to show people, you can’t tell them,” Colbert said. “I could tell you all day long how easy it is to gentle a wild horse, but you need to see it to believe it.
“People would love to have a mustang, but they don’t have the time or effort to bring a wild horse around, so the trainers become the middlemen. If we can help them train these horses in a timely fashion and get them quiet and gentle enough, we can put them in the hands of folks that can take it from there.”
In the arena during a makeover event here in late October, Joe Williams rode Ranchero, a red roan gelding from Nevada. He brought the mustang into a powerful gallop as a crossbar obstacle burst into flame. Ranchero did not hesitate, clearing the fiery bar.
Williams rode Ranchero around the ring, then grabbed a rope tied to a car tire, dragging and bouncing it near the horse’s hind legs. Ranchero did not seem bothered. Williams snatched an American flag from a post and halted the horse. He stood atop Ranchero’s back and waved the flag, grazing the horse’s ears and peripheral vision. Ranchero did not move.
Trainers earn prize money if they win, but they also earn a commission. The horses are up for adoption in a public auction after the competition. From the winning bid, 20 percent goes to the trainer, a basic adoption fee of $125 goes to the bureau and the rest goes to the foundation to finance its operations. The highest price paid for a mustang was $10,000 in Madison, Wis. The average is $1,000.
Since the first event in September 2007 in Fort Worth, 21 Extreme Mustang Makeovers have been held and 800 to 900 trainers have participated in the makeover or the trainer incentive program, an arrangement in which trainers who do not wish to compete in makeovers are paid $700 if they can gentle a mustang in 90 days and find a qualified adopter.
The trainers, nearly all of them in the horse business, also earn intangible benefits for their hard work and out-of-pocket expenses. The feat of taming mustangs in 100 days is a feather in their Stetson that they can use in their marketing.
The mustangs are judged on how well they are conditioned and how they handle being ridden and led through an obstacle course that tests their confidence and learned skills. In the finals, horse and rider are scored on technical horsemanship and old-fashioned cowboy showmanship.
In Murfreesboro, Madeleine LeClerc of Boyd, Tex., won the Legends division, the most difficult class, and received $3,000 for her performance with Eye Brow Cat, whom she rode without reins, bit or bridle. Williams and Ranchero took the Idols division, winning $2,000.
The trainers decorated the stables behind the arena in honor of their horses. There were hand-stitched quilts, banners and posters plastered with photographs of training. At Blazin Wyoming’s stable, Kimber Moorhead-Goodman displayed a photo album of her mustang. During his training, the horse climbed over massive tractor tires, walked over a seesaw while being ridden bareback and waded belly-deep in Garrison Creek on the Natchez Trace.
Blazin Wyoming, a 3-year-old from Muddy Gap, Wyo., is the fifth mustang Moorhead-Goodman has trained. Her previous one, she said, was difficult.
“He’d take his front feet and try to strike at you or take his teeth and roll his lips back and try to bite you,” she said.
But by giving mustangs a name and shelter and teaching them a useful job, they become productive companions, Moorhead-Goodman said.
Matthew Bonn has trained eight mustangs, three for Extreme Mustang Makeovers. He pointed out the freeze mark on the neck of Buddy, a sorrel from Oregon. It is a code that indicates date of birth and registration number and is put on all rounded-up mustangs.
“I look at it as a badge of honor,” Bonn said. “It’s the mark of a survivor. I’d take a mustang over just about any other horse any day. They will try harder than any other horse I’ve ridden or trained. They read body language better than domesticated horses. They can read emotions better than we can, and they feed off of that.”
Mustangs are descended from horses introduced to the Americas by the Spanish and have mated with cavalry mounts, ranch horses, Indian horses and draft horses.
“I like to think of wild horses as being all-American; we’re kind of a mix of everything,” said Sally Spencer, a bureau official.
There is a catch to the competition that goes uncalculated. No trainers expect to have their heart broken. The trainers may have spent 100 days training the mustang, but they do not get first dibs on buying. They must bid with everyone else. Some scrape up the money, others just cannot afford another horse. Many have to say goodbye.
“If you see the adoption, you’re going to see grown men, cowboys, and they will all be in tears,” Spencer said. “We need grief counselors for them.”