Brooke Myers, age 9, was reserve youth champion with her yearling Mustang, Jacuzzi
By Christine Stewart
A group of Port Matilda women are changing the perception of wild Mustangs, proving that while horses can be tamed, their free spirits can remain unbroken.
What began as a government effort through the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to control wild horse populations out West has turned into a national movement called Extreme Mustang Makeover. The ultimate goal of the program is to make Mustangs more adoptable by those unable to gentle them.
Equestrians apply to participate; those accepted are given a horse to train for 100 days before participating in a four-phase competition that shows their training and skills. Afterward, there is an auction where spectators and trainers can purchase the newly tamed mounts.
Suzanne Myers, a faculty member at Penn State who also runs a training and boarding facility, participated in the first ever Mustang Challenge in January, 2008. She and her mount, a Mustang named Jazz, competed and won the event held in Madison, Wisc. Her involvement with the program came at the suggestion of a friend.
"A friend of mine saw the competition online. He knew we were trying to get involved in something different, for fun, and were looking for a program to validate our training program. When he ran across this, we thought ‘wouldn't this be the perfect thing?'" Myers said.
The training program at Myers Stables, called Next Level Horsemanship, is different than many, as the best interests and natural spirit of the animal are always first. The relationship and level of trust between horse and trainer is of the utmost importance.
"I always say that our program allows us to bring out the best in partnership and performance. Everyone wants effective training methods, but what's different about us is that we take the time to accomplish our goals in training without blowing the horse's mind," she explained. "We do things in a way that really builds the relationship and keeps that spirit alive. When they leave our facility, those horses are still happy."
Reserve Grand Champion
The success of Myers and her training team has continued with her 9-year-old daughter Brooke being pinned reserve grand champion of the youth division in November with a Mustang yearling named Jacuzzi. The event, the Eastern Stampede, was held in Murfeesboro, Tenn., as another event in the Extreme Mustang Makeover program.
While some may believe that only a professional could successfully tame a wild horse, this was hardly the case with Myers' daughter. Myers noted that while she is obviously biased, young Brooke has incredible potential and advanced horsemanship that is well beyond her years.
With just 100 days from first sight to the show ring, Brooke was responsible for Jacuzzi's training program. "She's still got a lot to learn, but other than the first five sessions to gentle the yearling, she did the training herself. We would step in if the horse would try and pull her too far, but she's done it herself. This horse is in love with her," Myers said.
"She's very poised and modest. She's got a gift for sure. She's got the dedication. She's got the timing and the feel that most people never get."
Brooke confirmed her horse's affection for her and noted that he is a very good horse, and for the most part, very calm and laid back. However, the training wasn't all easy, and the pair had difficulty with some of the more difficult movements.
"It was longing him and doing serpentines with him because I was smaller. I wouldn't say that he was taking advantage of me, but it was hard to get those maneuvers started," she said.
Despite any difficulties, the pair adores each other. "I love his personality and when you're around him enough, he can just be in a relationship that he builds with you. Now, with me, I can mostly do anything and when I'm working him up in the indoor, he will look at me almost every second I'm up there," Brooke said.
She doesn't have any immediate plans to compete in the Makeover just yet, but she has entered a number of local shows with her pony of several years, Apple Gray. As far as her future in the horse industry is concerned, she said she'd like to follow in her mother's footsteps and be a trainer, but she also has aspirations to be a teacher.
Two of the assistant trainers at Myers Stables also participated in the competition in Murfreesboro and demonstrated further the success of their training program. Lauren Sarnowski, 22, and Rhiannon Schneider, 25, competed with 4-year-old Mustangs, Durango and Kerwin. Myers said that the dedication and hard work they put into the competition and training program in general is tremendous.
Their preliminary rounds were outstanding as Schneider was in first place, and Sarnowski followed behind by just half a point. The two were 10 points ahead of the rest of the adult amateur field. They finished sixth and tenth in the finals, respectively.
Schneider has been working with Myers for a number of years. With the exception of a few equine classes in college, Schneider had very little riding or training experience when first starting at Myers Stables.
"I started cleaning stalls (for Suzanne) about three and a half years ago. I would watch her in the arena training horses and got interested in it," she said. "Slowly I learned how to do it and became an assistant to her in her training."
Schneider said her horse, Kerwin, is the quiet, nervous type but less reactive than some horses, making his training easier because he wasn't as adamant about saying no. She explained the benefits of their relationship-based training program and noted that it can help any kind of horse, despite their habits, nature or personality.
"I think our program is beneficial to any type of horse, regardless of whether they are a hunter/jumper, western pleasure, or a plain old trail horse. I have seen it be successful on every horse that has come through our facility." She continued, "It's nice to say that the program is adaptable and flexible to each type of horse. The trust and relationship is built on the ground and transitioned to under saddle. I think it's missed in a lot of other programs – that groundwork – and in order to have a very successful program that needs to be part of it."
More of a Challenge
Sarnowski had more of a challenge with her mount, Durango, whom she described as "independent." While it was difficult for them to form their relationship, she said that he changed a lot during the training process and eventually began to trust her. She, too, has been with Myers for a number of years and has slowly learned the training program, growing as a trainer in the process.
Undoubtedly, the Makeover program and competition is an ultimate test of a horse, rider and a training program. Myers said that the challenge is one way they continue to educate themselves while demonstrating the program's utility. The challenge will show a rider and trainer what they don't know, but it will all reinforce their abilities to train and develop relationships with any horse.
With lots of available Mustangs needing training and a new home, there will be more competitions in the future, and the team at Myers Stables will be a part of them. Each rider adopted their respective mount through the auction, giving four wild Mustangs a healthy and happy home.