Suzanne Myers, a Penn State researcher and trainer from Port Matilda, PA, won the top prize in the Midwest Mustang Challenge for the work she did with Jazz, a three year old mustang who came to her four months ago untouched by humans. Suzanne and Jazz capped off their performance with a musical freestyle that wowed the judges and the crowd of 8,000 spectators at the Midwest Horse Fair.
When a Spanish grullo arrived at her barn four months ago, Suzanne Myers did not know how he would react to civilization.
Just a month before, three-year–old "Jazz" had been running free on the government-owned prairie grasslands of Nevada . He had never seen a human being until wranglers from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rounded him up and took him and a band he lived with to an adoption site in Illinois.
The round up was part of a move by the BLM in partnership with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which promotes preservation of the wild horses and burros in part through their adoption. The goal is to keep herd numbers to a size the grazing land can support. Fifty of the feral horses were to be part of the MHF's Midwest Mustang Challenge.
Along with its sister events across the country, the Challenge was created to showcase the versatility of the mustang and to make them more adoptable by those without the time or ability to break the horses to saddle. Myers was one of only 50 people chosen by the MHF to train the young horses before they were to be sold at a midwestern auction. At stake was $12,000 in cash with the winner taking home the $5,000 winner's check.
Those who took on the challenge had only 100 days to ready their equine partners. To find out how well they responded to handling, the horses and their human partners were to meet in April in a contest. Afterwards they were to be auctioned off.
Jazz, christened All That Jazz by Myers, a researcher at Penn State University as well as a horse trainer, earned the highest score from the Challenge's three tests performed over two days at the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, Wisc.. "He is very smart and willing. He did everything I asked of him, and put his heart into it," said Myers of her first try in the Challenge.
His first test came as he was scrutinized by the judges, who evaluated his body and coat condition. He got passing marks there, considering that when Myers got him he "was underweight and his coat was rough." Myers' initial step was to put him on top quality grain and hay and supplements.
The next step was a halter trail course where handlers led their charges through a series of obstacles. The following day the top 10 horses, as selected by the judges, returned to the arena where the trainers had three minutes to ride their mounts through another trail course. They then had another four minutes at the end of the course to demonstrate additional qualities of their mounts, and that's where Myers and Jazz brought down the house of 8,000 spectators.
The twosome turned in the winning performance of a freestyle set to the tune of Craig Morgan's "Little Bit of Life." She incorporated the required turns, spins, changes of leads and circles. At the end the duo jumped two barrels as the standing-room-only crowd cheered.
The two had come a long way since the gelding got off her trailer in eastern Pennsylvania last winter. He had to learn to trust humans, she pointed out, and had to work through "some issues. He was so shy and backward at first that instead of invading my space (by crowding in against her) he did not want anyone to come near him. So, we modified our training program so he would come in," said Myers, who runs a training barn she shares with other horsemen and women.
Although he allowed her to ride him bareback less than three weeks after arriving at her farm, "he would kick out if you touched him on his hind end, or under his belly or on his legs. Those are the parts of a horse that are most vulnerable to predators in the wild, so it is instinctive for a horse to protect those areas."
He wasn't turned out immediately in a pasture upon his arrival "because we did not know what he would do," she said. Instead he had space to run in a round pen which abutted his stall. The door was left open to give him access to the pen whenever he wanted to come or go. She also used the round pen to desensitize him, to get him accustomed to human touch by wiping and touching him all over with a towel and then a lariat. His next lesson was in leading, with her at his head, and then it was time to go under saddle before the pair graduated to the trails around her home.
Myers rode the dun colored horse through the sale. She was so intent upon demonstrating his abilities that the Port Matilda woman did not see or hear who was bidding on him. When the auctioneer's hammer fell on the last offer, Jazz went to a man named Glenn, her husband. Myers had decided that after spending almost three and half months with him, she was going to keep him.
"I wanted him here," she said. "I think he is very comfortable in these surroundings and he has buddies back here at home."
She has no specific plans for him—"if I never show him I would be happy"—but she looking forward to a week off work to recover from the rigors of the trip and competition. Then "I will be back trail riding him and doing some groundwork to continue the training program I had him on."
Looking back at it, Myers said "if it were feasible, I think I would become involved in their (MHF's Mustang Challenge) trainer incentive program." It would not be for the money alone, although the contest offered $12,000 in money prizes including the $5,000 Myers got for Jazz's performance, but "to establish it here in the East. And in the future I might have some mustangs here to adopt."
For now, she is content with her little bit of the Old West. A mustang can be the descendent of horses ridden by the Spanish conquistadors. While these horses are technically known as American Mustangs, they carry the genes of their ancestors. Jazz has one physical quality not seen often; his ears are crescent shaped.
"I call them his angel wings," said Myers. "We had a woman who stopped by his stall (at the fair) and told me there is a breed of horse in India (the Marwari) with the same physical characteristics."