Viggo. Photo credit, Sharon Gladsky
It doesn’t matter much in the arc of history that Mustangs have unfairly shouldered blame and scorn for problems on the Great Plains. It doesn’t matter that the Mustangs roamed the West for centuries, without destroying their habitat. It doesn’t even matter that Mustangs have given their lives in the service of our country. They are smart, versatile, beautiful and prodigiously talented.
But they are finding fewer and fewer spaces to roam in the West, and their dilemma—they are irreplaceable icons that are no longer revered at home on their range—has spawned legislation as well as a unique network of support designed to provide them with aid and comfort. In 1971 the United States Congress officially recognized the Mustang as a symbol of the American West. Today they remain under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which works with several organizations to find appropriate homes for the horses. One innovative program developed by the Mustang Heritage Foundation is the annual Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Trainers are paired with wild Mustangs and given 90 days to “gentle” the horses, making them more adoptable. The trainers bring their horses to a competition where they demonstrate what they and their horses have achieved in 90 days. This year the competition will be in Fort Worth, Texas in mid-September.
Kali Sublett, Director of Operations at the Mustang Heritage Foundation, says that the goal this year is to find homes for 1,000 horses. “We’ve adopted out more than 2500 since 2007,” she explains. Even though 1,000 horses were turned over to trainers for this year’s competition, it’s likely the September competition won’t feature that many horses. “We have about a 20 per cent attrition rate. Sometimes the horses are not trainable, sometimes the trainers have issues. Sometimes the training is going well, but the horses are just not ready to be adopted,” she says. But the Foundation provides enormous support for the trainers and the horses. “There’s no entry fee. And we actually reimburse trainers up to $700 for expenses.” For the competition in Fort Worth, there won’t be any stall fees. All that is covered by the Foundation, Sublett explains.
It’s All About Trust
Suzanne Myers, a trainer in Port Matilda, PA, has several years of experience in the Mustang Makeover. She blogs and writes about her training techniques and about the horses in her care at her website, NextLevelHorsemanship.com. Myers says that she wasn’t really planning to enter the competition this year, because she didn’t want to add another horse to her stable. “All the horses in this competition were optioned first,” she said. So she let it be known that she would be happy to train a Mustang if someone she knew were willing to be the adopter. “We enjoyed being in the competition a lot. We just didn’t want to adopt. In fact we found two people who were interested.”
The adopters were responsible for picking the horses up in Mississippi in May. Shortly thereafter, Viggo and Sparrow arrived at Myers’ farm. Immediately the horses demonstrated their unique personalities, Myers says. “We unloaded them into a round pen and you just spend time observing them, and getting to know them. Viggo was pretty shy—just gelded in January this year. He had been a stud for a long time,” she explains. Both of the horses are six years old. “Sparrow is much more inclined to run from pressure; Viggo is more inclined to face pressure, and challenge you.”
She says that Viggo is the only horse that has ever charged her, and he did it twice. But as fractious as Viggo was at first, she recognized something in him that she knew she could cultivate. “He was more inclined to say ‘look, bring it on.’ We had that challenge from the beginning to figure out who in this herd relationship was going to take over as Alpha.”
Myers describes Viggo as being “sticky-footed.” She says you could not pressure him to move. “It’s a fine line. Everything is new with these horses. You have to proceed with caution, both from the perspective that you don’t want to get hurt, but you don’t want to affect their mental status.” She says that she told the owner right away that “This guy is going to be a little puppy dog before long.”
That’s not to say that any of this was automatic or easy. Myers looks at the Mustang Makeover competition as an opportunity to validate the training program that she has developed over the years. Her assistant trainer, Lauren Ross, is working with Sparrow, a mare. “There’s a balance to be struck” she says, ”a line where you want to teach them that you’re the Alpha, but this game is going to be awesome.”
Myers is careful because she believes that the most valuable gift these horses deliver is their trust. “You are their first connection with humans, and you work so hard to gain trust. That’s the biggest thing on their check-off list before they’ll let anyone in, they need to know that they can trust you.”
Myers says that she trained another Mustang, Jazz, in her first Mustang Makeover competition in 2008. She and Jazz won that competition, and she was the first female trainer to win the Mustang Makeover. She also won Jazz at the auction following the competition, after falling in love with him while training him. Then she trained another Mustang but lost him in the auction to another bidder. “I bawled like a baby,” she said, when she lost Jack. She told the woman who won him to keep her in mind if she ever needed to sell the horse or give him up. Within a year, the woman contacted Myers, and she was soon reunited with Jack, who is now part of Myers’ extended family.
A Teacher First and Always
Myers spent 15 years at Penn State University in Veterinary Diagnostics. She worked in the lab and was a faculty member when she left Penn State to devote all her time to her passion for horses. Growing up on a farm in Bedford, Myers says she always knew that she would end up working with horses.
“I don’t miss that job at all. I enjoyed it when I was there, but I’ve never looked back since the day I left. I love the ability to teach people about horsemanship and things that are important from a horsemanship standpoint. I still teach. I’m finally doing what I always knew I wanted to do.”
Looking for People with Room in Their Hearts
Sally Spencer, a marketing specialist with the BLM in Washington, DC, describes how BLM got involved in a partnership with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, to create another avenue for finding homes for wild Mustangs. “Our goal with Extreme Mustang Makeover is to highlight the versatility, dependability, trainability and beauty of the horses, and hopefully find good homes. We’re also hoping that by people seeing what these horses can do that people will consider a mustang if they have room in their homes and their hearts for a horse.” She says that BLM maintains long-and-short term care for Mustangs, and there are numerous programs devoted to their care and training.
There are prison programs where incarcerated individuals train the horses. Some of the horses trained in these programs have been adopted by the United States Border Patrol. The Mustangs are uniquely qualified for working in the often harsh environment of desert areas along the country’s border with Mexico.
Throughout America’s history Mustangs have served with our armed forces in war and in peace. They have demonstrated time and again that they deserve their place in our history and our nation’s future.