Few experienced horse people would consider a four year old mustang with 120 days of training as a mount for their four year old son. For Nate Eicher, the combination is a no-brainer. The 29 year old Reinholds, PA resident trained the mustang Little Mouse, the winner of the Extreme Mustang Makeover held at the Gloucester County Dream Park in Logan Township, NJ, August 3-4, then bought the mare for his son Dillon, age four.
It was Eicher’s first time competing in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, which he had experienced only through online videos.
“I bought her mostly for him because she’s so quiet and he just loves her. He named her and he swings the rope off her all the time.” Eicher spent $2,000 of the $5,000 prize money from the competition to purchase the mare. “Before the horses were auctioned, we had time to talk about them. I told the audience I would be bidding on her for my son. They still ran it up to $2,000,” the self-effacing trainer said with a chuckle. “That’s okay, it helped the Foundation out.”
Eicher took possession of the mare—the competition featured all mares, ages four and five and randomly assigned--in early April and had 100 days to work with her. Clients suggested he look into the Extreme Mustang Makeover last winter. His only experience with the event prior to competing was watching videos of past winners online.
“When I first got her, I had no idea what was going to happen. I watched videos but I didn’t think I could get her to that point. My thought process was, if I can make her a useful horse for somebody I will have done my job. The whole purpose is to get them ready for somebody else,” he said.
Mustang Heritage Foundation
The Mustang Heritage Foundation, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, initiated the Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2007 to showcase the mustang’s beauty, versatility and trainability. The BLM periodically removes excess animals from the range to ensure herd health and protect rangeland, and thousands are made available for adoption each year. More than 3,300 wild horses have been adopted through Mustang Heritage Foundation events and programs since 2007.
Eicher grew up trail riding horses his family owned near Mifflinburg, PA. His dad, an amateur who “liked to play around with horses,” adopted some mustangs when Eicher was a teenager. “They were definitely a challenge, more than I had seen before. When I got Little Mouse, she was not as much of a challenge. But then again, I’ve learned a lot since then.”
Eicher’s background includes six years working for champion cutting horse trainer Rob Foster of Bar F Ranch in Weichert, PA. “At the time he was training for western pleasure and he had a two time world champion Paint horse. Over time he got into cutting and roping.” His wife, Amy is from Lancaster County and the family relocated to D-Bar-W Stables in Reinholds and established Eicher Performance Horse Training, which focuses mainly on correct foundation training for young horses, three years ago.
“Little Mouse wasn’t wild and crazy,” Eicher said. “It took some time for her to trust me, but that’s true of any horse. The biggest problem was that she was really uncoordinated. She was fat and her hind end wobbled when she walked. Her back end went this way and that way. I worked hard to get a topline on her and get her in shape to do the maneuvers I wanted to do with her. I get all my horses to be soft and round, and that really helped with her.”
The competition had two phases. In the first, contestants were judged on handling (releasing the horse halterless in a round pen, rehaltering, and within 60 seconds demonstrating handling abilities such as picking up feet, backing, ground tying, etc.) and on the condition of the horse. A pattern class demonstrated the three gaits, stop, back, pivot and lead change. A trail class involving obstacles required horses to walk over poles and between obstacles, load in a trailer, walk through a chute and over a bridge. Horses could be ridden under English or western tack.
In the second phase, the ten highest scoring of the 33 contestants were called back to perform a three to five minute freestyle demonstration set to music. The final order of finish was based solely on the freestyle performance. Eicher loped in, holding a tarp over his head. He dropped the tarp in the ring, performed sliding stops and spins, shot a gun, and trotted a couple half passes. He removed the bridle and dropped it in the ring, and performed circles, spins and slides bridleless. Finally, he stood on the mare’s back and cracked a whip while she stood impassively.
“I don’t think it was real spectacular compared to the others,” Eicher said. “I just tried to stay with what she’s good at. She’s been really quiet and easy to work with so I just tried to show that.
“I had an idea (of what he wanted to do) a couple weeks before. A lot of it was just in my mind. I practiced parts of it the week before but I didn’t practice with music more than twice.”
Winners were announced from tenth place to first. “It felt incredible to win. It was an awesome feeling, mainly because I wasn’t expecting it. I thought I would be up there, but I wasn’t keeping track, I was just trying to do the best I could.”
While Little Mouse will be primarily Dillon’s horse, Eicher is going to borrow him from time to time. “We were asked to do a freestyle with her at a Susquehanna Valley Reining Association event coming up. It’s a showcase for local people working with mustangs. And I might do a little reining with her. She’s picking up the spin really well.”
Lulu, trained by Sarah Weist of Hamburg, PA, brought the top price at the auction, selling for $3,400. Weist finished in second place behind Eicher, who had 184.5 points, with a score of 167 points. Like Eicher, many of the trainers purchased their own horses at the auction held the final day.