The Makeover of a Mustang

What happens when you take a feral horse, bring him into captivity and use conditioned response training methods? Eight Lyons certified trainers took on the challenge to find out.

One hundred trainers, one hundred feral mustangs, and one hundred days. The call came for horse trainers throughout the nation to test their skills in the first Extreme Mustang Makeover.

The program, organized by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, put Bureau of Land Management Mustangs into the capable hands of horse trainers who would work with the horses (all geldings) and then compete in a horse show designed to test their results. The trainers would vie for prize money and the chance to test their horsemanship skills with a wild horse.

The competition, held in Fort Worth, included an in-hand obstacle course testing the horses’ obedience and trust of their human handlers. The riding portion, which included a reining pattern with speed control, gait changes, and turns, showed the horses’ skills as saddle mounts. In the end, an adoption auction helped find homes for the horses and raised money for the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the Mustang.

Eight Lyons certified trainers answered the call and joined the competition. Here are their stories.

Susan Kirk & Mac
Rochester, Washington

Susan Kirk had a decision to make. She’d spent 90 days training her Mustang, Mac, and she had hauled him halfway across the country from Washington state to Texas. And yet, the big gelding was telling her what she already knew in her heart. His body hurt. He couldn’t complete the contest.

It was a hard decision for Susan who, from the start, had been in it to win. Getting such a great horse just confirmed her initial intentions.

Right away, Susan had made physical contact with Mac, and he quickly started trusting her as his caretaker and trainer.

“They bond extremely strong with the first person who trains them,” Susan says of her experience with Mustangs. When the gelding suffered a life-threatening bee sting, she began to realize how important he was to her.

From the start, Mac expressed his strong, curious personality. Even when he was afraid of something, he would turn and face it. “He wanted to take a good, long, hard look before making a decision,” she says.

He also had excellent social skills and got along with any horse Susan introduced him to at her farm.

Mac’s in-hand training went smoothly. With trust in Susan, he faced whatever obstacle she came up with. He crossed tarps, bridges, and poles, and could serpentine through cones. Soon, he was following her around like a puppy dog and working bridleless. Their saddle work was advancing quickly, too. That was, until it came time to canter.

Even in the round pen, Mac was reluctant to lope. Initially, Susan took it as a sign that the big gelding didn’t want to put the effort into getting away from her. But when his lope under saddle became a bunny hop, she knew something wasn’t right. She worked with her vet, her shoer, a chiropractor-anything to alleviate his back issues. What she couldn’t afford to offer himwas time off. She rested him from under-saddle work and focused on ground training as their precious days ticked away.

Susan took the gelding to Texas to compete, and they completed the in-hand portion of the Mustang Makeover. His back, however, wasn’t ready for the kind of riding she needed to do to win.

Susan had gone to the Mustang Makeover with the intention of buying Mac back in the adoption auction. She sweated the sale a little as the bids rose, but in the end she ended up as Mac’s official owner.

Now back in Washington, Susan and Mac really have the time to let his back heal properly. In time, Mac will step into the position of Susan’s demonstration horse.

Jeanie Curphey & Felix
Adrian, Georgia

Jeanie Curphy knows there are lots of horses in the country that need good homes. Meanwhile, she sees people irresponsibly breeding horses domestically, over-saturating a market that already has too many horses. So going into the Extreme Mustang Makeover, she had a goal. Jeanie wanted to promote the Mustang, bring awareness to the unwanted horse problem, and dispel negative myths about Mustangs.

“You don’t have to keep breeding,” she says. “These horses need homes.”

Going into the training process, Jeanie didn’t have any preconceptions about what to expect from her Mustang, Felix. “Horses are all basically the same,” she says. “Mustangs just might take more time than domestic horses.”

One thing about Jeanie, she has a good sense of humor and a great outlook on life and horses. When Felix seemed worried or wary, she tried to look at the issue from her horse’s perspective. For example, Felix was comfortable with people on the ground, but he got wide-eyed when he saw a person on horseback.

“There were things I wouldn’t expect a horse to be scared of,” she says, “but he had to get used to human behavior. It was comical in a way.”

Felix bonded hard with Jeanie, and began to trust anything she trusted. As long as she’s around, he stays mellow and lets new people approach him. She’s made a point to never act harsh toward him, and he, in turn, has done everything she’s asked of him. “I just tried to stay patient, quiet, and consistent,” she says.

The main part of her training program included taking Felix everywhere she went. She hauled him to horse shows, rodeos, and ropings, just to get him out and expose him to new things. She also spent time out on the trails, which he especially enjoyed.

At the adoption auction, Jeanie, too, bought Felix. Now she plans to use him as a demonstration horse and to do public relations appearances to help promote the breed. She’s already convinced. “I just really like the horse,” she says.

Wendy Hilton Smith & Murphy
Scurry, Texas

Wendy Hilton Smith and her husband, Steve Smith, signed up for the Mustang Makeover together and took the time to blog about their experiences online. She named her horse Murphy. Steve named his horse Diego.

Wendy had worked with Mustangs before and knew the challenge wouldn’t be easy. She also had a toddler son, Tristan, to look after, and she hadn’t started a young horse since before her pregnancy. With all that in mind, Wendy went into the Makeover knowing she needed to give her horse and herself time and patience.

“Mine wasn’t easy,” Wendy admits.

The differences between the two horses were evident from the start. Murphy was flighty and would bolt when encountering something new or scary. In the beginning, he would also kick, strike, and rear. Diego, on the other hand, would stand still and watch things rather than run.

This just meant that Wendy needed to work a little bit smarter. “I spent a lot of time on certain exercises, trying to calm him down,” she says. “And it was tough to get him to yield to pressure.”

Despite it all, Wendy started to make progress. She got all the basics on her horse, and Murphy was doing well with obstacle work.

That’s when the rain started to pour. For more than 30 days. That put both Steve and Wendy behind where they wanted to be. As it got down to the wire, juggling life, a baby, a business, and a Mustang all just got to be too much for Wendy. With a month left, she decided to pull out of the Mustang Makeover.

“It wasn’t fair to the horse,” she points out. “I’m pretty competitive. He would have done everything, but he wasn’t ready to win.” In the end, Wendy says it was still a good experience. “I really liked my horse,” she confirmed.

James Malcolm & Cool Hand Luke
Brandonton, Florida

James Malcolm went into the Mustang Makeover with a question: Would the methods he used as a Lyons certified trainer apply to an untouched, untrained horse?

The answer? “Absolutely,” says James.

He regarded his time with Cool Hand Luke, whom he simply refers to as “Mustang,” as an opportunity to work with a blank slate.

“Lots of times, you would think a domestic colt is a blank slate, but he’s grown up with people treating him like a pet, and he starts to think of humans as food dispensers,” points out James.

His Mustang didn’t have any predisposed notions about humans and wanted nothing to do with them from the get go. That innate fear of people as predators was the main distinction James sees between Mustangs and domestic horses.

He explains it like this: “Domestic horses have no problem being around people, but might be afraid of a bucket. The Mustang won’t put effort into worrying about a bucket, but he’s going to be afraid of the person.”

It took James about two weeks before he could consistently approach and touch his Mustang, who acted very wary. The horse could bolt and run hard and fast, and did so on many occasions.. “He had a powerful reaction when he did react,” James says.

Once James finally had his hands on the horse, Luke became the trainer’s favorite horse to work with each day. Now James describes the gelding as “puppy-dog gentle.”

James kept things systematic and slow as he moved through ground work, saddling, and riding. The horse never bucked or resisted. And when James put the bit in Luke’s mouth, the Mustang acted like he’d been a riding horse his entire life. “He’s just highly intelligent and very sensible,” James says.

Luke did well in the competition, but didn’t make the finals. That didn’t matter much to James, who bought Luke from the auction to make the gelding his primary demonstration horse.

“I learned two things from this experience,” James says. “One, Mustangs are really good horses. And two, this training methodology really works.”

Cindy Branham & Joshua
Auburn, Kansas

Cindy Branham sat in church with her family one Sunday before starting the Mustang Makeover. The sermon that day was from the Book of Joshua, with the Lord commanding: “Be strong and courageous. Learn and trust in me.”

Then she knew, in that moment, that she would name her Mustang Joshua.

Cindy, like many girls growing up with horses, had dreamed of taming a wild Mustang. Now a grownup with children of her own and the skills of a professional horse trainer, Cindy saw the Makeover as her chance to fulfill that dream.

“It was easier than I expected,” Cindy says of the training process with Joshua. “He had no good training or bad training before me to start with-he was a real blank slate.”

Cindy found Joshua had a highly tuned flight instinct and viewed her as a predator in the beginning. However, with time, he reacted to work just the same as any other horse she’s trained. “It’s still about pressure and release,” she says.

Joshua quickly decided to become “Cindy’s horse,” even though she was his trainer not his owner. Once he trusted her, he changed his mind about people in general and decided he liked all the positive attention he could get.

When it came time for the adoption auction, Cindy decided to buy Joshua back. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse give his heart to me like Joshua has,” she says. She returned the favor by bringing him home to stay.

Since then, Cindy has decided to finish Joshua as a competitive reining horse. “I want him to show the world what he can do and represent the Mustang,” she says.

Nick Bowman & Waylon
Sandborn, Indiana

For Nick Bowman, training a Mustang for the Makeover wasn’t much different than working with any other horse. It just took a little extra time to get started. His consistency paid off in the end, with Nick and his gelding, Waylon, finishing eighth in the final standings.

Nick signed up for the program along with his son, Ben, who also got a Mustang to work with. “It sounded like a fun deal,” says Nick, “something I’d never done.”

From the start, Nick and Ben noticed that even though their two Mustangs had very different personalities, neither horse wanted to expend any extra energy. “You’d work harder than they would in the round pen,” Nick says.

Waylon started out skittish and had a strong flight instinct. “Once he got over being afraid, I found he was pretty intelligent and willing.”

At first, Nick and Ben ponied the horses a couple times a day. After they began to ride the Mustangs, they spent hours out on the trail. They worked a lot on leg cues and speed control to advance the horses’ training. By the time the competition rolled around, they each had logged about 50 rides on their Mustangs.

At the show, Nick just asked Waylon to do what he’d trained the horse to do. Even in the middle of the competition pen and with a standing-room-only crowd, the horse relied on his training and did everything Nick asked him to do during the in-hand and saddle portions of the show.

In the end, Nick felt both he and Ben ended up with good, trained horses. The best part of the process was working together, sharing ideas, and solving problems as issues arose, such as Waylon’s fear of new things. “It was really a team effort,” Nick says.

Asa Pippin & Q
Senoia, Georgia

In the beginning, Asa Pippin didn’t feel too sure about his Mustang’s prospects. The horse had an obvious fear of humans and didn’t want anything to do with him.. “The horse was scared to death,” Asa plainly states. “He looked at people as predators.”

At the time he got Q, Asa was in the middle of developing his property. Heavy equipment was being used to clear the land for arenas and buildings. “Tractors and trucks were okay with the horse, but the bulldozer would stop and people would get out, and the horse would lose it when he saw them,” Asa recalls. Despite Q’s issues, Asa was on the Mustang’s back within four days of when he began working with Q. Asa kept riding sessions short and positive to build the horse’s confidence.

“He was the kind of horse who would hurt himself to get away from something that scared him,” Asa explains. “He was a ticking time bomb when I was on his back-I really had to think outside the box all the time. It wasn’t all in the arena, either. I did a lot of his training out on the trail. I had to keep his mind busy.”

At six weeks, things took a turn for the better after Asa taught Q how to lie down on cue. “That changed something in him,” he says.

From that point on, Q decided to trust Asa. Soon the horse’s trust of Asa transferred to other people. “He turned out better than I ever expected,” the trainer says. “He’s always willing to do what I’ve asked him.”

That included roping, shooting off the horse’s back, and wading chest-high through the river. Once Asa had the horse’s trust, he had the horse. Q learned how to carry himself in a collected frame, do rollbacks and turns, and to perform flying changes of lead.

Asa liked Q so much, he went to Texas with a blank check ready to buy the gelding back. In the competition, Asa and Q were disqualified during the in-hand segment for going off course. No matter to Asa-he believed he had one of the best horses in the Makeover and was determined to keep the gelding..

Now Q is back home with Asa and taking a break. After the intense training required to prepare for the competition, Asa is keeping his Mustang tuned up with just a couple rides a week, and Q is on track to become Asa’s demonstration horse for clinics. “He likes living the spoiled life-knowing he’ll always have fresh water and where the next meal is coming from,” says Asa.

Matt Gable & Sancho
Mooresville, North Carolina

Matt Gable describes his Mustang as “one tough nut.” Not that the gelding was a bad horse-just challenging. He had a strong fear and flight instinct and had a hard time learning to trust people. When saddled, he showed he had a good buck, too.

In the end, Matt decided 100 days just wasn’t enough time to get Sancho ready for the competition. It wasn’t fair to rush the horse, who just needed more time. It also wouldn’t be right to present him to the public as a trained and finished horse, which he wasn’t.

“He was the flightiest horse I’ve ever worked with,” says Matt. “We had to go through the regentling process every morning for six weeks. But when we slowed down, we could make progress.”

Sancho learned all of the groundwork basics, including shoulders over, hips over, obstacles, and trailer loading. Matt focused on calming exercises to earn the horse’s trust. Matt could also saddle and sit on the gelding, although Sancho never actually got to the point of being saddle broke. For Sancho’s part, the gelding never acted aggressive-just nervous.

Like the other trainers involved in the Makeover, Matt found that his Mustang bonded strongly to him. To help the horse transfer his trust of humans, Matt’s wife, Jessica, spent time with Sancho, too.

Although Matt and Sancho didn’t compete in the finals, Matt felt he learned some valuable lessons from working with the gelding.

“He was what I needed at the time,” he says. “He made us reevaluate what we were doing. With a lot of gentle horses, we can skip steps and cut corners, but it creates problems down the road. With Sancho, you couldn’t do that.”

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