Extreme Mustang Makeover article published in West Coast Horseman….Part I

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Extreme Mustang Makeover…….I would like to share my story of how doing these have changed my life. I have been training horses professionally for 16years and worked with a lot of Mustangs, but to do it for a competition and do multiple years, it has had quite the impact on my life as well as the horses I have drawn to work with…….here is the story.
90 Days, one WILD horse, and no idea of what to expect……
The first year I was able to compete was 2009 Sacramento Extreme Mustang Makeover, after several years of trying to get to a space where it was feasible to commit to those 3 months and have a good personal frame of mind to operate in, I chose to take 2 horses, hoping to increase my chances of success. Dave Kneller, a fellow trainer, offered his help at my barn, keeping everything going so I could focus just a little extra time on the mustangs. Upon picking them up in Susanville at the Litchfield Corrals, we were just sure that the brown mare was going to be great and the little red mare would be trouble!
Our first step was to get them settled in and start by hand watering these mares for the first few days. Making a good first impression really will make or break you! We do not drive our wild horses any more than necessary and do most of our work at a standstill and walk. I employed my rescue gelding 2HOT as an “interpreter”, using him to block the mares from moving away and to show them that he is not afraid of us. Within the span of a few days, we saw dramatic results in the red mare and a strong disdain for anything we had to say or offer from the brown mare. Once the red mare, now known as Wild Rose MusTango, figured out that we were not a threat and had good things to offer her, while still a little shy about her face, opened up and started to communicate.
So, one week in and now one horse is progressing and the other is absolutely NOT willing to play……
We spent the first month focusing on ground work and basic handling- feet, brushing, bathing, leading, all the things that most horses have learned in their first year, now we have to cram as a 4yr old. Remember that these horses are to be sold to the highest bidder at the end of the show and HAVE to be as safe as possible! Not to mention that if I make any mistakes with Rose, it could set us back and maybe take me out of the 90day time frame! At the same time, one must introduce as many things as you can each day to the horse without blowing their mind or burning them out. I found that a little routine to run her through of everything she had learned each day, then add 3 new things, so that if they don’t pick up on one, there are other things that they might, worked wonders.
The beginning of Month 2 found us putting the first few rides on Rose and without any hitches. She never bucked or protested and took to the whole idea of riding horse like she was made for it! So, we took to the trail and went to friends’ to expose her to cows, buffalo, other horses and new places…….because of her solid foundation, she enjoyed every second of it . The arena was a little challenge as she has a built for trail conformation and it would take time to get this mare using herself better. We do not like to force them into frame and will allow them to develop naturally. So, I focused on tracking on the rail, nice transitions, easy changes of direction and used our “flag” to help her turn on her back end more. Meanwhile, the brown mare is still adamant that she does not want to play…….severely protective of her muzzle and face, resistant to being touched and a hint of a threat that she would strike if we pushed it too far!
Month 3 we made the decision that the brown mare, now named Maria MusTango, would not be safe to take to Sacramento and would obviously not be convinced in 90days. So, we focused on Rose and her progress. The last month is actually the most critical…..this horse can’t be stiff and tired , but you must condition them. They are far enough along under saddle that it is easy to start making mistakes or get complacent and you really have to be realistic of what that horse has learned, stick to the strong points. The last thing you want to do is try something they are not good at and break their confidence, when the show is only weeks away! The last week is a killer…..do I let her rest, work on fine tuning, add anything to her routine or ?????? You can’t really start too many new things or risk confusion under pressure, yet, the desire to win and the pressure of being out of time is overwhelming!
Showtime came all too soon……
Friday was the first day of competition and we had to present the horses in-hand and do a showmanship type trail course. Unfortunately, we had a bit of a bobble in the trailer loading and Rose lifted her head in a moment of uncertainty and banged into the ceiling making a bit of a ruckus and definitely affecting our score. Otherwise, she performed smoothly walking through and backing in poles and trotting cones in a serpentine. Pretty basic stuff that sadly, most horses cannot do let alone that we are doing this with Wild Horses that have less than 90days of handling. Body Conditioning is a large portion of the scoring and pretty tricky considering that these are physically immature horses and we have to work them while trying to keep weight and build muscle. Fortunately she received 4th the body conditioning, helping out our score that suffered a little bit in the in-hand, but we were still sitting low in the overall line-up on the end of the day Friday.
Saturday morning was the Riding portion of the Horse Course, strangely, so was the Mounted Shooting demos! So, here we all are on very green, wild horses trying to perform in a strange arena to the music of gunfire during the hum of activity at a busy Sacramento Expo! Rose accepted it all as par for the course, and aced the bridge, backed the “T” and lined perfectly up to the pole with her back feet, then loped off as prescribed on the right lead and directly into a smooth drop to trot lead change, ending with a lovely stop and back-up. We then hustled over to the poles to hopefully wow the judges with Roses’ special talent in the 90second freestyle. I taught her to straddle ground poles with right feet on one side and left feet on the other, then carefully walk the line with the pole under her belly. She then went into an easy sideways maneuver each direction and a quiet relaxed lay-down for the finale! I left the arena with tears of gratitude for Roses’ trust and willingness on my face. This was just the boost we needed, and jumped us to 4th place overall in the standing to make the top ten!
The finals was amazing to watch and it was surreal to be part of it. I used music by David Kneller, a fitting song called “Anything” and a short musical intro that fit Rose and the makeover perfectly . There are compulsory moves that must be worked into the freestyle routine. 1) full turn on hind-end OR fore-hand each direction , 2) stop, 3) back-up 10 steps, 4) left lead, 5)right lead, 6) simple or flying lead change, 7) walk, 8) trot. They also give you an option of a cow to work. One score is on the basic moves, the other score is on artistic merit and athletic ability (how you accentuate the horses’ ability, not the most athletic horse). So, I first led Rose In-hand down a line of 3 poles, then mounted and traversed them under saddle, she then breezed through the maneuvers, I chose to do a turn on the fore-hand as she was still too green to plant the hind-end and I stayed with where she was in training and opted for a smooth, easy drop to trot rather than push her for a flying change. We did take the option of a cow and somehow ended up with a cow as sweet as Rose that practically walked up and kissed Rose on the nose! The cow was easy to move where I wanted at a slow pace and finished in front of the judges. It was quite the honor to be interviewed by special guest John Lyons and very satisfying to have placed 6th in the finals! I was proud to know that Rose was adopted by a very nice lady and her grandkids, what a sweet and willing horse she turned out to be, and while you miss them, it is great to know that she will be loved and appreciated!
(end of first year)
2010 and it is time to go to Ridgecrest and pick up our horses for Norco Extreme Mustang Makeover. Dave signed up as well for his own horse, how exciting! We picked up the horses and brought them home, after a few days of observation, realized that my draw for this years’ competition had some sort of problem with his legs….. This was not like anything I had seen so far, Sirius, as we named him was clinically sound, but upon watching closely his hind legs did not flex down to the ground at the pastern, but forward toward the toe. My vet took a good look at him and said he would not be able to be ridden, but could possibly pull a cart or have a long life as a companion horse. The people at Mustang Heritage Foundation are great to work with and allowed us to transfer Sirius to the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) and lined us up with another horse, so, back to Ridgecrest we went!
I really wanted to name this years’ horse Comet for some reason, when we went to get the first 2 horses, Dave’s horse was dubbed Polaris (the north star) for the bright white star on his dark face, but everyone told me that my little black horse was not a Comet and the name Sirius was given. So, I was delighted upon picking up my 2nd horse one week into the competition and finding that he had a wonderful little star with a spray paint comet tail trailing off of it! No one could argue that this was NOT Comet!
The first 2 horses were already able to be touched and we had slipped halters on them by this point, Comet shocked and amazed us, by letting us walk right up and put a halter on him the first day…..we instantly removed it and left the corral. Once again we are faced with finding anything we can to bridge the gap between us and these wild animals in a 90day time frame! Upon observing their behavior, it was apparent right away that Polaris was very shy and always wanted to hide behind another horse, Sirius was fairly outgoing, but still suspicious and then there was Comet. Sweet and outgoing, he seemed to understand on a deeper level that we wanted to be his friend and communicate with him. We average about 2 weeks with an un-gentled horse to get them out of the round pen and down to the barn. It is important that they do not get scared and pull away from you as this is an obvious hazard to everyone involved and the most critical point that they have to trust you. It is hard to convince them to exit the gate which leads to unfamiliar territory and you really have to take your time because if they rush and get spooked, they fly out the gate. Needless to say, all 3 went smooth and without incident down to the barn and into their new life as a domestic horse!
Once a wild horse recognizes that we are communicating and do not pose a threat, the entire process speeds up. Since my first draw, Sirius, was not to be a riding horse, leading, brushing and prepping for the farrier were his priorities. Meanwhile, Comet was progressing at an amazing rate, learning how to lunge in a round pen, stand tied, wear tack and have his feet handled. It was apparent early on, that once again, I have a smart horse, but lacking in athleticism. To put it plainly, he would rather do smart work than run around or be overly active. One of the most amazing things about Mustangs is that they have a strong instinct to conserve energy and will not run anymore than they have to if left to their own devices. Comet was the embodiment of this natural survival instinct, so, I had to think outside the box with this guy. Pressure and release just wasn’t going to work with this one! So, I began looking into trick training techniques.
Dave and Polaris had their own challenges, Polaris is an introvert and would rather just be left alone, as well as seeing no practical need to communicate with a human. Maria from last year, communicated clearly that she would hurt you if you got tough or pushed her, Polaris was just shut down. I once read that trauma does not occur in wild animals, they shake it off after the experience and move on with their survival. Interestingly enough, like humans, some horses adapt to having been rounded up and being thrown into domestic life and others hold onto the trauma, as it is a constant state for them once they are in holding pens. Maria and Polaris are definitely similar in that they were obviously unable to work through the stress and remained traumatized. This something more commonly seen in domestic horses as they are not forced to focus on survival and have nothing better to do with their time, but stand around in captivity and think about the trauma. All we could do at this point is go slow and hope that we could get Polaris to understand that he needed to open up to us.
Month 2, I discovered some amazing pictures of a trainer that had trained all of his horses to sit on a bean bag and do amazing pedestal work. This was just the break I had been looking for, Allen Pogue (imagine horse.com) was the first resource I had found that openly taught how to teach tricks and the foundation for a solid trick horse. Also, with the discovery of the benefits of Classical Dressage, Circensic Dressage, was naturally the next step for me. I bought his 13DVD set on trick training and went to work with Comet. I had to cheat a little as we were on a short time frame, so, adapted the tricks to what Comet understood. Within the span of a week, he and I were sitting on a bean bag together!rosesac2Print Friendly

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