Mustang Mania

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Ten years ago, everyone knew of Mustangs as those wild horses out West. Sometimes there would be mainstream-media news of a wild-horse roundup that animal-rights groups deemed cruel. Every now and then, a Mustang would make headlines in the equine world as having done well in a particular discipline or job. It wasn't until the Mustang Heritage Foundation began working with the Bureau of Land Management to offer Mustang-gentling challenges that these once-wild horses started getting much respect. Now, with events across the country, the general public and horse lovers are seeing Mustangs in a different way. Professional trainers, too, are seeing them in a different way—one that appears to be good for business. 

Mustang-gentling challenges—the Extreme Mustang Makeover, Mustang Million, Mustang Magic and Ultimate Mustang Challenge among them—offer professionals and amateurs alike the opportunity to show their horse-starting prowess with a never-before-touched horse brought in from the range. Trainers pour hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars into these horses in the few months between introduction and competition with the hope of coming out on top and gaining recognition, prizes and cash.

Unlike entering a horse in a reining futurity or a local hunter open show, you don't get to choose your mount, you don't get to work with it for years ahead of time, and you don't know what kind of temperament or ability you're going to find when you get started. Mustang challenges are wildcard events, and these trainers said they've been worth their investment.

For the Recognition

“I always say I'm breaking even, but I know I'm not. But what it does for my business in being able to promote myself, I can't put a price on that,” said Canton, Georgia-based trainer Betsy Moles, who competed in her fifth Extreme Mustang Makeover this year.

The promotional benefit that a trainer can receive from participating in the Mustang events varies based on the trainer's business goals, said Nadia Heffner, owner of Double H Horse Farm in West Point, Indiana. “People tend to send me horses with problems or ones that are more difficult because they think I can train anything if I trained a wild horse. I train horses for show, too, and as long as you are successful in what you are doing, the benefits are the same. I feel that I don't limit myself to one area.”

Still, Heffner, who's competed in two Extreme Mustang Makeovers, pointed out, “Before doing the Mustang challenge, I didn't have any Mustangs in my barn. Now I have about six in the barn.” (Some belong to her and some to clients.)

You might also see varying degrees of promotional benefit based on how far along your business is. “Last year, there were not a whole lot of people in my area training Mustangs. By doing the Extreme Mustang Makeover, my name really got out there, and I saw an increase in new clients and followers,” said Karysa Perez of Kismet Performance Horses in Dayton, Nevada. “My business was just starting up when I picked up my first Makeover horse. I have not had to do any advertising to keep my barn full and to bring new clients in, and I owe that largely to word of mouth and the exposure I've gotten from working with Mustangs.”

And the promotional benefit of competing in Mustang challenges can take unexpected turns. After Mirka Hermanová Pitts' first Mustang event—the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2012—an attendee who liked her way of working with the horse contacted her about doing a clinic in Nebraska, and is now Pitts' main out-of-state clinic organizer. Pitts, incidentally, didn't even make the finals with her Mustang that year.

“I have also recorded seven months of training my third Mustang, Gemma, named the 'Follow Gemma Video Series.' I have been offering it as an online video series for sale, and it has profited $6,000 within just a few months,” Pitts said.

For the Prizes

Depending on the size of the competition you enter, you could be looking at a few hundred or a few thousands dollars or more for top finishers. The Mustang Million offers $200,000 and a pickup truck to the winner.

Trainers also receive commission on the sale of their horses at the public auction at the end.

The money earned might end up going back to the horse, though, as a lot of trainers end up buying back their horses, either because they felt the horse was worth more than the auction bidding was fetching or because they wanted to keep them in their own string. Moles said if there is one thing she could change about the Mustang challenge events that she's been part of, it would be to have more adopters there for bidding. In each challenge she's participated in, her horses have been in the top-three sellers, averaging $1,800, of which she takes home 20%. At some events, the commission is higher.

For the Horses

“You can tell which [trainers] do it for the money, and you can tell which ones do it because they love it,” said Moles. She and the other trainers interviewed for this article each cited the desire to give these horses good lives as a primary motivating factor for being involved.

“We are showcasing the Mustangs and what phenomenal animals they are,” said Perez, who was a self-proclaimed Quarter Horse breed snob before participating in her first Mustang challenge in 2014. “Not only do we get to show off the trainability and versatility of the Mustang, we also get to help them along their trail to permanent homes.”

“The mustangs also influence many people's lives along the way, as they enter, for example, the Wounded Warrior [Project], or the prison inmates' programs, or become a horse used for hippotherapy for disabled children,” Pitts said. “In my case, both of the Makeover Mustangs have become great teachers, companions and riding partners to one of my beginner students, helping her learn about horses and how to communicate with them.”

For the Networking

“Getting to ride with and meeting many amazing trainers who become your friends for the rest of your life is priceless. The Mustang community is more of a family and is very supportive,” Pitts says.

Every trainer interviewed, in fact, had positive things to say about the people they met. Especially for trainers who aren't going to top competitions, having this interaction can provide a boost in morale and networking.

“We all started at the same place [with the Mustangs]; we all know the challenges, struggles and successes that each of us has had with our horses; and after those initial introductions, we are not strangers—we are a tight-knit group of friendly competitors,” Perez said. “Everyone is so willing to help another competitor, we all cheer for each other, and there's always a shoulder to cry on or a pep talk in the alleyway when the nerves hit.”

For the Experience

It's one thing to have a new horse in the barn for training—certainly a learning experience in itself—but it's something else to have an undomesticated horse to start. “Every horse is so different that it is always a huge learning experience,” Perez said. “I love to learn as much as I can, and now that I'm so hooked I don't know if I will stop.

“I've even got my husband wanting to participate in a makeover next year, so it will be a family affair,” she continued. This family connection is one seen throughout the Mustang events with spouses and children of trainers getting involved.

Moles has taken students to Mustang challenges, too. The youth participate in in-hand classes only and are also offered prize money. Moles said she's watched youth do really well over the years, then turn 18 and beat out the adults who've been competing under saddle all along. So Mustang events are becoming a way for the next generation of horsemen and horsewomen to prove themselves, too.

The experience has its ups and downs, of course. “It's exciting in the beginning to be chosen and meet your Mustang for the first time,” Heffner said. “Then the pressure you put on yourself with the time restraints and the goals you have in mind to accomplish in a certain amount of time can lead to ups and downs. Then the hardest part is how you feel when it's over and you decide to let your Mustang go in the adoption or bid on it and take it back home. Finally, there's withdrawal when you get back home and can resume a normal training routine.”

While there is a vetting process for trainers wanting to take on a Mustang for the competitions, there's still a lot of danger involved in working with these horses. “I would advise [a new Mustang trainer] to apprentice with an experienced Mustang trainer if they have the opportunity first—just to observe and learn and see what it takes to gentle one from day one,” Pitts said. “I have witnessed inexperienced, amateur trainers getting themselves in dangerous situations, not even realizing it. If they are thinking about starting one under saddle, I recommend they start at least a 100 to 200 domesticated young horses first or they get help for the first few rides from someone who does have the experience.

“I would also advise them not to feel bad or hesitate to take a Mustang back to the BLM if they feel like they cannot handle it without getting themselves or the Mustang injured,” she stressed.

“On the other hand, I warn them, that they may fall in love with the horse and add another one to their feed bill at the end of the competition,” Pitts said with a smile.

Talking Strategy

“It's a calculated risk,” Moles said. “If it's their business, they need to make sure they make the top 10 or top 20 if it's going to be worth it.” And she's found creative ways to make her entries worthwhile.

One strategy was to partner with a client on a Mustang. The client adopted the horse and paid a partial training fee with the agreement that she and Moles would split the prize money.

Another means of making this venture worthwhile is sponsorship. Pitts has gotten sponsors to help cover $1,000 in costs for two of her three Mustang events.

Take-Home Message

From the horses to the “fame” and the prizes, the Mustang events are a new way for trainers to challenge themselves as professionals and put their names out there to the public. Learn about the Mustang Heritage Foundation's events at mustangheritagefoundation.org.

Mustang Money

If you are considering taking on a Mustang for a challenge event, you are taking on a project horse for a minimum of 120 days. Budget your costs ahead of time:

  • Board (whether or not you own your own farm)
  • Changes you need to make to your facility to safely keep an undomesticated horse
  • Feed
  • Hay
  • Farrier
  • Vet bills (Most of the trainers interviewed for this article said they felt lucky in not having significant vet bills while their Mustangs were in training.)
  • Transportation to and from the Mustang pickup sitTransportation to and from the event
  • Props and costumes for the event 
  • Your time training and caring for the horse