Her name is “Lil Bit,” although “Mustang Sally” might have been a fun choice, too. She’s 13.2 hands, five years old and a fan favorite in the regular pony hunter division, having graduated from green ponies last year. The former Wyoming mustang’s owner/rider is 13-year-old Casey Flanagan; the trainer who united them is Patty Reiff of Nokesville, Virginia.
Reiff, who herself competes on the A circuit, teaches 30 students on 11 horses—clients only own three. She brought Lil Bit home from Steve Mantle’s Ranch and Adoption Center in Wheatland, Wyo., in October 2003. Mantle is a private contractor for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who holds, trains and adopts wild horses—120 at a time.
Reiff remembers first meeting the little white mustang. The horse hid behind her, just as Mantle gently touched her. “She peeked around me,” remembers Reiff, “and I knew I could get her adopted.”
Her barn was perfect for introducing Lil Bit to other domestic horses. Reiff kept her in a round pen where she could interact, and worked with her diligently—even if for only five minutes daily. The routine included “ground work, putting weight on her, leaning on her and ground driving. When I got on her, it was a non-issue, but she did buck three times the first time I mounted without lunging her!”
Lil Bit, a.k.a. Pippi Longstocking, has given Casey confidence, says Reiff, who calls the mustang “the most friendly pony I have known. I just pet her and love her. It takes a while to get there and you do yourself and the horse a disservice if you don’t know what you’re doing. Mustangs aren’t going to waste energy, they’re not generally spooky, nor do they run off with kids. I put five-year-olds on this five-year-old.”
TIME ON THEIR SIDE
Mantle has 26 years’ professional experience and relies upon “pressure-and-release” techniques as his training basis. He breaks them to halter, some to saddle, and gentles all so an appropriate owner will pay $125 to take them home.
When other trainers visit, he says, egos can get in the way “when they’re over their head. Ego causes them to say ‘it’s the horse’s fault.’ The road to h*** is certainly paved with good intentions, and trainers make money on a horse’s back. It takes longer to get on a mustang’s back if you do it right,” says this veteran. He knows a mustang’s sense of self-preservation is 10 times stronger than that of a domestic horse.
“If it cow-kicks, strikes or enters the flight mode, you’re probably asking too much instead of reading what the horse was trying to tell you. He’s going to take care of himself.”
One time, Mantle had ridden a gray, fairly unbalanced mustang 25 times, and every time he’d walk the horse’s right side close to a blue plastic barrel, the mustang would move in the other direction. Mantle consistently stopped and put the horse away “so he could process what had happened. Don’t force them to do something they naturally can’t help doing.” This occurred six times, and finally, on the seventh try, success! “It finally worked,” says Mantle, “but most trainers just don’t have this kind of time. Tomorrow, if we start all over, who cares? This is how mustangs are wired.”
On the plus side, his mustangs don’t sport blemishes from wire or other cuts. “That same domestic horse will likely have marks and dings,” says Mantle. “These horses know no one will help them if they’re hurt and they’ll be food for something else. That’s why they’re still here. So you can’t force a mustang to do anything. You won’t win.”
Most mustangs he’s “graduated” go on to be pleasure and trail horses, but mustangs have also become hunters, jumpers, dressage horses and more. “Sometimes at the dinner table, I’ll ask, ‘I wonder what happened to…?’ I do love to get feedback,” says Mantle.
He—and they—are a Rocky Mountain institution—The Westernaires (www.westernaires.org), a non-profit organization for more than 1,000 dedicated young people, ages 9 to 19, from Jefferson County, Colo., that encourages self-respect, responsibility and leadership through horsemanship and family participation. Oh, and can they ride!
Meet Glen E. Keller, Jr., training director, who’s overseen this famous group for 18 years and now includes 50 mustangs in his herd, most from BLM adoptions, but a couple from well-meaning adopters. He’s had fewer problems with mustangs than with any other breed.
“They’re the fittest of the fit, easier to manage and they’re easy keepers who do dominate feeding time with a ‘get it right now’ demeanor,” he observes.
His horses come green broke from a 90-day Canon City, Colo., prison program where the pressure and release technique is used. To get them ready for his Fort Westernaire precision mounted drill curriculum, his seasoned older riders then teach horses about fast-paced maneuvers, flags and galloping toward each other, and passing very closely.
“A wild horse’s natural tendency would be to avoid all of this,” says Keller, “plus here, they meet multiple people versus one. Not all mustangs easily adapt to that.” If a handler is not up to the horse, Keller knows “it will learn to take advantage and develop bad habits really quick.”
That daily work fosters domestication and suitability for pleasure riding. “If you think you’ll bring them into the barn and ride once a week or month, you’re wrong, because they won’t retain all the things you taught them previously and you’ll be sorely disappointed.”
Oh, and mustangs aren’t what we’d call “overachievers,” as Keller well knows. “They have a natural tendency not to want to do more than they have to do, like some people. They need to do what you initially ask them and when they understand that, you get along fine.”