The audience waited for 19 mustang trainers, still just youths, to lead wild horses into the arena. Surely they couldn’t have made much progress in just 100 days? Then the show began, and the crowd watched the incredible display before them with open mouths.
The contest in question is the Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM), an annual competition co-organized by the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) and the Bureau of Land Management. The competition’s youth section allows horse trainers between the ages of eight to 18 years old to showcase their skills. Their horses are previously wild mustangs.
Online, one of EMM’s most popular competitions is its 2012 Youth Freestyle Finals. In fact, the YouTube video’s been watched more than 1.4 million times to date and liked by almost five thousand people. The footage shows just how amazing the contest’s entries are.
Among the 19 youths, the talent includes contestants such as Morgan Moreno and her mustang Charlie Brown. On the video, she displays how she’s taught Charlie Brown to hop over hurdles. Even more impressive, though, Charlie holds a balloon in his mouth and drops it into a bucket on command.
Charlie Brown isn’t the only mustang trained to hold things in his mouth, either. Hannah Catalino’s horse Harley also holds an inflatable football in its teeth and runs around the arena with it. In addition, the horse trainer taught Harley how to march like a dressage champion.
Many of the trainers exhibit balancing displays with their horses. A good example of this is McKoy Christiansen’s performance with his horse, Bubba. Although it might not seem the most visually impressive, it’s worth noting that free-roaming horses are notoriously stubborn.
Not only are they renowned for their independence, but people class wild mustangs as feral. Training them to do anything requires patience, dedication and skill. So you can imagine how hard it must have been for Luke Lundahl to convince a mustang like Rowdy to balance on a seesaw with him.
However, some of the balancing mustangs truly stand out from the crowd, including a horse called Shasta. She enters the arena with contestant Sierra Sawaya for a daring display. After racing around the arena with Sierra, Shasta bravely balances on a small, wheeled cart.
Additional equilibrium displays include Top Blonde’s walkway trot alongside her handler Amelia Rhodes, and Kellie Hunn’s show with Lacy. Amazingly, the latter horse shows excellent dexterity moving her hooves along a balancing beam, which proves Lacy’s trust in Hunn.
And trust plays a massive part in training horses, as the EMM contestants prove time and again. Seemingly simple acts, such as Jerrad Dittmer’s wheeled entrance with mustang McCoy, require mutual respect between horse and human. The same applies to Hannah Catalino’s similar performance with Ace.
Being in an arena with horses can be dangerous, especially previously wild ones. Even so, some of the trainers are arguably more at risk than others. In Tyler Brewster’s display, he stands on a show hoop holding the reins of his partner, Strawberry Shortcake, while she dashes around him.
It’s easy to see why EMM’s Facebook page describes itself as “the most talked about equine competition in America.” Where else can you watch a young girl like Chloe Chambers jump onto her horse from a trampoline? It’s amazing proof of her bond with the mustang she called Dante’s Dream.
Another stand-out feature of the event is how close contestants get to their mustangs. A single lashing hoof could end any one of the trainer’s lives. With this in mind, seeing Mikaela Sawaya guide her horse Amira by the tail is nail-biting.
Some competitors go even further than that. Jayde Dittmer crouches under his partner Wyatt’s body while the mustang stands on a balance board. Young Sarah Bowman also has a crouching routine with her tutu-clad horse.
However, Sarah differentiates herself in her performance by weaving a figure of eight around Dream On’s legs. The once-wild mustang waits patiently for its human to finish her routine throughout. Other entrants let their horse do all the moving.
Both Abby Brown with her mustang Ozzy and Nikki Bednarek with Whispering Hills Daisy Darling take this approach. Among their other tricks, they let their horses race around them. The humans take center stage, almost conducting the mustangs with reins and ribbons.
You may notice how trainers use reins to subtly signal commands, like Allison Reynolds does with Whispering Hills Pride. If you’re not dazzled by the costumes, that is. Tyler Brewster’s incredible presentation is performed on a blue ‘water’ mat with his horse Gideon dressed like a dinghy!
Michelle Deden put on another elaborate costume display with her horse, Jesse James. Both human and mustang are dressed in cowboy and bandit-themed clothes. The highlight is when Jesse James roles over and plays dead, as if he shot during the staged bank robbery.
Sebastian also joins in the American theme with his cowgirl-costumed human, Kaitlyn Shaheen. Sebastian proves what a considerate horse he is by picking up Kaitlyn’s dropped hat. EMM hopes the competition will “showcase the beauty, versatility and trainability of these rugged horses.”
Furthermore, it’s a good way for EMM’s co-organizers, the BLM, to give the mustangs new homes. “The BLM periodically removes excess animals from the range to ensure herd health and protect rangeland resources,” EMM’s Facebook pages explain. “Thousands of removed animals are then made available each year to the public for adoption. All of the animals involved in the Makeover competition will be available for adoption.”