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Wild Mustang Makeover

Last year’s Extreme Mustang Makeover winner was Kirsten Mew. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
The top 10 adult competitors in the Extreme Mustang Makeover will compete in the freestyle finals to showcase their horses’ new skills at a costumed and choreographed show with music. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation
Competitors showcase their horses’ new skills. Photo: Mustang Heritage Foundation

Program educates and increases awareness and adoption of horses that have been placed in holding corals

“I was very surprised I got on him as soon as I did,” Aiden Kramer, age 24, of Verona, says about his mustang, Silver Shyboy. “He was ready, trying and attentive, and watching every move I made. Half an hour to 45 minutes later, I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’—10 minutes later, my mind changed.”

Kramer and 15 other Kentuckians—a total of 61 adult and 36 youth trainers ages 8-17—will compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, June 21-23, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Contestants have 100-plus days to train their mustangs, competing for their share of $20,000 in prize money. 

Kramer says the video of the day one of training shows an overview. “It was 45 to 50 minutes before I could get him to let me touch him, another 30 minutes before I could rub him all over, and another 30 minutes before I could get up on his back.”

Education and awareness

Kari Sublett, executive director, Mustang Heritage Foundation, which has run the competition since 2006, says the non-profit organization works with the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program to educate, increase awareness and adoption of horses that have been placed in holding corals.

“There is an appropriate management level on the range. When above that level, the Bureau of Land Management (BLN) gathers animals and places them in off-range holdings (pens, corals, feedlot-type pens or pastures),” Sublett explains. “These options are extremely expensive for taxpayers. There are about 60-70,000 mustangs on the range right now, and about 40,000 in holding areas. We give these horses a life and something to do in private care. It’s also a benefit to taxpayers, to get them off the feed bill.”

Through this program, as of last year, Sublett says they’ve adopted out nearly 4,000 animals just through the Extreme Mustang Makeover events. The foundation also runs another program through which mustangs are adopted.

The concept of the Extreme Mustang Makeover is that trainers apply to the competition and the Mustang Heritage Foundation solicits with national advertising. Once trainers are approved, a horse is assigned to them.  Trainers travel to a Bureau of Land Management coral to pick up a horse, and take it home, where they will train and pay all the fees for the horse for 100 days.

Sublett says, “Most are backyard trainers, who have a profession during the day, but this is their weekend hobby, which makes it even more amazing for what they get done in 100 days. Approximately 40 percent are professional horse trainers.” Trainers will then bring the horse to the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.

Aiden Kramer, Verona, trains his wild mustang, Silver Shyboy, for the Extreme Mustang Makeover event June 21-23, 2018, at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo: Mary Strubbe
Aiden Kramer says, "It was 45 to 50 minutes before I could get him to let me touch him, another 30 minutes before I could rub him all over, and another 30 minutes before I could get up on his back." Photo: Mary Strubbe
Aiden Kramer uses a variety of liberty training techniques, which is meant to show the horse that the closer they are to you, the more comfortable and relaxed they should feel." Photo: Mary Strubbe
Aiden Kramer says Silver Shyboy is "a little on the lazy side, but he knows the only way he can be lazy is to do what I want as fast as he can, but then he wants a break." Photo: Mary Strubbe

Training a wild mustang

This is Kramer’s first time competing. “I’ve been following the group since they started about 11 years ago. I remember when I was in school, reading the article about the guy who won the first time, Guy Woods from Texas, jumping over a barrel. I was working with horses, but I wasn’t old enough to compete. At the time, they only had the adult makeover. But I think I sent away for a brochure, because I was interested.”

Kramer, who is a farm manager and horse trainer at Bavarian Meadows in northern Kentucky, says, “Bavarian Meadows used to be a boarding facility, but now it is a training facility. I primarily train race horses. It’s called saddle starting. When horses come to me, they are yearlings, or 2-year-olds, and they only know how to lead. Some are not even halter broke. Over am 8- to 10-week period, I will teach them how to carry a saddle, carry a rider—walk, trot and canter with a person on their back—how to be patient, wait, so you can groom them and load them on a trailer. I teach them everything they need to know so once they get to the track, they have a foundation.”

Kramer, who was born in Idaho and moved to Kansas at age 10, says he’s never broken a wild mustang before. “We had neighbors who lived 2 miles from us. They had eight or nine wild mustangs that they had adopted from the BLM. I’d go out there and see how close I could get with them, when I was 11 or 12 years old.”

He drove to Lebanon, Tennessee, to pick up his mustang, as did the other trainers. “I was very apprehensive, because the month or two leading up to it, I thought about what kind of horse I’d get, how long it would take to break it. There were some bigger trainers who had competed, and it took them 4-6 weeks before they could touch their horses. Some said they started off easy, the luck of the draw. Some said their horses seemed easy to work with in the beginning but became harder as they went along.”

He says, “Driving down and coming back, I’m thinking I’ve gotta get an easy horse. It motivated me for how I was working with the horse. I didn’t want to push it to do something. I think a lot of the rearing and striking out was its first feeling of being caught or claustrophobic. A horse’s first instinct is to fight.”

Kramer explains his early training with his mustang: “As soon as he starts to look at me, the rope went slack. I feel this is when the horse understands the feeling of the rope being pulled. When there’s a pull, it’s a question. If he answers the question right, then that feeling goes away. I was very careful to pull for only a certain amount of time. Not too long, but just enough. I paid attention to small details such as breaks and rewards. If he didn’t know what I was saying (with the training), then I slowed up.”

 

Putting himself on the line

Each mustang has a brand, which they receive when they are captured, representing the BLN Herd Management Area they come from and their birth month and year.

The trainers get to name their mustangs. Kramer named his 5-year-old mustang Silver Shyboy because “I wanted to piece his name together, so he still had a piece of the herd that he came from, the Silver King Herd Management Area in southern Nevada. Shyboy is inspired by the horseman, Monte Roberts, who wrote a book called Shyboy. The book about his life—the man who listens to horses—was the first horse book I ever bought or learned from. It has interesting principals, which he used (to train) a wild horse, with no fences. He documented it on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company). He used to be big in U.S. in the 1990s; he trained horses for the Queen of England, then she invited him over to train for her.”

Kramer is quick to make sure that others receive credit for the horse training techniques that he uses. “I do have a lot of the information I have or use that is not mine. A lot of my training techniques and concepts, I learn from other trainers.” His liberty training work with Silver Shyboy is inspired by Dan James of Double Dan Horsemanship in Midway, whom he’s been following the last three years in the Extreme Makeover and Road To The Horse (World Championships to Colt Starting) twice, which he says James won once.

“Liberty horse training is with no tact, no halter, just your hand whip,” explains Kramer. “Double Dan inspired a lot of the work I did with my mustang from the very beginning, the way I would walk in the pen the first day. I tried to follow his method as well as I could. Liberty training is meant to show the horse that the closer they are to you, the more comfortable and relaxed they should feel,” says Kramer.

“Monte Roberts is the main reason why I’m in horses right now, because of his book and studying his work. Also, I want to thank my parents, they gave me a lot of time, effort and driving me to all the places where I used to ride horses. They let me buy my first horse. I also draw a lot of inspiration from my grandparents. I think the biggest person driving me right now is my newborn baby son.”

Kramer ads, “Back in January when I first signed up, my wife Beth told me, ‘You really need to do this. It’ll all work out, put yourself on the line.” She pushed me to do it. When looking at the scheduling, I saw I would have the horse for a month, then we’d have a baby. That’s a lot of responsibility. So, it pushed me to do what I did at the very beginning, because I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time later on. The previous month was pretty hectic, but the last two weeks I have settled back into routine.”

 

How not to break a horse’s spirit

He describes Silver Shyboy as “an interesting character. He started sticking to me like glue. He’s a little on the lazy side, but he knows the only way he can be lazy is to do what I want as fast as he can, but then he wants a break. In liberty training, because there are no halters or ropes, there’s a self-expression or spirit that the horse can have. You want to make sure the horse can keep that. You don’t want to completely break them. You want them to have some character, some personality. If I ask for one big circle, he’ll do xyz….nose, prance, run in and get close and ask, ‘Can I take my break now?’ He likes to roll and lay on the ground. He likes to be real quiet and laid back.”

Kramer describes what will take place during the three days of extreme competition at the Kentucky Horse Park. The first part is handling and conditioning, which proves to the potential adoptee the the horse can be handled. The second part is basic riding/compulsory: you ride in, take your horse in a certain pattern going through the gates, a lead change, stop the horse and back the horse up. You do a spin in one direction, then another. The third part is trail class with obstacles, such as opening a gate, dragging a log on a rope for about 20 feet. (Kramer says, “They are work horses, they can do work.”) Then the freestyle event, with the top 10 adult trainers, is the final competition beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“I’m trying to make it to the final, costume/choreographed to show off how far I’ve taken this horse in 100 days. Once he has the basics down, I’ll be looking for what my horse is showing that he’s gifted at. My liberty work, I believe, will be a huge portion of the freestyle competition. I haven’t picked my music yet,” says Kramer.

“Another cool thing I was not expecting from the competition is the camaraderie among all the trainers,” says Kramer. “I have talked to the other Kentucky trainers. We definitely have talked a lot. Josh Knight of Midway, he works for Dan James. Colton is another trainer I met when we picked up our horses. We’ve exchanged information and quarks. Some of us are having a hard time (training our horses), some of us aren’t.”

For the Extreme Mustang Makeover event, trainers will invite people who they know in their communities to come out, watch the competition and bid on the horses they have trained. Sublett says, “The Mustang Heritage Foundation also advertises for ticket buyers and adopters. At the end all the animals are adopted to the public. That is the whole goal: to get them gentled so they are adoptable.”

She says, “Research showed that people hesitated to adopt wild mustangs because they were not comfortable with a wild horse. If the horse had a foundation (training), they would be more interested in adopting. We are providing the gentling and training, so these horses can be adopted.”

The Mustang Heritage Foundation has held 70-80 events over the past 12 years across the nation. This is the second year in a row that the national contest has been held at the Kentucky Horse Park.

 

Everyone bids to adopt the horse

The youth division for ages 8-17 works with 1- to 2-year-old horses. Sublett says, “Unlike adults, we don’t adopt their horses out at the end. They adopt them up front themselves,” adding that they found early on that it was sometimes too traumatic for younger trainers to have their horse adopted by someone else. Youth trainers do not saddle or ride the horses during competition, but show them in hand, on a lead line.

Sublett says, “A lot of the trainers buy their horses. But those who have competed with us for a while have figured out you can’t keep them all. Those who compete the first time will adopt their horse because they get linked to them. The trainers know they are preparing the horse for someone else. They have to bid just like anyone else on the horse.”

Sublett says, “All the trainers get 50 percent of the commission from the sale of the mustang. The average adoption of a horse is around $1,800 to $2,000, but they see upwards up $17,000 to $18,000 for some premium horses.  Some might be in the $700 to $800 range.”

Anyone can come out and adopt a horse. “We try to get as many potential adopters to attend as possible. It’s the final validation for the trainers that someone is willing to pay a premium to adopt their horse that they have trained,” says Sublett.

Kramer says, “It’s interesting to be a part of something bigger than you. And it’s a great opportunity to promote your work. Normally people aren’t that interested in your work (as a horse trainer).”

Come watch Thursday through Saturday

The public can come watch the three-day Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park for free Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until 4:30 p.m. Then at 4:30 p.m., a $15 ticket is required to watch the freestyle finals, where the top 10 adult competitors will showcase their horses’ new skills at a costumed and choreographed show. At the end, the adult-trained horses will be available to adopt during a public bid.

“Please come out and support the program and the trainers June 21-23 at the Kentucky Horse Park,” says Sublett. “While we are a non-profit 501(c)3 organization (donations are tax deductible), and we receive some government funds, that does not cover it all. Come to the event and buy a t-shirt or a ticket—it all helps support the Mustang Heritage Foundation and to get the horses adopted.” For hours and more information about this event, go to Extreme Mustang Makeover.

Will Aiden Kramer be bidding on Silver Shyboy come Saturday, June 23?

“Yes I will, because I’ve put so much time into him. I can only afford so much. I think there are a lot of people interested in him because of the promotion I’ve done online. On the flipside, I don’t have unlimited space. I do realize the whole purpose is for the mustangs to be adopted. It will be hard.”

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