Ocala, Florida, known as the “Horse Capital of the World”, is a somewhat tropical landscape with a vast equine history. Regardless of the widespread development taking over the state, it is a haven for competitive and casual riders alike, with beautiful trailheads and state-of-the-art professional facilities catering to many equine disciplines. It regularly features highly recognized events and exhibitions, such as the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion earlier this year.
The word “freedom” is defined by Oxford Dictionary as the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. It is a word that most Americans recognize, revere, and use as a mantra for their political views. However, when it comes to the wild horses, there are many different sentiments.
As a journalist it is imperative to have an unbiased, objective mindset – to solely report facts and events as they happen. However, it doesn’t mean you are void of passion or compassion…and as someone who advocates the end of the Bureau of Land Management’s inhumane practice of wild horse roundups, the Extreme Mustang Makeover was an event I approached with both curiosity and apprehension.
So armed with pen, paper, and my camera, I decided to attend the first day of the Extreme Mustang Makeover to see what it was all about.
What is the Extreme Mustang Makeover?
The Extreme Mustang Makeover is held strictly for wild horses obtained through the BLM. Contestants have 100 days from the time of acquiring their new equine friends, whether through purchase or adoption, to prepare themselves for the event.
The event itself consists of three classes: Handling & Conditioning, Trail, and Maneuvers. The Handling & Conditioning as well as the Trail classes are divided into two groups, youth and adult, but Maneuvers are limited to adults only. The top ten winners of those classes go on to compete in a freestyle competition, and the winners are awarded $40,000 in cash and prizes.
On the final day of the event, once the awards are given, owners of horses can choose to sell or not; for those who do, the horses are then auctioned off to the highest bidders.
At the Ocala event there were over 30 contestants, youth and adult. All of the once wild horses were from the Diamond Hills region of Nevada.
Handling & Conditioning was the class underway upon my arrival, spectators steadily arriving as the morning progressed. By the time afternoon arrived, the bleachers were beginning to look heavy.
In this class, the trainer leads a horse into a pen located in the arena. They unhalter the horse and the trainer exits the pen. Horses are then assessed by a judge for weight, muscle, and overall condition and appearance. The relationship between trainer and horse is noted. The trainer returns and halters the horse, leading it out of the pen to continue maneuvers in the arena. Those maneuvers include walking, trotting, stopping, backing up, picking up feet (front & back), and entering and exiting a horse trailer.
The Maneuvers class consists of a horse’s ability and willingness to complete a set of actions. Contestants can compete in either English or Western disciplines. A 360° pivot is included, with English riders completing that segment by turning on the backhand while Western riders spin. The horse is judged on his reaction and responsiveness to his trainer; they are also asked to walk, trot and canter, change direction, stop, back, pivot, sidepass, two track, and make lead changes.
The Trail class is a combination of leading and riding, with the horse being asked to maneuver through rails, logs, poles, cones, obstacles, and also to go backwards and forwards in a chute. They are brushed, and all four feet are picked up (one at a time). When ridden, they lope or canter in a circle to the right and then to the left, and pick up and carry or drag an object.
The top ten Mustangs are then chosen for finals, with the finals consisting of compulsory and freestyle classes.
In compulsory, contestants have 90 seconds to complete a pattern of eight maneuvers with the list given at time of the class. Horses are judged on their mental and physical response to the trainer’s request along with their willingness and ability. The compulsory maneuvers are much of the same required throughout previous classes, but also include a roll back.
The Freestyle performance class has trainers choosing music, props, and costumes to entertain the crowd while showcasing their horse’s abilities.
They are judged on their overall performance, horsemanship, and communication between horse and rider with the horse’s overall willingness to perform and execute maneuvers in a controlled and relaxed manner. The entertainment portion is judged on composition, arrangement, creativity, and overall audience reception.
Still Bigger Questions
What I really wanted to know was: how does the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the Mustang Heritage Foundation benefit the wild horses? How do the people involved with this event feel about the BLM? Do they agree with the roundups? How do they feel about the 50,000 horses captive in holding pens? Were they aware of what was taking place with disease breaking out, horses dying? (At this writing, over 100 horses have died from the equine virus that broke out in a Colorado holding facility.)
I ambled my way through the bleachers, sat down next to a group of people, and asked them why they were attending. They pointed to a friend of theirs who was in competition, so I spoke with her as well. (Names and some identifying details have been withheld to protect their privacy.)
She was from the state of Georgia, and this was her 10th Mustang. She sold all but a couple (and had other horses as well). She had also won a couple of TIP challenges – the Trainer Incentive Program, also held by the Mustang Heritage Foundation. TIP is a training and adoption program that has approved horse trainers tame the wild horses and burros and find homes for them. If the new homes are approved, the trainers are reimbursed for their services.
I asked about her background, and confirmed she had been around horses most of her life. While going through depression, a friend suggested a challenge – and the Mustangs and the Mustang Heritage Foundation came into play.
And then I asked the question: How do you feel about the wild horse roundups? Do you think they are necessary?
Her answer: “Absolutely, those horses need to be with people, they love people and they will suffer if left in the wild, and they are damaging the environment.”
What about the 50,000 being held captive in holding pens? “Well that’s why we are here, to train them and find homes for them.”
I did not receive a ready answer for my question about the disease spreading (or if received it, I did not hear); since I could see by then that those sitting close by were getting uncomfortable with the conversation, I thanked her, wished her luck, and moved on.
Next, I spoke with two people affiliated with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, both of whom were pleasant and I believe have integrity and the horses best interest at heart. Both had experience working with Mustangs, and one had just adopted a burro. However, neither could speak with me regarding the BLM or the roundups – and I understood; the foundation would most likely prohibit such discussion.
Happily Ever After
As I was making my exit later in the day, I had the chance to speak to Roy Smith and meet his paint horse Bo-Bo (short for Bambino, a three year old pinto gelding and the only pinto shown in the event). He and his friend, veteran Capt. David Anthony – trainer of another Mustang contestant, Crimson Tank – had traveled all of the night before from Bourbonnais, Illinois to Florida so they could compete in the EMM.
It was a pleasure speaking with Roy, as he stated that this was a childhood dream come true for himself and Capt. Anthony. It had only been a few months prior that they made their way to a sale in Bell, Florida to acquire Bo-Bo. While we spoke, Bo-Bo remained calm and, though curious, was content to stay relaxed under Roy Smith’s watchful eye.
Smith, who trains racehorses in Illinois, was excited to actually be riding for a change! He explained that while he had been involved with horses most of his life, this was his first real saddle mount. Most of his contact had been through watching rodeos as a kid, and then later with the thoroughbreds on the track.
Smith was a person who appeared to truly love his horse, and was there for the horse as well as himself. While I did not meet Capt. Anthony personally, Smith spoke highly of him. I wish them both the best of luck.
What is the Mustang Heritage Foundation?
The Mustang Heritage Foundation is a 501K non profit organization founded in 2001 and states on their website that it was implemented to support the BLM. They also state they have placed nearly 2,500 horses and burros, and saved the Bureau of Land Management nearly $123 million dollars.
They also have a program for veterans and active military, using the horses as therapy and a hands-on experience. I applaud the Mustang Heritage Foundation for giving back to those who have and are serving our country.
But what about the 50,000 (and increasing) horses in holding pens, and the millions it is costing the taxpayers? 2,500 horses adopted is just 5% of those captured, a mere drop in the water bucket. Add the now-spreading virus and vet care to the increasing costs of feed, and the costs are going to keep escalating, and rapidly.
The following statement was made in their event brochure: “On December 18, 1971 President Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act into law. For the first time, wild horses and burros on Federal lands were provided with a legally protected status and placed under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. This year join the BLM in celebrating 50 years of protection and management of wild horses and burros under the act, and consider bringing home a wild horse or burro of your own!”
Really? 50 years of protection? More than 50,000 horses taken away from the way of life nature intended for them, a life of freedom that most of those in captivity will never see again – fated to live the rest of their lives stuffed in pens, suffering from illness, some trafficked to our borders for slaughter…and you call that protection?
Not counting those who were adopted by people who were paid $1000 dollars to take a horse home (with some never owning or even experiencing a horse prior to adoption, let alone a wild one) – how are they defining protection?
The only upside I could take away from the Mustang Heritage Foundation was the idea that some of the Mustangs captured were at least given a chance to become wanted, rideable, and have some sort of a future that isn’t simply suffering. But the percentage is small, and does not heal the wounds the BLM has created with the continued practice of these roundups.
With climate change, inflation, and current world events, it is my belief that conditions are going to continue to worsen. Last year’s drought and economic inflation has already put many horse owners in a place they do not want to be; for example, a local hay company I normally do business with has no hay to sell to locals after the first cut made in 2022. The reason? Because someone big in business bought everything baled in one sale, leaving locals to suffer.
As for the BLM’s claim that they are protecting the environment by removing native horses and burros, and then giving allotments to the cattle ranchers…
Follow the money.
what is my takeaway?
As a writer, I wanted an objective look at the Mustang Heritage Foundation and its contribution to the wild horses of America.
As a horse lover, I wanted to believe there was hope in what they had to offer.
I came away with some positive thoughts, but the reality is the Mustang Heritage Foundation is only putting a band-aid on a repetitive wound created by the BLM.
50,000 horses – and counting, because the BLM is NOT done eradicating the wild horses and burros from their native habitat, turning a deaf ear to all the evidence that this is a harmful practice and scheduling future round-ups.
The cost to the taxpayer is monumental and keeps rising as the prices for feedstuff and care also keeps rising. The cost to the wild horses and burros is captivity, sickness and death. Yes, a small percentage are being adopted, but to what circumstances? Follow-up is supposed to happen, but it has been proven some of the wild horses adopted ended up at slaughterhouses at our borders. By paying those adopting $1000 for each horse, without vetting or screening the human taking them home for ability or an appropriate environment…is that really an adoption?
I left the Extreme Mustang Makeover with a sense of sadness…because for many of the 50,000 horses currently in captivity, any positive changes to their circumstances may arrive too late. The only freedom they will experience is when they no longer inhabit their bodies, and their souls can escape to run wild once more.
However, I also left with a sense of renewed determination that now, more than ever, wild horse advocates need to become even more vocal – to educate and exercise their own freedoms, whether it’s of speech or at the polls.
Regardless of what the BLM preaches, removing the wild horses will damage the environment, not save it. There are actually countries who protect their wild horse herds in order to protect their environment! What are they seeing that the BLM does not? We’re working to find out.
The BLM must be more transparent and held accountable. Stay vigilant and vocal with your representatives, educate your friends and family, and together we can keep the wild horses wild.