Eventer Elisa Wallace is always up for a challenge, so when she heard about the Extreme Mustang Makeover, she knew she had to try.
Started in 2007 by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the competition pairs trainers from all over the country with wild mustangs looking for adoptive homes. Trainers have 120 days to turn the mustangs into suitable pleasure horses. The horses are then shown and auctioned off to the public at the finals, held this year in Clemson, S.C.
Wallace, Jasper, Ga., heard of the Mustang Makeover from fellow Georgia trainer Rebecca Bowman, but she was too busy with her Team Wallace Eventing business to try it. When she realized she’d have a light summer this year, she signed up.
Once an application is submitted and approved, trainers are randomly matched with a mustang, but they must have the facilities to house one, including an area with a 6-foot fence, and they’re responsible for all costs, although a $700 reimbursement is provided.
The other trainers competing are primarily western, and Wallace believes she’s the first eventer to take on the challenge. “We kind of think outside the box and deal with different kinds of horses,” she said. “These horses are really incredible. If you can find one that’s built well, they are good, sturdy, intelligent, brave horses that are often really good movers and can jump. They tell you to get a 6-foot wall for a reason!”
In late June, Wallace was matched up with a 3-year-old that she named Fledge, after the magician’s nephew’s chestnut horse in the “Chronicles of Narnia” books. “It’s kind of scary, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. They haven’t had any human touch except when they’re moved from pen to pen to be separated,” she said. “The funny part is, they’re supposed to be all geldings. I got mine home, and he had two extra friends! I had him gelded, and the BLM reimbursed me for it.”
Wallace had previous experience with mustangs, and she said they can be quirky and weird but also incredibly intelligent.
Fledge turned out to be the latter. On his first day, Wallace turned him loose in a round pen and got him used to human handling. “I was able to touch him all over, pick up his feet, make him yield his haunches both ways, lead and jump next to him and lean on his back,” she said.
By Day 2, Wallace had led Fledge outside the round pen, pulled his mane, given him a bath and ridden him at the walk. At the end of his first week, he went on a trail ride and was walking, trotting and cantering under saddle.
Wallace attributed much of Fledge’s success to her being able to work with him for 55 out of the first 60 days she had him, incorporating ground work and play with riding. “They’re so smart that you have to catch yourself. I would show him something, and he would learn it really quick, but as a trainer you have to slow down so he won’t get confused. He would figure something out and then try to do it all the time. But it’s also trying to keep him from getting bored,” she said.
Wallace, 30, taught Fledge tricks to keep his interest. He learned to get on a pedestal, lie down, come when he’s called, and let Wallace stand on his back and jump off. “Once he learned to trust me, boy, was he loyal,” she said. “He’s taught me a lot about teaching a young horse by being creative and keeping a lot of variety. It’s easy to just think, ‘Oh he’s just 3, I just need to walk and trot.’
“My goal for him was to make him an all-around horse. And I’m very competitive, so I want to win,” continued Wallace. “The competition is more western-based, so I wanted him to be able to do everything. That’s how I like to bring all of my horses along. I’ve tried to accentuate what he already has and make sure I don’t have any holes in him.”
Fledge turned into quite the pet. “He’s very much an old soul type. If you see him in the barn, you wouldn’t think he’s a 3-year-old mustang,” said Wallace. “People call him my dog. He’s very quiet and kind of like an old man. But every now and then he likes to tell me what I’m doing wrong. He is a red head, he can have his opinions, but for the most part he’s a very willing horse.”
Wallace kept up a blog on her website, teamwallace.org, to track her progress with Fledge, and the little gelding amassed quite the following. “I would post a lot of stuff but wouldn’t get a tons of responses about it. But then I would go to all these horse trials, and people that I don’t know would be like, ‘We just love your little mustang!’ He’s getting around,” she said.
At the end of her 120 days, Wallace took Fledge to the finals, held Oct. 19-21, where she competed against 45 other mustangs and their trainers. Most of the mustangs were auctioned off after they performed, but trainers are allowed to bid on their horses, and as Wallace grew more attached to Fledge, she hoped to win her horse back.
The weekend started off with a handling portion where competitors had to show the judges and audience that their mustang was safe on the ground. Wallace and Fledge placed third there and moved on to the trail class, where she had to lead the gelding over obstacles and do a reining pattern. They placed third again to qualify for the freestyle. “It was very nerve-wracking because it’s so precise. I was really nervous about doing the reining pattern. Right before it, my legs were shaking!” she said.
Riders who made it to the top 10 had to complete compulsory movements including walk, trot, canter, a spin and a lead change before moving on to a freestyle. Wallace knew she had to go big to win, so she rode Fledge without a bridle or saddle, jumped, and showed off some of the tricks she taught him.
“I noticed a lot of the other cowboys were going in there and being really tentative. This is the finals! We went out there and just had fun,” said Wallace. “The more the crowd yelled and whooped and hollered, the more Fledge enjoyed it. He was never nervous in there. We had so much fun; I can’t really describe it.”
Watch their performance.
That performance netted them the win, but Wallace’s joy was short-lived with the auction coming up the next day.
“I would think about not having him, and I’d start to cry. Sunday was awful!” said Wallace. “I put his halter on to go to the arena where the auction was starting, and I lost it. When you get in front of the auctioneer, they want you to tell about your horse. I was fine until I got the mic, then I lost it [again].”
Wallace told the crowd that she really wanted to keep Fledge, and someone even shouted “Don’t bid!” but one person did. Luckily, she was able to place the winning bid at $1,000, and because trainers are given $700 towards the purchase of their horse and 20 percent of the sale price, she ended up paying $140.
“I think he was worth $140 bucks!” she said. “Afterwards, I had people coming up to me saying I was a legend and these old cowboys were coming up to me saying I inspired them to ride better. It was just crazy!”
Wallace isn’t sure what discipline Fledge will wind up doing, so for now he’s on a bit of a holiday, hacking and playing with groundwork. The organizers of the Extreme Mustang Makeover approached her about giving demonstrations next year, and Wallace has been inspired to try her hand at the Mustang Million next year, a similar competition with more prize money.
“[Winning this] is up there with winning a three-star with my advanced horse. It’s an experience that’s one of the highlights of my career,” she said. “I didn’t have to win it; it was just a great feeling about the relationship and what he’s taught me. It’s just a lot of respect that you get for horses when you go through the process, especially when you have one that trusts you as much as he does.”