Saturday, May. 25, 2024

An “Unadoptable” Mustang Became The USEF National Horse Of The Year



It’s a list of accolades few horses have achieved in their life—world titles in western dressage, national titles in classical dressage through Prix St. Georges, and immortalization as a Breyer model horse. It’s impressive before accounting for the fact that the 2018 USEF National Horse of the Year is a mustang.

And he’s done it all with a stark white four-digit freezebrand on his hip—the BLM code for “unadoptable.”

“The four digits signify that he is what the BLM calls a ‘three strikes horse,’ meaning he’d been offered for adoption three times or more and never selected,” explained Marsha Hartford-Sapp, who met Cobra in a BLM corral as her assigned horse for the 2010 Extreme Mustang Makeover. “When that happens, or when the horse reaches a certain age, they’re officially deemed ‘unadoptable,’ and that’s when they get the brand.”

Three strikes horses are then offered for sale and no longer have the protection of federal ownership in their first year of domesticity.

In the past decade, Hartford-Sapp, 39, has trained 30 horses through the Extreme Mustang Makeover at the farm she owns with her husband, Bill Sapp, Southern Oaks Equestrian facility in Tallahassee, Florida. The program pairs approved trainers with wild mustangs who then have 100 days to train the feral horses before competing in one of the regional championships, after which the horses are typically offered for sale through a public auction.

The 2010 event allowed trainers to adopt their horses in advance, an option Hartford-Sapp typically wouldn’t have entertained. But as soon as she heard Cobra’s story, she knew he was different.

“I honestly didn’t know who else would want to ride a horse with a giant hip brand like he has, one that essentially means he wasn’t wanted,” Hartford-Sapp said. “And he was already 6 years old. I decided right away that I would keep him because that was the fair thing for the horse.”


Cobra has been immortalized as a Breyer model. Kim Chason Photo

Cobra, now 15, is tall for a mustang, nearly 15.2 hands, and his regal, uphill carriage impressed Hartford-Sapp before she even got him home. His attitude, on the other hand, needed some adjusting.

“The very first day I worked with Cobra, I sent him around the round pen, changing directions, just getting used to things out of the wild,” Hartford-Sapp said. “Within the first five minutes, he had started circling in closer and closer to me. His ears were back, his tail was wringing in a circle, and he charged me. I ran to the wall, scurried over it and went back in the barn for reinforcements. I found a longe whip with a plastic bag to keep him off of me and keep him from charging again. Thankfully that worked.


“But it was fight or flight for him, and he couldn’t leave,” Hartford-Sapp continued. “He only had fight as the ultimate mode of displaying his thoughts about everything!”

Cobra came around quickly, which Hartford-Sapp says is highly typical with mustangs in her experience. What they lack in life experience, they more than make up for in Darwinian survival skills.

“In the wild, a horse has to get along with the herd in order to stay in it and thereby stay safe,” Hartford-Sapp said. “If they get kicked out of their herd, they’re going to get eaten by the cougar. So these horses, once they figure out that you’re a good leader and a fair leader, they really latch on to you and want to please you, because that’s what their instincts tell them to do. Their trainability is super high, much higher than I ever expected. They progress at an astronomical pace.”

While Hartford-Sapp insists that Cobra isn’t one wit smarter than the average mustang, she concedes that his athleticism sets him apart. After competing in the Makeover event in 2010, Hartford-Sapp tested the waters with Cobra at a local dressage show where he scored in the 70s at introductory and training levels, securing high point awards both for the event and the year.

Hartford-Sapp suspected he might have a future in the sport, but between her clients, horses in training, and her position as coach for the Florida State University equestrian team, she doesn’t spare much time for her own horses. So after sixth months of intensive training, Cobra went out to pasture where, excepting a workout or two a week, he spent his time settling in to the domesticated life.


Marsha Hartford-Sapp brought Cobra from an untouched wild horse to competing at Prix St. Georges. Photo Courtesy Of Marsha Hartford-Sapp

When he started training again, it was almost by default.

“I decided that I wanted to show a little bit of recognized dressage and at least get my USDF bronze medal. As a colt starter, I don’t have a lot of horses with advanced training at my disposal. But I did have this mustang,” she explained with a laugh.

Cobra had a clear talent for canter work, learning flying changes with only 60 days under saddle. His trot, however, lacked suspension, and the extensions were a challenge, so Hartford-Sapp sought out help from Iris Eppinger and Sandra Beaulieu. In his first year of recognized competition, Cobra debuted at first, second and third level in rapid succession, earning scores high enough to secure Hartford-Sapp’s bronze medal. Meanwhile, Cobra claimed Adequan/USDF All Breeds honors as a reserve champion at first level in 2013, then as champion at third level in 2014.

As much as she enjoyed the awards, Hartford-Sapp reveled in the extra attention Cobra got for the very feature she worried would hold him back—his tattoo.


“I would take him to the warm-up pens, and everyone would be out on their fancy warmbloods, and they would say, ‘Why does he have that number on his hip?’ ” Hartford-Sapp said. “I would laugh and joke that it’s so I can see him from my helicopter, which I figure is what the BLM does it for. But then I’d explain what it meant.

“It just made for an interesting story with a really great message,” Hartford-Sapp continued. “I got to meet lots of people I wouldn’t have met except they wanted to know about my horse.”

In addition to USDF showing, Hartford-Sapp found a home in western dressage aboard Cobra. He was the recipient of the inaugural USEF Horse of the Year award for western dressage level 1 in 2015.

“Both types of dressage are based upon principles of training to improve the horse, their rideability and strength and how they carry themselves,” Hartford-Sapp explained. “In the western dressage, the horses are lighter in the contact, the gaits don’t have to be as large, and they’re not required to have as much animation or extension. It’s super attainable for every breed of horse in the universe, and it’s an incredible fit for my mustangs. I’ve had three land national titles, and I’m hoping more will in the future.”


Cobra’s become an ambassador for the mustang. Photo Courtesy Of Marsha Hartford-Sapp

According to Hartford-Sapp, western dressage is just one of the ways that training mustangs has broadened her horizons. Overall, the experience of working with wild horses has delivered exactly the kind of personal and professional growth she sought when she first applied to the Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2009.

“What I wanted was to pit my skills against a wild horse and see what would come from that empty canvas,” said Hartford-Sapp, now the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, Dana Lynn Sapp. “I learned what things I do really well, and I learned what things I do that I need to improve upon as a trainer. I learned how effective I was being because the horse told me.

“Honestly, I think everyone that trains horses for a living should give it a try,” she continued. “They’re not just going to improve the life of a horse, but they’re probably going to find that they improve themselves, too.”

Cobra has officially retired from competition and will celebrate his exit from the arena with a Breyer ceremony later this spring. He’ll continue his training at home and will travel for demos, but mostly enjoying the well-earned life of domestic comfort that seemed categorically untenable for him just nine years ago.

Yet in a sense, that tattoo on his hip is finally true. He is indeed “unadoptable.” His home, now and forever, is in the first stall on the left in Hartford-Sapp’s bustling barn, where he greets every passerby with a nuzzle.




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