Participants in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, to be held at the Midwest Horse Fair, are given just over 80 days in which to train a wild horse. Training their horses at The Farm on Serns Road are (left to right) Olivia McNulty on Indy, TJ Clibborn on Red and Tracy Porter on Mouse.
Photo By Jane Metcalf
From wild to wonderful in 80 days
Olivia McNulty’s horse, Indy, calmly trotted through a hanging row of brightly colored, plastic streamers blowing lightly in the breeze.
The horse walked up a plywood ramp that bowed under her weight. She jumped up onto a flatbed trailer, walked through a row of water-flotation tubes hanging from an overhead pipe, pivoted on her hindquarters and jumped off the back of the trailer.
Most horse owners would delight if their horses could tackle such maneuvers without balking or showing fear.
In McNulty’s case, the moves are all the more amazing when one considers she has been horseback riding for just two years, Indy is the first horse she’s trained and — just 80 days ago — Indy was a wild horse.
McNulty, 19, of Janesville, is a 2011 Janesville Craig High School graduate who now is pursuing a business major at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County.
She started working at The Farm, a horse boarding and training facility north of Milton at 9736 N. Serns Road a year ago and watched professional trainers TJ Clibborn and Tracy Porter, a husband-and-wife team, train wild mustangs for last year’s Extreme Mustang Makeover. She was intrigued.
This year, when the Extreme Mustang Makeover was scheduled to return to the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, McNulty threw her hat into the ring as one of 34 people to train a wild horse and compete in the nationally known event.
The Midwest Horse Fair will take place at the Dane County Fairgrounds on April 20 through 22.
Contest showcases beauty, versatility, trainability
The purpose of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, organized by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, is to showcase the beauty, versatility and trainability of the rugged horses that roam freely on public lands throughout the West.
The Bureau of Land Management protects these iconic animals under federal law and periodically removes excess horses from the range to ensure herd health and protect rangeland resources.
More than 3,300 wild horses have been adopted through Extreme Mustang Makeovers and other Mustang Heritage Foundation events since 2007.
The Extreme Mustang Makeover, which has taken place in Madison three times during its six-year history, gives professional trainers and amateur horse enthusiasts alike just over 80 days to train their wild horses.
All of the mares — female horses — for this year’s event were issued to the participants through a random computer draw. None had been touched by human hands until parceled out to the participants in mid-January.
While several Extreme Mustang Makeover participants are training out of a shared training facility, McNulty, Clibborn and Porter believe they are the only trio from the same facility in the competition to take a team approach to actively support and mentor each other.
McNulty, who will be among the younger of the trainers, appreciates the team approach.
“I couldn’t do it by myself. They’ve helped me tremendously,” McNulty said of Clibborn’s and Porter’s guidance. “If I’d had to do it by myself, my horse would still be in the stall. . . I was like a deer in the headlights.”
McNulty finds Indy has a sweet and loveable personality, and visitors to the farm are likely to find the mare with her head over her stall door looking for treats.
But it wasn’t always this way. Indy was extremely head shy when McNulty unloaded her at The Farm in January.
“She would do anything to avoid anyone touching her face,” McNulty recalls.
Horses are animals of prey, so their first instinct is to run away from anything they consider a threat, and their second instinct is to fight or attack if cornered.
The first job of McNulty, Clibborn and Porter was to gain the trust of their horses without putting their own lives in peril.
They started doing that by attaching a sponge on a stick and gently rubbing it over their horses’ bodies through the stall door. As the horses learned the object would not harm them, the trainers moved to the next step. In McNulty’s case, it took three weeks before she could touch Indy’s forehead.
“Now that’s all she wants,” she says.
Clibborn had a different challenge. His horse, Red, objected to the saddle’s cinch around its girth. While his horse gained enough trust in him to allow Clibborn to halter her the first day at The Farm, it was a full week before she was ready for a rider on her back.
Clibborn’s and McNulty’s horses are three years old. Porter’s horse, Mouse, is just 30 months old.
Mouse was born to a mare that had been captured as part of a mustang round-up by the Bureau of Land Management so, unlike most mustangs up for adoption, her birth date is known.
As a younger horse, Mouse has a quiet and gentle personality, but she lacks the balance, endurance and maturity of horses just a few months older, Porter explains. While she was able to ride Mouse the second day she was at The Farm, Porter’s training methods have required her to focus on encouraging and rewarding her to “go forward” and tackle new challenges.
The threesome initially spent about two hours a day getting acquainted with their horses, desensitizing them to their new surroundings and mastering basic skills. Now, they’re spending just an hour a day in training as the Midwest Horse Fair approaches.
“Now it’s crunch time,” Clibborn says, “but they’re still young horses, so you can’t push them too much.”
Critiquing the horses
At the Midwest Horse Fair, horses will be judged based on their body condition and their newly learned skills.
Participants will compete on Friday and Saturday in a series of classes that include leading the horse through an obstacle course, exercising the horse in a round pen without a halter, riding the horse through another obstacle course, dragging an object and 10 compulsory moves, including pivots and rollbacks.
The 10 horses with the top scores will compete in the finals on Sunday, with each horse starting the finals with an even score. At the end of the finals, all of the horses will be up for adoption via competitive bid. The top trainers will split a $10,000 purse and bragging rights.
Clibborn and Porter are not new to the Extreme Mustang Makeover. This year marks the fifth time Clibborn has trained a horse for an Extreme Mustang Makeover, and it is Porter’s fourth.
Last year, when the competition took place in Texas, Porter placed fourth in the competition with a mustang called Bling Bling. Clibborn’s best placing was in 2009, when he took fifth place with a mustang called Choke.
As veteran participants, Porter and Clibborn both have seen a growing effort over the Extreme Mustang Makeover’s relatively short history for participants to support and mentor other trainers. They are visiting each other, helping solve training challenges and keeping in touch online.
Porter and Clibborn clearly understand the rewards of mentoring others.
While they take pride in training horses for the public to adopt and they would like to place well in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, they are quick to say that mentoring McNulty has proven far more rewarding than seeing their own horses develop into well-trained mounts.
“Watching her grow with her horse has been the best thing,” Clibborn explained. “She has learned a lot in training this horse. . .to be training her first horse and for it to be a wild horse has been amazing. . . and it’s interesting to see how far they have come. It’s a journey.”