The mustang may be the ultimate American symbol of strength, intelligence, beauty and independence – all qualities people hold in high regard. Qualities taught by 4-H.
Julia Shock has been leader of the LaBelle Silver Spurs 4-H Horse Club for nine years, participating in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse adoption through the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program (MHF TIP). Wild horses may teach these long-held 4-H values in a little more extreme way than most clubs.
Given that these animals weigh hundreds of pounds and have only known freedom in the Nevada wilds for their entire lives, fending off predators and foraging for survival, they demand a lot of respect. Respect and responsibility are just naturally built into the Silver Spurs program. Julia points out that successfully relating to these animals begins with these two attributes.
It’s a learning process for both animal and trainer that comes with a huge learning curve – and only 100 days to make it happen. Then the club puts on an exhibition with horse and trainer and the mustangs go up for adoption.
With a lot to do in such a short time, the kids have to be dedicated. Missing even a day working with their horse makes a huge difference. The training must be one-on-one – individual trainer and horse first gaining each other’s trust. All the members must have parental consent and their own insurance. Parents are welcome to come watch, but Julia makes sure they understand that she is in charge. Even for adults experienced with handling horses, these mustangs are a different breed.
The mustangs, all no more than two years old, arrived here just a couple weeks ago in mid-May. They must be ready for the show September 9 when the trainers will showcase them in three areas: Conditioning, In-Hand Obstacle Course and Freestyle Class (which includes four minutes of whatever the 4-H’er wants to do, set to music).
Of the 36 young people in the Silver Spurs club, 11 are participating in the mustang project this year. Those 11 gather at their training area in Muse daily. Each earned $25 to pay for their mustang (the program is open to individuals at a cost of $125). At the end of the September showcase, the young trainers may put their horse up for adoption or may keep it.
Mustangs are the descendents of the original horses the Spanish brought to America in the 1500s, surviving in the wild. The program is part of the BLM’s efforts to keep the herd healthy. These wild horses are rounded up October through December in Nevada. Horses must be ordered in September and are delivered in May.
Julia pairs each horse with one of her club members. A BLM/MHF TIP trainer and 4-H leader, Julia has adopted six mustangs herself over the years, through the BLM’s foster program. All that experience has taught her to be tough on the young trainers. She helps them through new skills the first time, then the younger trainer is on their own, under Julia’s supervision.
In addition to spending time building a relationship between trainer and horse, Julia stresses understanding body language, brushing and bonding in training a wild mustang. It is absolutely essential that the trainer pay attention to what their horse is telling them with their body, she said. The position of their ears, their legs and so on will tell you exactly how that horse is feeling. That may be the most important skill to have when dealing with a wild horse. Not to recognize those feelings at a glance and respect them, is to invite trouble with a large and powerful animal.
Not mastering the skill of understanding body language with a mustang is “unforgiving,” she acknowledges. You must always keep in mind these powerful animals can hurt you.
Spending time every day with your horse – brushing them and working with them – it all pays dividends in the end, but it takes a lot of patience.
These young trainers can testify to the amount of work that goes into their endeavor.
Brittany Totterdale, 17, trained her mustang, Nevada, last year and also owns a quarter horse. Through the process she said has learned that “Mustangs are incredibly smart.”
Nine-year-old Yasmin Soto said she “loves it.” As her first time training a horse, she said she especially loves that the trainer and horse learn from each other. Yasmin keeps learning and trying hard. On Day 3 of training she managed to get a “hug” from her mustang. “It’s time and patience,” she said, “and not giving up”
Adult volunteers help as well. Like “Miss Mary” Grant. This is her third year with the program. She said she has been around horses all her life but has never had a mustang. People trust Julia with their kids, she said, because she’s fair. All the kids are treated the same – she’s tough on everybody. Mary said she is grateful for Julia’s influence on the kids.
Mary said she trained a burro for a BLM program once so she understands the process. Her daughter, Becca, is 11 and is also used to horses. She said her horse, Warrau Warrior, has taught her that mustangs are at a “whole ‘nother level.”
Twelve-year-old Aracely Villa is training her second mustang and notes that each one is unique, saying that this year’s horse is much different from last year’s.
Another young trainer, Judith Warren, commented that she did not expect to find so much camaraderie in the group, saying, she’s found “so many friendly people coming together” for the program.
Working with horses will teach you to accept responsibility. Julia’s daughter, Sevyn, points out that “When you’re having a problem with your horse, it’s usually your own fault,” and reiterates that you will get hurt if you don’t pay attention to his body language.
Patrick Taylor, 16, (and the only boy in this year’s group) has worked with horses about ten years and said this experience with the mustangs is helping him understand other horses, as well. He also noted that the experience with ten girls in the club has been “dramatic.”
The lessons these young trainers learn are not just for the horse arena. They all transfer to the larger world and their family, Julia points out. The 2017 4-H Youth Mustang Challenge will be held Saturday, September 9, at Sweet Cypress Ranch. The public is welcome to come watch. Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted. The club uses the money, along with fundraisers throughout the year, to pay for the horses’ needs. Support from local businesses, like K&M Pharmacy, LaBelle Ranch Supply and the Tractor Supply have been awesome in helping the club.
Meanwhile, the young trainers continue to work hard, bond with their mustangs and learn the special lessons they have to teach.