Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Collins a chance for kids to change horses’ lives — and their own
Rachel King graduated high school on May 20, but she didn’t spend the night before filled with butterflies about moving her tassel from right to left. She slept on a cot by the stall of her bay filly, Copper.
While her classmates wore caps and gowns, she was wearing a cowboy hat and boots.
Missing her graduation ceremony came with a prize rather than a price. The Golden, Colo., girl and Copper won the youth division’s grand championship at the Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Collins, Colo.
The national event, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, was held May 20 and 21 at Colorado State University’s B.W. Pickett Equine Center. Mustangs and trainers were paired up by a random drawing 100 days prior.
Before the competition, the mustangs were all free-roaming and had never been trained. The trainers had to teach them how to work on a halter and be comfortable around humans, as well as with saddles, bridles and distractions like props and costumes.
In the youth division, 10 children ages 10-17 were assigned 2-year-old fillies or gelded colts to school in groundwork. Unlike adult trainers, youth competitors were allowed to keep their horses. The horses from the adult division were auctioned off at the end of Saturday’s events. Several trainers bought theirs back.
Young trainers are critically important to the Mustang Heritage Foundation as the future of its various programs, including EMM. Many intend to pursue equine careers following high school or college.
Andie Jensen graduated on Saturday from Windsor High School and will attend Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., on an equestrian scholarship. She’ll major in ag business and ride on the school’s equestrian and ranch horse teams. Jensen, who’s been riding since she was 7, competed in EMM with 2-year-old pinto filly Tanzee.
“This new experience presented challenges but was worth it,” Jensen said. “I plan to hopefully finish (training) Tanzee, show her at the Weld County Fair, do trail riding and enter small competitions. This was my first time working with a mustang.”
One of the younger participants was Thea Bekkedahl, 13. She’s no greenhorn to the event, however. She competed in 2015 with bay yearling gelding named Tony Stark, placed overall and won that year’s freestyle event. This year she showed 2-year-old golden dun gelding Sedona, whose coat, mane and tail match Thea’s long, golden hair. Their partnership netted second place for them in youth trail, won freestyle and clinched Reserve Grand Champion overall.
Lydia Miller, a 16-year-old from Evergreen, Colo., began working with horses when she was 4 years old and was riding on a drill team by 10. She’s previously adopted two mustangs in 2013 and 2014 from the Canon City, Colo., Wild Horse Inmate Program. In this program, selected inmates in Canon City’s prison train captured mustangs under saddle for private adoption, thereby learning job skills while simultaneously enhancing wild equines’ chances as riding horses.
Miller intends to keep her Mustang Makeover partner, Holly, eventually start her under saddle and ultimately re-home the sorrel filly.
“Mustangs are life-changing; they’ll teach you a lot and bring you to your breaking point,” said Lydia Miller, a16-year-old from Evergreen, Colo. “You’ll learn from your mistakes and be stronger for it.”
The Extreme Mustang Makeover is a family affair for Kylie Pflueger and Clara Phillips. The Loveland, Colo., step-sisters each competed in youth events, 11-year-old Kylie with 2-year-old bay gelding Sue, named for the song “A Boy Named Sue”, and 13-year-old Clara showing a black filly named Howdy.
“Howdy likes to be in your pocket. She’s a very willing, social horse,” Clara said. “I’m going to keep her for ranch sorting and gymkhanas — a little bit of everything.”
The boy named Sue proved to be inquisitive and a quick study. Due to family obligations, Kylie was only able to work with him for 55 days rather than the 100 that trainers were allowed. She was also the youngest in the youth division, having turned 11 just before the competition.
Still Sue was unflappable, green and purple leg wraps shifting up and down as he popped balloons, crunched foil balls and more during a freestyle performance.
Eric Phillips, Clara’s dad, served as a role model for the girls’ interest in mustangs. Mustangs are all he rides.
When King, the Golden High School graduate, took her champion mustang back to the stall after they competed, she was surprised with a graduation party fit for a winner. In the tack stall, there were tables set up with a potluck, a cake, photo albums full of horses, elementary school horse-themed art projects, gifts and more. Her family and friends set up the party, a dual celebration of changing Copper’s life in 100 days and 13 years in school, changing her own. ❖