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Rodeo's Mustang Makeover Results In 27 Wild Horse Adoptions

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Julia Ritchey
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From barrel racing to bull riding, the Reno Rodeo features events that can test even the most seasoned competitor. That’s especially true of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, which gives trainers just 100 days to tame wild American horses for competition. As Reno Public Radio’s Julia Ritchey reports, the event is about more than cash and prizes.

Trainer Sean Septien is doing his best Clint Eastwood impression, dressed in a red and white poncho and trotting on his mustang named High Plains Drifter. He steers the horse in circles through obstacles, firing blanks at yellow balloons on cones.  

Each time a balloon pops, the mustang does not flinch a muscle. Despite little human interaction for most of its life, the six-year-old gelding is showing no signs of discomfort with the loud sounds or bright lights of the indoor arena at the Reno Rodeo.

This freestyle event is the final competition for Septien and his horse. He’s made it to the top 10 in the Extreme Mustang Makeover this year, out of 27 who entered.

The mustangs for the show were plucked from nearby federal holding pens run by the Bureau of Land Management to handle excessive wild horse populations. Nevada is home to more wild horses than any other state, at more than 34,000.

Stormy Mullins is an event coordinator with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that’s put on these events for more than a decade to help increase adoptions.

“What makes them unique in the training business is they don’t have the human interaction, so when you use proper training techniques, body language, things like that, they respond to that so easily, so quickly, that you can get amazing results,” says Mullins.

Last year, the foundation adopted out 943 mustangs through its shows.

“The big misconception about the wild horse across the West is that they can’t be trained,” says Alan Sheperd, the BLM’s coordinator for Nevada’s wild horse and burro program. “They’re just something you throw in the background and let ‘em stand there.”

Contrary to popular belief, he says, mustangs are quite versatile.

“You can do English riding with them, you can do rodeo events with them, or they can be your backyard trail horse — your kids’ babysitter,” he says. “It opens the eyes to the critics of if they’re any good.”

In addition to supplying the horses to the trainers, the BLM oversees the adoption process at the end of each competition.

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The top ten competitors wave at the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition at the Reno Rode on June 19, 2016.

There are more than 45,000 horses in federal corrals across the American West. Shepherd says while they don’t make a huge dent in the number of wild horses held in captivity, these events do increase adoptions. In the past two weeks alone, he’s on track to have 50 adoptions, a number he used to only do in a year.

The BLM estimates that the cost of lifetime care for an unadopted horse in holding is about $50,000. Shepherd says about half of those in federal corrals are too old to be broken in, but the remainder are adoptable, and, yes, make great companions when paired with the right person… like this guy...

“I'm Bobby Kerr, I don't know, I guess I'm the Mustang Man…”

Kerr is a former Mustang Makeover competitor and chief evangelist of the adoption program. It was six years ago that a friend convinced him to check out one of the mustang shows in nearby Fort Worth, Texas.

“Anyhow, we went and watched it and I was blowed away with how nice these mustangs were,” he says. “And it paid $50,000 bucks, and I thought it was right up my alley, so I parked my truck and got involved. That first year, in 2011, I was fourth on one horse, fifth on another and fan favorite.”

Kerr won the audience over by training his horse to get inside a car and sit on its haunches like a human, while Kerr drove the vehicle in circles. He says developing a strong bond is key to gaining the horse’s trust.

“You got to get that pecking order like you’re the king of the herd,” he says. “If you can achieve that, the rest is easy.”

A former truck driver, Kerr has now trained about five mustangs and tours professionally as a rodeo entertainer. He recently adopted another mustang, named Cinch, that he’s been working with for just 40 days.

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Competitor Kirk Ferrir of Washoe Valley leads his horse, Judd, after competing in the freestyle event at the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Ferris and his horse came in second, thanks in part to his creative routine impersonating Michael Jackson.

  Trainers have to demonstrate basic techniques such as side-stepping, trotting, cantering and stopping — as well as tricks and skills that they hope will impress the crowd.

About two hours have passed and it’s time for the judges to tally up scores and announce the winners of the competition.

Sharla Wilson of Kingman, Arizona, wins with her mustang Goose. Sashes are handed out, photos are snapped, and horses are quickly put up for bid.

Prices vary for the mustangs, with some going for a minimum bid of $200, while the highest goes for $6,500.

A lot families in the crowd are getting the horses for their kids, with one girl bursting into tears when her mom makes the winning bid for a five-year-old gelding.

Stormy Mullins takes the microphone at the end of the auction. He smiles and says all 27 horses have been adopted. He congratulates the competitors, the bidders and the lucky few horses that now get a permanent home.  

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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