It took Bear Emlyn an entire 40 days to get close enough to his mustang to put a halter on her. The bay filly was so wary of Bear that the 11-year-old boy had to spend hours just sitting in the corral with a book.
And he was on a deadline.
While Bear was reading “The Indian in the Cupboard,” sometimes out loud to the little horse, his older sister Brynn was training her mustang to walk over tarps and traipse through the creek that flows through their ranch in Snowmass. Brynn, 13, had a halter on her mustang filly within half a day.
It wasn’t that Brynn was that much better at taming a wild horse. When it comes to training mustangs, it’s more about the personality of the horse — there is no rushing them.
The brother and sister were among 20 people who spent 120 days training wild horses that were removed from public lands in the Utah desert and Wyoming prairie by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The rules of the competition are simple: pick up a wild horse April 29, bring it home for four months, show off the horse’s new skills in an arena filled with judges and potential buyers.
At the end of the northwestern Colorado competition, called the Meeker Mustang Makeover, the horses are sold in an auction to the highest bidders. The trainers get to take home half of the payout, and the other half goes to the Mustang Makeover organization to run the operation, now in its fourth year.
The Emlyn kids, who live on a ranch managed by their dad, Ricky Emlyn, were in the youth division, in which competitors younger than 17 lead their yearlings around an arena obstacle course that includes poles, tarps and tight corners. The obstacles and distractions are a surprise — this year there were popping balloons, and in previous years, arrows and gunfire. Adult competitors, who are assigned mustangs that are about 3 or 4 years old, saddle and ride the animals.
Bear, whose blond hair is often covered by a straw cowboy hat, acknowledges those first 40 days were hard. He thought Annie Oakley, as he named her, didn’t like him much and never would.
But all that reading to her paid off.
Now, Bear walks up to the leggy, brown horse with a black mane and rests his forehead on her face.“She’s great,” he says. “She’s walking over tarps. She’s crossed the river. I’m pumped.”
It’s a long way from when he first saw her last spring. “She had a lot of dreadlocks and a number tag around her neck,” the boy said. “When I tried to get close to her, she just started running.”
Bear and Brynn, who are homeschooled, spent their recesses hanging out with the yearlings, then returned to their corrals after school. Brynn, who named her roan Ember because of the reddish hair growing underneath the gray, competed in the Meeker Mustang Makeover last year, walking away with reserve champion. She took third place this year and her little brother came in eighth.
Taming a horse is a “combination of love and respect,” Brynn said. “It’s amazing and it’s a privilege.
“I go out every morning and she nickers at me. She walks up to me when I want to put the halter on. She leads. I don’t even have to pull on her. She just loves attention and loves being around me and people.”
The siblings learned to love mustangs because of their dad, who first adopted one in 2013 from a holding facility on state prison grounds in Cañon City. Brynn, just a toddler then, was the first one to touch the horse, which they named Jewels for the white pattern on her face. The horse can go days in a row on the ranch, while other wranglers have to rotate their horses because they need a break.
“They just have so much heart,” Ricky Emlyn said. “Quarter horses are bred to follow. Mustangs are bred to survive.”
Training them is a process that takes as long as the horse wants, Emlyn said. “They’re kind of like working with an inner city kid, like ‘Don’t play a player,’” he said. “You’ve got to earn their trust and you’ve got to be a worthy leader. There are a lot of things about mustangs that are revealing about your own self. They will peel back the layers and show you some stuff. How patient you are. How you always want things your way.
“If you are having a bad day, you’ve got to sort that out before you go into the round pen.”
In the auction, Ember went to a family near Meeker. As for Annie Oakley, she went to a family in Carbondale, not far from the Emlyn’s home in Snowmass.
The horses were initially supposed to come from Colorado, but an outbreak of equine flu that killed 125 mustangs last spring at the Cañon City holding pens abruptly ended that plan. The pens that had more than 2,000 horses were put in quarantine after horses from West Douglas, in western Colorado near Utah, started dying at a pace of up to 20 per day. Instead of doling out horses from the Sand Wash Basin, in far northwestern Colorado on the border with Wyoming, federal land managers instead offered horses from Utah and Wyoming.
The horse that went for the most money at auction — $10,000 — was a plain, black mustang so small that she might pass for a pony.
Eric Pflueger, a trainer who was named champion of the Mustang Makeover, admits that when he first saw the mare he was not super impressed. Trainers don’t get to choose their horse; they are assigned.
“She’s a little twerp,” said Pflueger, who owns a construction company and trains horses as a hobby near Wellington. “When I first saw her I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the horse I’m getting?’”
But 3-year-old Doreen, at 13.3 hands, showed everybody. “Her mind is the most special thing about her, the way she retains information,” Pflueger said. “I’ve really never ridden a horse like her.”
Pflueger, 45, has adopted mustangs before but this was the first time he’d ever entered the competition. At first, Doreen was annoyed. “She was a little bit manipulative,” he said. “She would try to bite every now and then when you got a little too close to her.”
Now Doreen greets him at the gate, ready to ride. “I can go work cows,” he said. “I can take her on a trailhead. It shows what can be done with America’s horse that’s out on the prairie right now.”
Doreen was sold at the end of last weekend’s competition to a woman who guides trail rides, so the mustang from Utah’s Swasey Mountain herd will lead the way along Colorado trails.
“It’s a unique experience to take a wild animal, get it to betray those instincts and trust its handler,” Pflueger said. “It’s a pretty powerful deal when you finally get these horses to come around.”
A group of horse lovers, including local rancher Deirdre Macnab, created the Meeker Mustang Makeover as a way to showcase wild horses, known for their endurance and strong feet.
Macnab, who lives across the street from the Piceance-East Douglas herd management area — one of four mustang rangelands in Colorado and the site of a recent helicopter roundup by federal land managers — wanted ranchers, outfitters and trail riders to see the power of mustangs, and she wanted wild horses to have productive lives instead of living in holding pens. Tens of thousands of mustangs are now in holding pens across the country.
“Our goal is to find homes where they are useful and loved,” she said. “The public loves mustangs, an iconic symbol of the West.”
Macnab got her first mustang last February, an orphan that wandered onto her property after its mother died. She adopted a second mustang when she went to pick up the animals for the Meeker competition last spring, and then ended up buying a third at the auction last weekend.
The Mustang Makeover is attracting more applicants each year, trainers who must submit letters of recommendation from a horse professional and a veterinarian. And as the makeover gains more attention, organizers are hoping it will defuse some of the political and emotional tension tied to mustangs, long a sore topic among ranchers.
In Macnab’s view, the answer isn’t leaving them all to run free on drought-ravaged prairies. Nor is it leaving them in holding pens.“These are delicate, very dry habitats and horses are some of the most hard grazers,” she said. “They do not have anything to manage them other than man.”
Abbie Davison, 16, trained two mustangs at once this summer — one for Meeker and another for a similar competition in Fort Worth. Lily, her 4-year-old horse for Meeker, bucked her off once during training, but mostly has been chill and sweet.
It’s a balance between power, love and self control, Davison said. She has learned when to push and when to back off, because the training timeline is up to the mustang. “It’s one of the coolest things,” she said. “They start by eyeing you and investigating you. And pretty soon, they are your best friend.”