No horsing around

Locals take part in 100-day mustang training program

  • Dan Russell of the US Bureau of Land Management culls a young mustang and coaxes him into a chute leading to a trailer and a new home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Amara Brooks and Sam Van Fleet, both of Belchertown, check out the mustangs in Orange on Friday. They both are getting a horse for the 100-day challenge. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Dan Russell of the US Bureau of Land Management. The herd numbered about 56 when the bureau drove the horses from holding pens in Colorado to Orange in two semi-trailers. Caring for and delivering wild horses is hard work, he said, but it’s positively relaxing after 20 years in the Army and three tours in Afghanistan, he said. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • One of the mustangs headed out to a new home on Friday. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A group of young women check out the mustangs that are being dispersed in Orange on Friday. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/15/2016 10:20:20 PM

ORANGE — It’s high noon on Friday, and the barn at 170 Wheeler Ave. is full of wild horses.

Contrary to cinematic standards, the 36 mustangs are mostly calm, munching on hay and drinking from big plastic tubs. One chews on a bar of his pen with apparently mild interest. Their new trainers, however, are much more animated.

Sam Van Fleet, 17, of Wilbraham, is excited to find her assigned horse, a buckskin gelding she’d been watching since the day before.

“I like the ones that are more difficult. I was here yesterday and some of them are willing to touch you and come up to you but a few of them weren’t and he was one of the ones that wasn’t. I like the difficult ones,” Van Fleet said. It’s her third year competing in the Youth Mustang Challenge.

The horses themselves get a bit more excited once it’s time to go into the trailers.

Dan Russell walks around looking for the appropriately numbered horse, then opens and closes gates, deftly isolating one horse from the group, then shooing it toward a chute with a flag on a pole. At least one horse develops other ideas at this point in the game, with loud neighing and spirited escape attempts. Russell sidesteps a rush from one horse, then shoos it back toward and into the trailer.

Russell, a Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program employee with a cowboy hat and a southern accent, said he grew up on a farm and couldn’t even believe this was a real job when he found it. Caring for and delivering wild horses is hard work, he said, but it’s positively relaxing after 20 years in the Army and three tours in Afghanistan.

The 36 horses still in the barn at noon on Sunday are scheduled to be picked up over the next two days by trainers as young as 9 from around the region.

The herd numbered about 56 when the Bureau of Land Management drove the horses from holding pens in Colorado to Orange in two semi-trailers. By this point in the day, a number have already left for new homes permanent and temporary. The horses are here under the auspices of two programs designed to get the wild horses out of federal holding pens and into private hands, the Youth Mustang Challenge and adult Extreme Mustang Makeover. Competitors receive a randomly assigned mustang and have until August to train them. Youth competitors are paired with young horses, under 2 years old, and keep them at the end of the competition. Adult competitors have the opportunity to bid against the public for their temporary charges, if they wish to keep them.

The point, Russell said, is to find homes for the mustangs collected by the government when the population overflows. Most wait in holding facilities at least a year, and many of the colts are born there, he said. With nominal fees, the program is not a money-making proposition. “The horses belong to the American people anyway, they come off public lands,” Russell said.

Peter and Jessica Whitmore own the barn and run the Mustang Challenge in Orange, the only one of its kind in the state this year.

Jessica Whitmore said they know there’s some controversy around taking mustangs from the wild, but the competition and adoption program is only helping.

“It would be great if they didn’t have to, I guess, but you know what, right now it’s happening and these horses are in holding facilities and need homes,” she said. At least 15 of them will go to new homes through this year’s youth competition, and the 33 adult competitors will train others to the point they can be adopted.

Peter Whitmore said it’s a win-win.

“There are horses out there that need trainers and trainers out there that need experience,” he said. It also exposes people outside the western states to the mustang breed, he said, opening up new homes.

Ally Mack, 17, of Middlesex, N.Y., is competing for her second year. Her first horse is now well-behaved, after a rough start. “She kind of wanted to kill me at first,” Mack said. “It’s fun, it’s adrenaline, and it gets them homes,” she said of the competition.

Amara Brooks, 13, of Belchertown, said she’s been around horses since before she was born, and jumped at the chance to join the Mustang Challenge when her mother heard Whitmore was starting it. She’s now in her third year. She’s had a kind, calm, horse and a challenge with a tendency to rear and give her rope burns. Training the horses teaches patience and confidence and builds a strong bond with the horse, she said.

Lauren Shell, 20, of Sandwich, is another trainer who said she has been on horseback since before she could walk, but still found things to learn. She’s in the adult competition this year for a second time, after a start in the youth competition at 18. That first horse took 14 days before she could even touch him, she said. The second was comfortable the first day, “Every day I went out, did three sessions a day and kept working my way closer to him, and finally on the fourteenth day, he let me touch his nose a little bit,” she said.

Van Fleet also sees patience as the key to training, and said mustangs need more than most.

“Training other horses they at least know what humans are and understand that we’re asking them things, but with mustangs they don’t understand that we’re even asking them something,” Van Fleet said. “It’s like everything is brand new to them.”

The third annual Youth Mustang Challenge, put on by the Whitmores and the Mustang Heritage Foundation, will be judged Aug. 5 and 6 in the Topsfield Fairgrounds in Topsfield. Competitors are judged on the appearance of the horse, the trainer’s ability to lead it through an obstacle course, and a final freestyle category. The final category has included such impressive feats of training as leading a horse over a bridge of balloons, creating popping sounds Peter Whitmore said would spook any horse.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:


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