WILD HORSE TRAINER
LINDEN – Tucked away on a country road, in a pasture bordered by bright sunflowers, a mustang gallops.
The northcentral Pennsylvania terrain differs greatly from the Nebraska plains where the filly would have run had she not been rescued by Kim Herb, of Montoursville, and her 15-year-old niece, Victoria Lowe.
The mustang’s fate also would have been much different.
Amira, a 1 1/2-year-old bay filly, is a registered mustang. The unique “freezemark” that shows up as a series of white symbols proves it.
She came to Lycoming County by way of the Mustang Heritage Foundation and Herb, who adopted Amira for Victoria. When the teen is older, she’ll be permitted to take ownership of the horse.
Victoria and Amira are partners in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, youth division.
The adult version of the Extreme Mustang Makeover is a national program created by the foundation “to showcase the beauty, versatility and trainability” of wild horses that have been captured by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Trainers have about 100 days to gentle, halter break and saddle train older mustangs. A competition is held to showcase what the animals can do, then they are auctioned off.
In the youth division, the mustangs are all yearlings but still are considered “untouched” by humans. The youth trainers, ages 8 to 17, have 100 days to gentle and train their horses and teach them basic skills and abilities such as wearing a halter, entering and exiting a trailer, allowing a person to pick up their feet and maneuvering through obstacles.
At the end of the training period, each team competes for cash and prizes.
Victoria and Amira competed on Friday in Shartlesville, Berks County and won second place overall, good for a cash prize of $600.
While the older trainers’ mustangs are sold at auction, the yearlings stay with their adopted families, much to the delight of their young charges.
“She is my first horse,” said Lowe, who lives in Duncannon most of the year. She has spent this summer with her grandparents, Ed and Cathy Frame, of Linden, and with Amira.
The right horse
Lowe’s parents, Roy and Cathy Lowe, told Victoria she could get a horse and the teen looked for one that clicked with her. None fit just right, though.
“My aunt Kimmy suggested that I adopt a mustang,” Victoria said. “She said I could grow with it and teach it everything I wanted to.”
The process took some time. Victoria had to apply to the foundation and earn its approval. Two weeks into May, she and her family drove 15 hours to Illinois, where the young mustangs would be distributed to their new adoptive families.
At the holding facility, all of the yearling horses were in a pen by themselves. Each mustang wore a numbered tag around its neck and the officials randomly selected a number for each trainer.
“We got there early and went to look at the horses,” Victoria said. “This little horse walked up to the gate. Her necktag read 6417.”
Victoria said she was the first youth trainer to get her paperwork and on it was printed the number of the horse she was to get – 6417.
“It was amazing … this pony chose her. She came right up out of those wild horses,” said Ed Frame. “(Amira) is the kindest, best dispositioned horse I ever saw.”
The plight of the mustang
Mustangs have roamed much of the western U.S. for a few hundred years. They’ve been the subject of countless films and books that liken the equines to the wild spirit of the West.
But they’ve also been the subject of persecution and slaughter. In the early 1900s, domestic cattle and sheep competed with the wild herds of horses for food, water and space. Mustangs were rounded up “for use as draft animals, saddle stock, military mounts, food or to reduce competition with domestic livestock,” according to the foundation’s website.
In the 20th century, mustangs were captured with little regard for their care or health and sold to rendering plants. Protestors rebelled at this practice and, led by Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston, they encouraged Congress to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act in 1971.
The federal law placed wild horses and burros under the care of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Forest Service.
Wild horses still make their natural home in certain western habitats, but when their populations exceed the capacity for their habitat, some of the animals are removed and made available to qualified adopters.
A home in the country
Ed and Cathy Frame, Victoria’s grandparents, are no strangers to mustangs, horses or most farm animals, for that matter.
“We always had a horse or two,” Cathy said, adding all of the other critters they and their kids raised over the years. “We had everything.”
Kimberly, one of their six children, also has adopted mustangs from the Mustang Heritage Foundation. She even started a Extreme Mustang Makeover but was unable to finish it due to an unforeseen injury.
“She just loves horses,” said her mother.
Kimberly also adopted Ransom, a 3-year-old mustang, through an online auction held by the foundation.
Mustangs are “100 percent different” from domesticated horses, Kimberly said. “They know nothing, they’re a clean slate.
“Other horses have imprinted on people and been around them. Mustangs have to survive in the wild. They don’t have a good experience with humans at first,” she said. “But when they learn to trust you, they’ll do anything you ask.”
Kimberly said she’ll do the Extreme Mustang Makeover again one day.
Trust and confidence
When Victoria became interested in adopting a mustang, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I thought they were crazy horses, like the ones used in bronc riding,” she said.
But Amira has been anything but crazy.
Even when she first arrived at the Frames’ homestead, she was calm, quiet and surprisingly easy to touch.
Still, Victoria took it slow.
“I put her a stall and I’d sit on a bucket and hand feed her grain out of my hand,” she said. “If she wanted to eat, she had to come to me.”
From those first few days, Amira displayed an easygoing disposition.
“She only wants to please,” Victoria said. “She’s very willing.”
Once she was familiar with her new surroundings, Amira’s training started.
“She learned how to bow on the ninth day,” Victoria said.
As part of the competition held just a day ago, Victoria had to design a freestyle routine and teach Amira how to complete it. She watched other trainers’ routines via YouTube videos to get ideas.
“For our routine, Amira weaves around barrels and jumps,” she said.
Some of the act is done with a blindfolded Amira.
“She has to learn to trust me,” Victoria said. “She walked over balloons blindfolded.
Over the months, the teen has worked to desensitize her mustang to noises and unexpected actions. She doesn’t flinch or shy away when Victoria cracks a whip in the air or pulls the trigger on a cap gun.
Amira also likes to prance in a circle when she’s on a lunge line, Victoria said, and can “wear” tarps and raincoats without becoming flustered at the feel and sound of the crinkly material.
Prior to this experience, “I wasn’t very confident with myself,” Victoria said, “and I wanted more experience with horses.”
Now, the teen is bolstered by the support of her large, extended family and the love of a wild mustang.
“I’m really proud of her. She’s done a great job,” her grandmother, Cathy, said. “And, this little horse is a sweetheart.”
The work Victoria has done is all hands-on but, so far, none of it has been in the saddle. She said it’s not recommended that a person ride a horse until the animal is at least 3 years old.
“It stunts their growth,” she said.
It’s OK to put a saddle on a young horse but not to add any extra weight, Victoria added.
“She’s done really good,” Kimberly said of her niece. “I think she’s learned a lot about herself through Amira. It’s been a really neat experience for all of us.”
For more on Victoria and Amira’s journey together, visit the Facebook page “Amira and Victoria Mustang Makeover 2014 Youth Division.”