Extreme Mustang Makeover: Making a little mustang magic

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JAMESTOWN, Pa. – On a warm July afternoon, a horse named Slick stands in the barn at Clear View Ranch, content to munch on hay and occasionally stick his nose into a red water bucket. He’s a little cautious and a little curious, putting his head over the gate several times to check out the people on the other side.
Slick is at home in the barn. And to an outsider, it seems almost impossible that until a few months ago, he was in a herd of wild mustangs roaming the hills of Nevada.
But certified mustang trainer Dave McClelland is quick to point out proof of the gelding’s wild heritage. In a corner of the barn, about 8 feet off the ground, the dust on the wall has been disturbed, smeared back and forth, up and down. That’s where Slick tried to climb the wall on his second day at McClelland’s Jamestown, Pa., farm in early June.
“It’s hard to believe 40 days ago he was as wild as wild can be,” McClelland said on July 17. “You couldn’t even touch him.”
Makeover. So, how did a wild mustang from Nevada and a professional horse trainer from Pennsylvania end up together?
Slick and McClelland are part of a production called Extreme Mustang Makeover. One-hundred horse trainers from across the U.S. were selected to take 100 wild mustangs from frenzied to friendly in about 90 days.
Trainers and horses will gather at the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth, Texas, Sept. 22. There, a three-judge panel will size up the horses on their conditioning, groundwork and their performance in an obstacle course designed to mimic trail and recreational riding situations.
The trainer of the winning mustang will go home with $10,000.
Extreme Mustang Makeover will also be a six-episode series on RFD-TV’s Wide World of Horses from August to December this year. The show will follow the contestants from their first day with the horses through the competition in Texas.
But more important than prize money or a few minutes on TV is the chance to show the quality and value of mustangs. It’s a chance to prove that, with the right training, a wild horse can become useful for ranch work or recreational riding.
“The whole idea behind this thing is to show the versatility of this horse,” McClelland said.
After the competition, the trained mustangs will be available for adoption through an auction at the equestrian center.
Training. Although Slick made a lot of progress in just a few weeks, it’s been a long journey. By the time the makeover is done, the trainer estimates he will have easily invested more than 150 hours in Slick’s training.
McClelland grew up with Quarter Horses and spent his time taking the animals camping and trail riding.
He got his first taste of mustangs while training colts at a stable in the late 1990s. A client brought in a mustang for training and McClelland admired the animal’s reflexes and survival instinct. There was something alluring, something majestic about a horse that ran throughout the West completely unhindered.
In 2000, McClelland adopted two wild mustangs of his own and since then he has trained several more.
Friends forever. Wild mustangs can best be described as white-tailed deer, according to McClelland. But once they’re gentled, they are reliable, intelligent animals.
“Once you win these mustangs over, you’ve got a partner for life,” he said.
While a mustang isn’t really a domestic animal, a properly trained one can be as useful as any other horse.
“You can do anything with a mustang you can do with a domestic horse,” McClelland said.
However, proper training means patience and hard work.
Training Slick has simply been a series of small steps. McClelland began by putting a rope halter on the horse and letting him drag it around. After four days, the trainer was able to pick up the lead rope and by day five, the horse began leading. Thirty days into the competition, McClelland rode Slick for the first time.
Now, the trainer will move on to teaching arena work like walking, trotting and cantering.
Selected. For this competition, the challenges began long before any training took place. Just being picked to participate was tough – about 250 trainers applied.
And while McClelland has never competed for prize money before – contestants in Extreme Mustang Makeover will vie for a total of $25,000 – he said the experience is more about finding a good home for a horse than the money.
But when he’s out in the barn at night with Slick, it’s fun to think about bringing home that $10,000 check.
And what’s he going to do if he wins?
“I’m going to go buy a bigger manure spreader,” McClelland said.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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