Sold - a dozen mustangs
Erica FitzGerald calls the Teens and Oregon Mustangs organization a win, win, win.
"It's a win for the horses, finding permanent, loving adoptive homes, a win for the kids to get an experience training a horse that's untainted and completely in its own natural state of mind," she says. "And then it's a great opportunity for the public, who can't really go to the wild horse corrals and adopt a wild, feral animal."
During the 2019 Mustang Adoption Challenge, held last Friday and Saturday at the Crook County Fairgrounds, 12 mustangs were auctioned off — and the young horse trainers went home with their hard-earned money.
FitzGerald and her husband, Josh, of Yamhill, founded Teens and Oregon Mustangs in 2009 after competing in the Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2008. They wanted to offer youth the opportunity to train wild mustangs, believing the teens would learn just as much as the mustangs they were gentling.
Their mission is to provide positive, life-changing experiences for trainers of all ages through the development of leadership, horsemanship and teamwork while educating the public about training and adoption of Oregon's wild mustangs.
The nonprofit organization is sponsored by the Youth and Yearling Challenge, created by Mustang Heritage Foundation, and modeled after the adult Extreme Mustangs Makeover event. The Oregon Bureau of Land Management also supports the organization.
"We're like the Humane Society," FitzGerald laughs. "Come here and adopt first. Don't breed. Adopt and then spay your mares."
All of the horses in the program were captured from the Warm Springs mustang herd. The last group was captured in October and brought to the BLM holding facility in Burns.
Once the mustangs were processed, sorted and tagged, 22 were selected for the program and given to their new trainers on Feb. 16.
The trainers, many under the age of 18, live all over Oregon. Some keep their horses at FitzGerald's facility, while others take them home or to a facility close by. This year was the first year for each trainer to have an adult mentor. In previous years, FitzGerald has done much of the mentoring.
Ruby's Red Rose, a 1-year-old mare, is Renee Belt's third mustang.
The 15-year-old trainer, also of Yamhill, has known FitzGerald since she was a little tyke.
"I've been watching the mustangs ever since the program started," Belt said. "I was very interested in mustangs, and that was my passion. I started doing it, and it's gone really well for me."
The trainers do have the option to adopt their mustang, or they can sell it and keep the money. The first year Belt participated, she decided to keep her mustang. But a couple months ago, she sold him. Last year, she sold her horse, and she also sold Ruby's Red Rose on Saturday.
She does barrel racing and rodeo and plans to use her proceeds for a barrel racing horse.
Belt says training a horse takes a long time. She spent three or four hours a day working with her mustangs, but, she says, it's a great experience.
"You get to work with a horse that's never had a connection with a human before, and they bond to you, and they look up to you," she said. "It's like your life partner."
The program culminates with the Mustang Adoption Challenge, which includes competitions, awards and the final auction.
This is the first time the event has been held in Central Oregon. They had planned to be part of the High Desert Horse Expo, but expo organizers cancelled their event three weeks ago.
"We are still here. We're hoping to get horses adopted, and we're trying to stay positive for the kids," FitzGerald said Friday morning. "We've got a total of 10 competing children ages 10 to 18, and we have six competing adults 18 and over that are riding."
On Friday, the youth and adult trainers participated in body conditioning and showmanship competitions. Youths also competed in the in-hand and freestyle division, and adults competed in the adult riding division.
Saturday morning was the awards ceremony. Saddles were given to the overall winners of each division.
The live auction adoption concluded the event.
"It went fantastic," FitzGerald said of the auction.
Twelve horses sold. The gelding mustang HotShot Higgins brought the highest bid, $2,975.
Teens and Oregon Mustangs has adopted out more than 400 mustangs in 10 years.
"This is a way for the public to own a piece of America's heritage," FitzGerald said. "We find that a lot of people dream of owning one but have never really figured out how to make that possible, so we view ourselves as a vehicle for that."
She said training a wild horse is a great experience for the teens, who work hard and then get their reward.
"They get to see the transformation of this horse that starts out terrified of them and now is their best friend. They're bawling their eyes out at the auction, talking into the microphone, blubbering, and everyone is crying," she said. "And they leave with a huge smile, knowing that they did something super positive and that the horse is going to go on and live a great life because of them."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.