Teens & Oregon Mustangs program matches horses, trainers
She once roamed free in Eastern Oregon in a herd threatened by drought and wildfires and lack of food and water.
Then, she became part of the roundup at South Steens herd management area outside Burns, as part of a Bureau of Land Management concentrated effort to help out her kind.
And, now the mustang named Xena — as in Xena the Warrior Princess — spends her days guided by the kind hands and voice of trainer Jackie Brooks, learning the life of a domesticated animal through the adoption program Teens & Oregon Mustangs.
In the program, trainers of any ages take on the challenge of training a wild mustang in a 100-day period, and the horses will be judged at the 2022 Mustang Adoption Challenge, Sept. 2-4 at Linn County Fairgrounds in Albany. Body condition, showmanship and in-hand trail guiding through obstacles are judged, and winners take home prizes such as custom halters, blankets and tack — and the horse, if they want them, for a small fee. Or, the horses will be auctioned and sent off to good homes and barns.
There are various organizations such as Teens & Oregon Mustangs, which has different categories and age groups for training horses and burros — Brooks, 60, takes part in the Platinum program. The founders, Josh and Erica Fitzgerald, took part in the television program "Extreme Mustang Makeover," a product of the Mustang Heritage Foundation. Teens & Oregon Mustangs has operated for several years, and this year sports about 100 mustangs or burros with trainers at various locales, including throughout the rural communities outside Portland.
Some are adopted, some are auctioned off — either way, it's a positive development for a horse that might have had an uncertain future.
Brooks trains Xena at a horse barn in Oregon City, where she and husband Michael live and care for three other horses: "I've fallen in love. Very tempted," she said.
It's easy to imagine Xena running wild, even as Brooks puts her through the training paces. It's a beautiful yearling, even with a BLM brand on the left side of her neck. She behaves for the most part, even as she bites at Brooks, forcing the trainer to discipline the horse by making it back up slowly.
"Wild horses are this blank canvas," said Rose Merten, vice president for Teens and Oregon Mustangs. "They don't have the naughty habits of domestic horses."
Brooks began training Xena in mid-May, taking on a horse that never had human touch, had never been in a trailer and probably not stepped foot on cement. Placing the halter on her and walking her around was the big first step for Brooks.
There has been leading, grooming, teaching Xena to pick up her feet and desensitization training.
Brooks won't be able to ride Xena, because the horse needs training time and she can't handle the weight, yet.
"She's very headstrong. Pushy. Can be bitey," Brooks said. "But, I got an easy horse. Other trainers are having a harder time."
Said Merten: "(Xena) doesn't like to be told what to do. She thinks she's the leader. But, you don't want her pushing you around."
When Xena misbehaves, as with all horses, "you don't want to hit them or raise your hand," Merten added, "because that shows that fighting is the answer and they will fight back."
Elaine Herrold has trained mustangs for more than 20 years — she and her husband go to Burns to adopt — and her Herrold Stables in Hillsboro hosts several trainers working with Teens & Oregon Mustangs.
"We really enjoy the mustang and really like how they adapt to captivity and working with people with disabilities and the average person, kids and adults, in our camp and lesson programs," she said "We like their mindset. We wanted to help this program, by extending our barn."
Herrold Stables had seven Teens & Oregon Mustangs trainers last year, and four this year. Some have been part of the riding program, in which they actually ride their older horses.
The mustangs "are a thinking horse. They think through things. They have to understand what you're asking, you can't manhandle them, you can't break them, you 'gentle' them. We say, 'Firm but fair.' They have to understand that you do win, but you pick your battles carefully."
So, each trainer has 100 days to prepare the horse for judging and auction. Is it enough time?
"It depends on how much time you have to devote to the horse," Herrold added. "Most people still work.
"They are a wild animal. You go through the gentling process first."
Wildfires, drought and overpopulation hurt wild mustang herds, not unlike deer or elk herds. It's why the BLM manages the horse herds, as a matter of health and protection.
Then they benefit trainers, owners and visitors.
"They are a level-headed animal. They don't spook like domesticated animals. They trust you. When they're trained right, you can't go wrong. You have the horses forever; ours are in their 20s," Herrold said.
Merten estimates that the BLM manages about 83,000 wild horses and burros in corrals in 10 western states. Hence, the presence of programs such as Teens & Oregon Mustangs to offload wild mustangs to caring trainers and homes.
"The goal is to keep them healthy and safe," she said.
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