It’s nothing like playing a video game on the computer or cellphone.
“Far better than that,” agreed 23 participants in the first Mustang Beginnings Challenge.
“These young people, eight to 18, learned about hard work, being patient and using their time efficiently,” insisted Cindy Branham.
“They were each rewarded by a relationship with a horse that learned as they did. It’s a lifetime experience these dedicated youth will always cherish,” Branham verified.
Trainer at, and co-owner with husband Ryan of, The Rockin’ RC Horsemanship facility near Tecumseh, Branham is passionate about mustangs.
“Wild horses are an important part of our American heritage, and must be better understood for their value,” she declared.
Dedicated to “saving one mustang at a time,” Branham has owned a number of mustangs that have become exceptional using horses. She’s been a finalist in the Extreme Mustang Makeover training wild horses right off the range.
In clarification, mustangs are feral (undomesticated) horses originating as far back as 1519. Spanish horses escaped from their owners, survived on their own proliferating throughout several regions of the country, Branham informed.
“There are about 40,000 mustangs on government land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM),” Branham said. “An estimated 70,000 mustangs are in holding facilities around the country; like those wild horses in pastures down by Florence.”
Since 2001, inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility have aided the BLM in alleviating the over-population of wild horses. Dexter Hedrick is now retired from overseeing that program
A dozen minimum-security inmates care and train the wild horses making them suitable for adoption.
There’s a certain semblance of that with the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the Mustang Beginnings Challenge. Branham and Hedrick were masterminds of this first challenge for youth working with mustangs. Branham is credited as the chief organizer.
A number of others interested in mustang preservation assisted with development of the educational effort. Among those was Justine Staten, director of the Kansas Horse Council, which she said “absolutely supports this great program.”
“We wanted to give youth an opportunity to take part in gentling a wild horse,” Branham said. “The competition gave an added incentive for the young people to prepare their horse for a useful life.
“It is a program to promote building character, responsibility, work ethic and their future,” she emphasized. BLM provided the wild horses through a foster agreement program.
Youth interested in the Mustang Beginnings Challenge had to apply for participation and meet certain stipulations. “They needed experience working with horses and be capable of caring for the mustangs with family cooperation,” Branham summarized.
Twenty three youth drew for their yearling mustang right out of wild from Nevada and New Mexico. “The horses were completely untouched, but had been at the Hutchinson Wild Horse and Burro location a few days,” Branham said.
“The horses were purchased by the youth for $25 each,” she explained. “But, the young handlers received a $4 stipend per day for the horse’s care.”
Participants picked up their projects May 12, and the challenge was September 15-16, at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. There were divisions for juniors eight to 13, and youth, 14-18.
Classes included condition and handling, trail, showmanship, trainer’s choice, and freestyle.
For conditioning and handling evaluation, the yearlings were led into a pen and halter was removed. Judges inspected the entry before the handlers came back, haltered their project and demonstrated abilities in a trail class.
Six obstacles included walking over poles, weaving course, carrying tarp, ground-tying, picking up feet and going over a bridge.
“The second day youth participated in showmanship and had 30-seconds to present their ‘trainer’s choice.’ Unique skills performed included bowing and laying down their horses,” Staten said.
Grand finale was the “freestyle,” where exhibitors did a four-minute choreographed presentation with background music. Several competitors wore unique costumes and had special decorations.
“These routines were colorful, creative and great fun to watch,” Staten smiled. “The ‘freestyle’ attracted passersby so the crowd packed the bleachers and many people were standing outside the arena fence watching.
“Throughout the competition, there was one exhibitor who was certainly cream of the crop,” Staten insisted. “Brianna Shook stunned everyone, young and seasoned alike, with her liberty trained colt called Bullet.
“Brianna only had a neck rope on Bullet while using hand gestures and a lunge whip never touching her horse,” Staten continued. “It was quite impressive the connection Brianna had with the once wild mustang and how willing Bullet was to do anything she asked.”
Brianna and Bullet were named grand champions in the youth 14 to 18 division. Brook Staten and her horse Porter ranked third in every class, to be the reserve grand champion in that age-group.
Alyssa Hogelin and Chester claimed the grand championship in the junior eight to 13 category. Madison Branham exhibited Seven to collect the reserve grand champion junior title.
“Each division champion received a trophy saddle with special prizes to the top six of each group,” Branham said.
“R Bar B Tack & Trailers of Topeka donated one of the saddles, and the Justin Branham Foundation presented the other one in memory of our son,” Branham said. “Justin passed away three years ago, but was already an outstanding horseman.”
The contestants had the opportunity to keep their mustangs or they could sell them at a silent auction.
“Brianna sold Bullet, but the other three top entries kept their horses to continue training and probably riding them,” Branham said. “Highest selling yearling brought $2,000, with several bringing $400-$500, and some sold in the $125-$150 range.”
“Most of those who sold their horses were quite sad. They’d become so attached to them, like part of the family,” Staten confirmed.
Success of the inaugural Mustang Beginnings Challenge points to continuing the program next year.
“It was just amazing what these young horse enthusiasts did with their mustangs,” Branham affirmed.
“We’re hoping to have another challenge next year, but details have not been finalized,” she informed. “We might even add a riding division sometime in the future.”