Meeker Mustang Makeover: Six trainers over 100 days
MEEKER — Six mustangs waited warily in roomy pens at the Rio Blanco County Fairgrounds on a sunny morning last weekend. A new chapter in their young lives was about to begin. Little did they know that within the next 100 days, they would transform from shy wild horses to trusty steeds. It was Day One of the inaugural Meeker Mustang Makeover.
The brainchild of local rancher Dierdre Macnab, the Meeker Mustang Makeover is not affiliated with the Extreme Mustang Makeover, hosted by the Mustang Heritage Foundation annually at sites across the country. But, it’s the same idea.
“This year’s auction will be at the Meeker Sheepdog Trials in September,” Macnab said.
Her inspiration comes from Marguerite Henry’s classic novel “Misty of Chincoteague” about the ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague Islands on the East Coast. Every summer, the ponies are rounded up and moved between islands during an event called the Pony Swim. Spring foals are auctioned off.
According to chincoteague.com, the event controls the size of the herd and benefits the local fire department. Thousands of spectators attend from around the country. The event is in its 94th year.
“It’s an economic driver for the community,” said Macnab. She’d like to see the same thing happen in Meeker.
So far, so good.
“There’s so much knowledge in this community and care for the land and pride for the heritage,” Macnab said. “It’s been wonderful to see the different people who have come forward to help.”
One of those people is Melissa Kindall, longtime range specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office in Meeker. The BLM oversees the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area (PED HMA), which is where the makeover mustangs come from.
“Most likely these horses came off of an area near Cathedral Creek, which is south of Rangely,” Kindall said. “These horses were gathered in 2017 because they were outside the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area and there were issues with private landowners.”
They become “trespass horses” when they wander outside herd management area boundaries. By law, the BLM must round them up if requested by the landowner.
Kindall estimates that there are at least 700 mustangs on the 190,000-acre PED HMA, which is almost three times what the BLM says the range can carry. The mustangs inside HMA boundaries have not been rounded up for eight years.
One of the most contentious issues facing the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program is the number of animals in holding facilities around the country. Mustangs and burros rounded up but not adopted end up in off-range corrals or pastures for the rest of their natural lives.
Agency figures show a total of 47,254 mustangs in captivity, costing about $80 million a year to maintain.
In the big scheme of things, the Meeker event might not look like much of a solution to the holding problem, but for the trainers, gentling and training a wild horse is one way of making a difference.
Paige Burnham lives between Clifton and Palisade. She’s participating in the MMM to test her skills as a horseperson and her training abilities.
“And also help get the name of the mustang out a little bit more in the Grand Junction area,” she said.
Burnham, 21, is already an accomplished mustang trainer.
“I’ve helped others train mustangs and then last November, adopted a filly from the Little Bookcliffs Herd [near Grand Junction],” Burnham said. She showed the mustang at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo in Denver and won an award.
She said training a mustang is different, but fun.
“Wild horses are untouched, so when you work with them, you start from the very beginning, which is nice because you don’t have to question what their training was before,” Burnham said. But, she added, it can also be more challenging. “They are often more reactive than a domestic horse. They’ve seen less of the environments that we put theses horses in.”
After walking through the maze of metal fencing and gates to check out each mustang, she said their confirmation looked good. She tried hard not to have a favorite. That way she wouldn’t be disappointed if she didn’t draw a particular horse. “I picked out my favorite thing about each horse,” she said. “So that there’s a positive thing that I can have with that horse right when I find out that I get it.”
Cody Rhyne, a soft-spoken horseman from Clifton, is more at ease with horses than with people. He, too, likes the confirmation of the Meeker mustangs.
The biggest challenge for him? “Getting a good horse,” he said.
He’s no stranger to mustang makeovers so the 100-day deadline doesn’t phase him. “I started my first mustang years ago and I’ve sent mustangs all over the world,” he said.
Burnham and Rhyne were the first trainers to draw their horses from the hat. Burnham will work with a young gelding with facial markings that she likes. Rhyne drew the only mare in the lot. Although she wasn’t his favorite, he said she was “sturdy.” He was calling her “Sweet Pea” by the time he took her home for the next 100 days.