Extreme Mustang Makeover

by Janna Virden

Scott Willis has always been up for a challenge. So when the rare opportunity came for the young horse trainer from St. Vincent to be a part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, he said, “Yes."

A challenge is what he got in a 4-year-old mare he has affectionately named “Sue.”

She had never been around humans until she was rounded up in Muskrat Basin, Wyo., by the Bureau of Land Management with the hope that she would be adopted after being trained by a professional horse trainer.

“I knew she was going on natural instincts the first day she arrived, and I put her in the round pen and gave her a bucket of water,” Willis said. “She ignored the bucket and went straight for a mud hole to drink.”

Willis, who is an insurance adjuster for Farm Bureau, grew up on his parents’ horse farm in Morrilton. He started seriously training horses as a teenager and went on to do two apprenticeships, one with Carol Rose Quarter Horses and the other with Todd Bergen Performance Horses. He now trains and sells “Reining Horses.” He works with Sue after he ends his regular workday and on weekends.

“She is a smart horse,” Willis said. “She had to be in order to survive in the wild.”  

Willis had only 90 days to train her before he has to take Sue to a mustang competition in Madison, Wis., to show off her skills in the 2012 Midwest Horse Fair. These skills are the ones potential buyers will look for and will land her a good home.  

“She is a brave horse and can do harder skills, but it is the simple ones that give her trouble.” Willis believes this is because a horse born on a ranch or farm grows up trusting people, but this is something his mustang has had to learn.   

On the first day of training, she bit him. Even now when she doesn’t want to do what is asked of her, she gently nibbles his sleeve just to show her displeasure. After observing Sue over the past couple of months, Willis believes her greatest fear is being “trapped.” So Willis has gently worked with her to get her ready for the competition. She can now do almost everything asked of her, from letting him lift up each of her feet and being ridden to following a lead, wearing her gear, lying down on command and in general just being “handled” by a human.  

But Willis said she is still a mustang, and one of her natural instincts is her love of water. “She loves the pond. I believe playing in the pond takes her back to her wild days. She will go all the way in the water until only her ears are above the surface.” 

She churns the water with her hooves, rolls over on her back and looks like she is having the time of her life. He said he has never seen another horse play like this. So many times after a long day of training, Willis lets Sue simply play in the pond as a form of relieving stress.  

“She has taught me patience,” Willis said. “I hope whomever adopts her will understand her natural instincts and treat her more like a partner than just another ranch horse.”

The Extreme Mustang Makeover is a coordinated effort by the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management to train wild horses for adoption in order to help control the population of feral horses that roam wild in 10 western states.  Willis will be given money for his expenses and a percentage of the adoption fee that Sue brings, but he said, “This has been more of an experience than anything else.”

Sue was a finalist out of 37 horses that competed in the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.  She was adopted by a young girl from Wisconsin and will become a trail horse.  Scott Willis said he will adopt a mustang before competition next year and compete in the Supreme Mustang Makeover which is a higher level of competition.