It starts with the clang of metal gates, hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Mud-matted horses with fevered eyes crash together in a tiny pen as men with long whips and orange flags separate them and funnel them one by one into narrow chutes. The dead end of the chute is a horse trailer, and the trailer ride leads to their hope for salvation.
This is a government holding pen, the no-man’s-land between the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 and the herd management plan of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): in other words, the compromise between activists protesting the wholesale slaughter of mustangs and the cattle ranchers trying to protect their land from overgrazing. The BLM, faced with a need for more grazing land but pinned under the watchful eye of animal activists, created holding pens as a desperate compromise. Unfortunately, horses are removed from the range at much higher rates than they’re adopted out, resulting in overcrowding and stressful conditions for the mustangs.
Enter the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF), an organization dedicated to helping BLM mustangs find their forever homes. Founded in 2001, the MHF has helped find homes for over twenty thousand formerly wild horses and burros. They pay professional trainers to gentle mustangs through the Trainer Incentive Program. And they host Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Extreme Mustang Makeover is a competition that originated in Fort Worth, Texas. One hundred trainers are paired with an untouched mustang and given only one hundred days to prepare for a competition that will test them on every level. In only three months, trainers must take the horses from terrified, scrappy animals bound for a life of iron fences and turn them into partners, friends, and performers. At the end of the one hundred days, the horses and trainers are put through rounds of testing where they’re required to walk, trot, canter, side pass, back up, and maneuver through obstacles—that is, if they can pass the in-hand rounds and even get to the riding portion. Finally, the top ten competitors are allowed three minutes of time to show off their own freestyle routine, which has to be technically excellent to pass the judge’s inspection, yet flashy enough to impress the crowd. When all the trials have ended and the ribbons have been awarded, all one hundred mustangs are auctioned off, with money from their sales going back into MHF’s fundraising efforts.
“There he is. He’s thinking it through. I’m just gonna keep talking him through it . . .” Elisa Wallace is doing a voice-over for her YouTube channel, but she keeps her voice low and steady, as though she’s still in the moment. On the screen, a stocky sorrel horse paces and blows loudly through his nostrils. Past-Elisa stands quietly in the middle of a small pen, posture alert but relaxed, hands hooked in her jeans pockets under the shiny material of her padded safety vest. “There, see him looking?” Present-Elisa’s voice grows warm as she narrates the little horse growing still, dropping his head and licking his lips thoughtfully. One ear flickerstoward Past-Elisa, and the voice-over pauses, spellbound and breathless at the sight of the mustang slowly extending his nose toward the human standing stock-still in front of him.
It’s been known by many names: the turn, the join-up, the breakthrough. Every person who manages to touch it knows that there’s a magic to it that can’t be reduced to a string of sounds and symbols, but each one of them tries to describe it anyway. The instant of clarity, the first step, the hard part, the understanding, the moment. Each title attempts to capture the moment you see your horse realize you’re speaking to him in his own language—and you’re telling him, “It’s okay.”
Elisa Wallace is slowly moving around her mustang. He’s wearing a halter that was forced on his head by rough hands at the holding pens while he was pinned in a chute, and Elisa lets the long lead rope play through her hands as she moves. “I don’t want him to feel trapped, even though we’re in a small space,” she says. The mustang, later named Fledge, responds to each of her movements. She approaches his haunch, and he sidesteps away. She responds by immediately turning the other way and shuffling out of his space. Once he’s relaxed, she approaches from the other side until he pivots on his front feet, turning his hind end away again. She retreats a few steps before coming to him again, this time reaching out to smooth his forelock. He allows the touch, stiffening at first, then lowering his head and leaning in. Their small, constant steps are creating a six-legged waltz, one that gets smoother and more cohesive as Fledge begins to understand what Elisa wants.
Although Hollywood tries to convince the world that horses communicate through loud bugling whinnies and snorts, equines primarily communicate through body language. Kinesics, space and movement, and haptics, physical touch, are the way horses understand relationships. By stepping up to Fledge’s hip, Elisa is establishing her place in the pecking order: “I move your feet. You yield your space to me. I’m the boss.” When she approaches his head, her body language is softer, shoulders angled away, the touch confident but not demanding, breathing deeply until he follows her example and exhales his tension with a sigh. “I’m comfortable with you. You can let me in your space. We’re friends.” Repeat. She approaches his shoulder and makes him move his front feet. She approaches his head, but this time leans closer and reaches out to scratch his neck. He offers her respect when he yields his space to her, and she offers friendship each time she shares her space with him. Each movement in the waltz is building the relationship that will carry them through the next ninety-nine days.
After that, it’s almost easy. Elisa is established as the leader of their little herd of two, and Fledge takes his cues from her. She introduces saddle pads, saddles, long lines, tarps, indoor spaces, giant pool floats, and her own presence on his back gradually. Each time, Fledge startles at the unfamiliar object or sensation before looking to his leader, accepting that if she isn’t worried, there isn’t anything to worry about. Elisa gives him a bath, curries his coat, combs the mud and briars out of his mane, and starts him on a steady diet, but even as he fills out and starts to gleam, the biggest change in his appearance is in his face. Deep brown eyes lose the lines of tension that were ever-present in the holding pens. Ears that pricked and swiveled now flop sideways, boneless with calm indifference. Fledge’s face takes on the gentle, warm look of a loyal companion, and he pushes his forehead into Elisa to ask for scratches or to nose her pocket for treats. The wild thing is gone, and a horse stands in its place.
Later, in Fort Worth, the pair will enter an arena under blazing spotlights and the low babble of an announcer bouncing across the rafters. They’ll compete in the in-hand assessment and pass it with ease, a flowing slow dance that evolved from their first clumsy waltz. The technical assessment under saddle will go similarly, and the trail course after that. Fledge and Elisa make it into the top ten.
Their freestyle is set to Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This,” and Elisa rides Fledge bareback and bridleless. They’ve already shown their most complicated steps in the maneuvers test, but they repeat them for the judges, timing pirouettes, passages, piaffes, and flying lead changes in time to the music. For the audience, they fly over jumps and open up into a full gallop across the long side of the arena, Elisa holding out her arms like wings and laughing as the wind blows in her face. At the corner, instead of checking their speed, she cues Fledge to gather his hind legs under him and throw his weight back into his haunches, sending up a huge spray of dirt as they slide to a stop. For the finale, Elisa slides off Fledge and gently touches his belly with one hand. Calmly, he buckles, dropping to his knees before rolling onto his side. For a prey animal whose life depended on how fast he could be on his feet and running only one hundred days before, to lay down was an admission of complete vulnerability and trust. Elisa is wiping at her face as she steps over him and cues him to stand back up with her on his back. Fledge finds his feet as the music fades out and the crowd erupts while Elisa flings her arms around his neck and buries her face in his mane.
They win the competition. Fledge gets a blue ribbon draped across his neck, and Elisa gets a check for forty thousand dollars. She spends a portion of it that evening at the auction, making it official. Fledge belongs to her now. They go home in the morning.