“It’s just amazing how everything happened with Durango right from the beginning,” says Lauren Ross, Assistant Trainer, Next Level Horsemanship™, shaking her head and smiling at the same time.
“We decided at Next Level Horsemanship™ that after Suzanne’s success with Jazz, winning the Midwest Mustang Challenge in Madison, WI, and then gentling and training three additional Mustangs for the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program (TIP), that we were ready for another Mustang Challenge,” explains Lauren.
The way the Mustang Challenges work is that trainers apply, pay an entry fee, travel to a the selected Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holding facility, and pick up a Mustang selected for the them by random draw. All Mustangs are freeze branded by the BLM. This freeze brand number is used to identify the Mustangs and is the number that is ultimately used to match up a given Mustang with its trainer. The Mustang is then placed in the trainer’s hands for the next 90 days until the competition. During the competition, you and your Mustang show off your training skills, competing with other trainers from around the country, in an arena filled with loud applause and lots of other noises and distractions. Not much time to train a horse that has never willingly been touched by human hands.
“This is quite a challenge to any horse trainer. We really believe in Next Level Horsemanship™ training,” says Lauren proudly. “This would be my second time training a Mustang, and my first time training and competing in a 90 day time frame with one. I was excited!”
The Mustang pickup time was early July in 2009, and fortunately for them, another trainer from Pennsylvania was picking up his Mustang and offered to trailer the rest of the Pennsylvania competitor’s Mustangs, which were being held in Tennessee. When the trailer arrived, there were six Mustangs on board, three would stay for Next Level Horsemanship™ training.
“Through the window of the trailer I saw this chestnut Mustang with a white face,” says Lauren. “I noticed his white face right away, it really caught my eye.” After we unloaded the Mustangs into a round pen, I received my folder from the driver which contained the information deciding which Mustang would be mine.
Turns out, that chestnut Mustang with the white face was a match, his brand matched with the numbers in her folder. “It’s exciting enough to get a Mustang to train, but to get the one that got my attention from the start, that was amazing,” laughs Lauren. “I named him Durango.”
Starting NLH™ Training
“We started out with a round pen that was connected to Durango’s stall, “ explains Lauren. “He was surprisingly less reactive in the beginning than the other Mustangs we had worked with. That was encouraging, when thinking of the long road ahead of us.” From there, Lauren applied her Next Level Horsemanship™ techniques, and began the first encounter with a long pole, (to mimic the sensation of human hands), then after multiple attempts she finally rubbed his white blaze with her hands on the third day. “
As Lauren was beginning Durango’s training, she was also “sizing him up”. “I noticed that Durango had good conformation and size, “ says Lauren. “I knew he was going to be a good fit for me. I liked what I saw from the beginning.”
The biggest breakthrough was developing Durango’s comprehension and respect during the lunging exercises with the halter and lead rope. “Durango was very stubborn when we started lunging, very resistant, he wanted to avoid it and stick with his own agenda,” says Lauren. As the relationship developed, he learned to compromise and perform with genuine effort during the exercises and he improved greatly from that point forward. He was advancing well. But, Lauren knew with each passing day, the clock was ticking in countdown toward the upcoming competition.
By the fourth week, Lauren was able to mount Durango. “That was a real adrenaline rush to get into the saddle of a recently wild and still skeptical Mustang,” laughs Lauren. “I didn’t know exactly how he would react, what to expect! But we had prepared him well for this day with the foundations we had laid.”
“We had a lot of communication blocks to overcome,” says Lauren. “When we rode around the arena, Durango tried to go out the door!” Lauren discovered that Durango’s training was “all mental” to him. “At first he didn’t buy into me, it was a growing relationship, every step strengthening our commitment to each other.”
Accomplishments and Goals
Training Durango brought both a sense of accomplishment and a challenge to Lauren. “This early in my training career to be training a Mustang was a HUGE challenge, one I looked forward to, and one I enjoyed, “ Lauren says with a smile. “You try to do as much as you can do, and as much as the horse can do. You need to keep the spirit of the horse in tact. You need to know when the lesson has ended for the day. My overall goal was to take one day at a time.”
Lauren had another goal. She wanted to be a Top Ten Finalist at the Extreme Mustang Makeover, Eastern Stampede, Mufreesboro, TN. The training of Durango continued, and then the day came for the long road trip to Murfreesboro.
Mustang Challenge Event
There were over 100 horse trainers with their Mustangs for this particular Extreme Mustang Makeover competition. In the “Idols” division, there were over 60 competitors. Was she nervous? “More excited than nervous,” Lauren says, reliving that moment. “But, there was a lot going on there with all the excitement and number of trainers and Mustangs and the people in the stands. I was wondering how Durango would handle all of this.”
It needs to be mentioned that this was Lauren’s first EVER competition. While Lauren always liked to ride horses, she had never competed with them . “There were a lot of new experiences with training Durango, a Mustang, and then showing him in my first ever horse show which was a national event,” says Lauren. “ I felt such a sense of accomplishment.”
In addition to this being Lauren’s first ever competition, as the luck of the draw would have it, Lauren was THE FIRST horse trainer to compete that weekend. She would launch the start of the 2009 Mustang Makeover in Murfreesboro, TN out of all the competitors! And, in their division, the Idols, both the In-hand and Under Saddle portions of the competition were scheduled on the same day.
“I couldn’t believe it, “says Lauren, reliving that moment. “I was confident in Next Level Horsemanship™ training, and also in myself and Durango, but, really, this added so much more pressure…and, made me even more nervous.”
In the Idols division, Lauren and Durango placed FIRST in the In-hand portion of the competition. This involved trailer loading, obstacles, taking the saddle on and off, and picking up the horse’s feet. In the second portion of the competition, Lauren and Durango placed fifth. This portion included a pattern course with obstacles and a 2-minute freestyle, a chance to show off.
Lauren and Durango placed 2nd out of over 60 Mustang Makeover competitors in the Idols preliminary round. She then placed in the top ten for the Idols Division free-style finals in the 2009 Extreme Mustang Makeover, Murfreesboro, TN.
“I succeeded in my goal to be a Top Ten Finalist with Durango in a national event while competing in my first ever horse show and with a Mustang that I trained myself using Next Level Horsemanship™ training techniques. This was overall, an empowering first experience and gave me a great sense of accomplishment. Definitely an experience that I will never forget,” says Lauren savoring that adventure. “I was so proud of Durango for putting his trust in me in such a short period of time, and giving me his best effort in a foreign environment.
Endings and New Beginnings
The next part Lauren describes as heartbreaking. It was time to say good-bye to Durango. Time for him to go to auction and go to a new home, with new owners. “I felt so guilty, I knew this was part of the deal from the beginning, but we had built up such a great relationship. I was the first person that he had a relationship with and trusted. Now, I felt like I was abandoning him,” says Lauren sadly. She stood in the auction ring holding Durango’s lead rope, trying to rattle off his unique features and characteristics to the bidders, while swallowing the lump of pain and tears she felt in her throat at the thought she may never see him again. No time to properly say “good-bye,” she thought.
The bidding was over and the new owner was announced. It was none other than Suzanne Myers, Next Level Horsemanship™!!! That meant that Durango was coming home with them! “Oh, I just could not believe it,” says Lauren, still excited about that surprise. “It was more than a dream come true, it was such a magical moment. I could not hold it back any more. The tears started flowing and the hugs were endless, first with my new partner, Durango, and then with my mentor and friend, Suzanne.”
Durango now resides at the Next Level Horsemanship™ facility with Lauren who continues to improve his skills, and her own daily. “Every horse is in our training program is different,” adds Lauren. We become attached to all of them, but we know that the horses we train will go back to good owners. But during the Mustang Competitions, the trainers can feel helpless about the destiny of the horses they’ve come to know so well in such a short time. It’s a special relationship because we’re the first people they come to know. Durango is unique to me. And, to end up with him here with me and to see him grow healthier, be with our herd, and look forward to our journey ahead is a reward that only you and your horse can know. You don’t pick them, they pick you. It is just amazing. Like I said, it was amazing from the beginning!”
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