An extreme makeover for BLM mustangs

Out of the wild and into the world of competition in a matter of weeks — what a leap for a Bureau of Land Management mustang.

But LaPorte horse trainer and riding instructor Jessica Dabkowski has the skills and experience necessary to pull off that Cinderella/Cinderfella transformation. In March, she began her fifth such project: a scrawny gelding gathered in the Rawlins, Wyo., area in November 2011. He sported good feet, a long, shaggy coat, and a clueless attitude about all things human.

After dubbing the little bay Novo (for “new”), Dabkowski began working her magic. But before elaborating on Novo’s progress, a lope back in time is appropriate.

A Georgia native, Dabkowski came to Fort Collins in 2000 to attend Colorado State University. With a 2003 Equine Science degree tucked into her saddlebags, she launched Pony Peak Stables in Wellington. At that facility, which includes an indoor arena, she’s been “growing great riders” in English, Western, jumping and trail disciplines ever since.

In 2004, she married Bob Dabkowski. Like many non-horsey hubbies of horsewomen, he rarely saddles up, preferring instead to keep his boots on terra firma, from where he provides ground support. His wife described Bob’s important role in her equine endeavor: “He builds stuff, offers encouragement and accompanies me on some longer trips.”

A good friend and fellow-trainer, Stacy Farney, told Dabkowski about the Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions. Interest trumped a lack of the facilities required by the BLM. Dabkowski simply created some and, on March 6, 2010, she welcomed her first mustang, later called Cash.

Dabkowski said that the bay gelding proved to be a most amazing horse. The 3-year-old had been gathered as a yearling, but remained untouched except for minimal vet and farrier work in BLM squeeze chutes. She started him, as she does all her unschooled horses, in a 24-foot-square pen, using a 12-foot bamboo pole to touch his withers and back. She next attaches a short rope to the pole, gradually slipping it over the horse’s neck. Haltering comes next, followed by more ground work leading up to saddling and riding.

“Cash was the easiest horse of any kind I’ve ever trained,” reported 30-year-old Dabkowski. “He was quickly approachable and touchable.”

The pair placed 16th out of 40 in the Extreme Makeover competition held in Fort Collins. The event includes three preliminary areas: Handling and Conditioning; Pattern Class under Saddle (English or Western at walk, trot and canter with lead changes, stop, back and direction changes); and Combined Leading and Riding Trail Class (side pass over poles, cross bridge, open gate while mounted, dismount and load horse in trailer).

Adopted by a woman who absolutely adores him, Cash continued training with Dabkowski for another year. He now drags logs, ponies young horses, negotiates under, over and through tarps, has participated in mounted shooting clinics, lays down on command and can be ridden bridleless.

Hooked on mustangs
Dabkowski worked with a second mustang in 2010, a character called Sawyer. This boy proved to be quite a challenge, Dabkowski said, holding out two weeks before allowing her to approach him. The work involved three to four hours work daily, split into two sessions. Eventually familiarity bred not contempt but rather mutual esteem – Dabkowski adopted Sawyer and will keep him.

Happily hooked on mustangs, she took on two in 2011. Covergirl, a gorgeous palomino mare, was a quick study headed for glory in the Fort Worth competition until stifle issues prevented the trip. But the mare and her adopter both relish and excel at trail riding, so all is well. The gelding, Porter, shined brightly at that year’s Fort Collins makeover event. Out of 38 horse/trainer teams, he and Dabkowski placed eighth in the finals.

Which brings us back around to Novo. As of March 8, Dabkowski had already worked up to saddling the 14-hand high, once-feral fellow. View his progress at www.facebook.com/novothemustang.

She’ll continue his lessons until the June 8-10 Extreme Makeover event at CSU’s B. W. Picket Equine Center on Overland Trail. Adoptions of Novo and other competing mustangs will be on June 10. All events are open to the public free of charge except the Saturday night finals. More information about the event can be found at www.extrememustangmakeover.com.

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