Novo the mustang was a slight, frightened brown shag rug of a creature when trainer Jessica Dabkowski picked him up from a BLM holding facility.
Three months later, he was a calm and confident, impeccably trained gelding sporting glowing coat and silken mane and tail. He was the high-dollar horse of the Extreme Mustang Makeover sale June 10 in Fort Collins, commanding $3,900.
“When everything comes together, you can make something really cool out of it,” Dabkowski said after the show and sale, from which she and Novo also walked away with the Grand Champion title. “It was a dream come true to be able to ride Novo bitless and bareback after just 90 days.”
The Bureau of Land Management gathers wild mustangs regularly for potential adoption, and a select few each year are assigned to trainers from around the country as part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Through this program, animals are schooled and then presented for auction after competing at locations around the country.
Horses are selected from gathered herds based on age, conformation and potential riding capabilities. Trainers are selected through a competitive process.
This year, 3- to 6-year-old mares and geldings were gathered and held at Herd Management Areas, including Divide Basin in Wyoming and Piceance/East Douglas near Rangely. Their human counterparts hailed from Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota, Michigan, Iowa, Montana and Wisconsin.
Each horse/human team spent the following three months gaining mutual trust. Equines gradually learned about their upright creature’s civilization, and people worked out the best and gentlest ways to teach the mustangs skills required to fare well in their new environment.
On June 8 and 9, at Colorado State University’s B.W. Pickett Equine Center, the select few competed for human approval and rewards.
The horses were scored on weight/muscling and overall appearance, performance through a course of obstacles and maneuvers — including 90 seconds of “At Best” work with no restrictions or requirements — and the willingness and ability to complete a pattern of horsemanship maneuvers.
The top 10 entries returned for the June 9 competition. Points were awarded based on execution of timed compulsory maneuvers and freestyle performance (split into overall horsemanship and artistic interpretation).
It was mind boggling to think that just 90 days earlier, all these mustangs were members of feral herds that spent their days foraging for food and water, dodging predators and seeking shelter from the elements. Now each had partnered with a human, even allowing the new creature to sit upon its back and direct its every move.
On June 10, 31 of the 39 horses were sold in a live-bid auction. Several trainers were so impressed with their horses’ ability and progress that they purchased them. Novo will remain with Dabkowski, who lives in LaPorte, for another 60 days of training.
The audience spoke in excited whispers and then cheered Dabkowski’s precise freestyle moves, which were performed without saddle or bridle. Only weight shifts and leg pressure cued Novo through intricate direction and gait changes. At the auction, Dabkowski signaled the bay gelding to take a bow, then lie flat on the ground. She finally stood on the reclining horse’s side atop the saddle, sat down on it, signaled him to stand and rode around without rein contact.
“Novo has a very cooperative nature,” she said.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing , however. A month and a half before the event, Dabkowski was working on people approaching on foot while she was mounted. Novo spooked and fell. Although she stayed on, Dabkowski broke her foot. Surgical repair with a screw followed and the doctor was conservative in his assessment of healing time. Regardless, she was riding in three weeks. Current x-rays still show a healing break.
“I’m stubborn,” Dabkowski admitted.
Perhaps that is really how to win any competition, be it against predators or just odds.
Obtain additional information about EMM online at www.mustangheritagefoundation.org or call 512-869-3225.