Mustangs receive an image makeover

Kitty Lauman is having the time of her life. The granddaughter of prominent horse trainer John Sharp, Lauman grew up working with horses and always wanted to be a trainer.

Now Lauman is one of 100 trainers — including four from Oregon — who have spent the past three months training mustangs for a unique competition called the Extreme Mustang Makeover, sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management.

"I'm living my dream every day. I love it," she said.

The event gives the trainers 100 days to "gentle" their mustangs and prepare them for a competition this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, which will showcase the wild horses' beauty, versatility and trainability.

Lauman calculates she'll do little more than break even if she wins the $10,000 prize money. But for Lauman and other competitors, the makeover means much more than a shot at prize money.

"I think it's sad that mustangs have gotten a bad rap over the years," Lauman said. "People would get them for next to nothing and put them in their back yard, throw a halter on them and think they are going to pet them. It's like caging a deer in your backyard and thinking you're going to pet it."

Trainers in the competition were selected from a pool of 220 applicants and then were assigned mustangs by a lottery.

The horses will be judged on conditioning, groundwork and their ability to navigate a horse course that includes obstacles found in trail and recreational riding.

On day two of the two-day affair, the horses will be auctioned off.

Each year the Bureau of Land Management puts up thousands of mustangs for adoption to thin herd sizes in an effort to preserve rangeland resources. Of the 30,000 or so mustangs on the open range in the U.S., about 2,700 are in Oregon.

Mustangs have a reputation for being wild animals, but the mustangs are gentle in nature and easily trained, Lauman said.

Fran Steffan, a Bend-area trainer also involved in the competition, said that because mustangs are raised in herds, they are aware of social structure and alert to what's happening around them.

"He's the best student you can have because he pays attention," Steffan said while petting Durango, his entry in the competition.

"Once the wild horse finds out you're not going to hurt them, they'll just turn the corner. I was leading him in three days."

Once trained, mustangs are outstanding recreational animals, Lauman said, in part because they are calmer than quarterhorses bred for competition.

Because the mustang is raised in the wild, it learns at an early age to preserve its energy for situations that require flight or fight, Lauman said.

And mustangs cost far less than most quarterhorses.

"With the right training and the right handling," Lauman said, "they can be every bit as good as a high-dollar quarterhorse, and they can make outstanding horses for you and your family."

Lauman, who operates Lauman Training from her property on Madras Highway, said she probably would have been better off financially to train "just another horse."

The competition is a gamble, she said, but no matter the outcome, she and the wild mustangs win.

"This is a chance to help show how awesome the mustang can be."

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