Area resident selected to tame a living symbol of America’s Wild West
Before he met her, he didn’t know what to expect – but he did know he had just 100 days to tame her.
When Wildwood resident Chris Estrada met the horse he would name Makena (after a beach on Maui), “she wanted nothing to do with humans.” But Estrada had a job to do. He was one of a handful of horse trainers chosen to participate in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, to be held in Lake Saint Louis at the National Equestrian Center on July 11 beginning at 6 p.m.
“You couldn’t even approach her; she’d always run away from you,” Estrada said. “I tried for days to just go up and stretch my hand out and just touch the horse, and it wanted nothing to do with me. I eventually got to a point where I was able to build trust and the horse allowed me into her personal space. I was able to pet the horse on her head and over her back and shoulders.
“That was the coolest feeling–to be able to touch this horse that nobody else has touched before and allow (her) to come into your space when you invited her in.”
Regina Imboden, a close friend of Estrada’s, was present shortly after that first encounter. Imboden thought she would see something wild and untamed; instead, she saw a scared horse, unaware of human interaction.
“I expected to see the wild aspect of this mustang in the way that most might think of it – the acting crazy, running around, maybe bucking,” Imboden said. “That’s not what I witnessed. She was a mess, hadn’t been bathed or groomed and in that respect you could see the wild in Makena. She was covered in dirt and mud, her mane and her tail matted.”
Jay Kraus, owner of Kraus Farms Equestrian Center where Makena is housed, said the mustang was put into a training pen when she first arrived to ensure that she could be handled.
“Horses do two things when they are scared,” Kraus said. “It’s either flight or fight, and we knew she probably wasn’t going to be much of a fighter, but that maybe she would run off. When a horse gets scared, they will just run. They don’t care who is in the way, or what they’re attached to.”
Wild, free and overabundant
Symbols of the untamed American West, more than 49,000 wild horses and burros still roam free on America’s rangelands, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ideally, that number should be lower – between 26,000 and 27,000 – to keep both the animals and rangelands healthy and thriving.
According to the Mustang Heritage Foundation, sponsors of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, “When populations of wild horses and burros along with other wildlife and livestock exceed the capacity of their habitat, land health begins to deteriorate. Native vegetation is damaged, encouraging the growth of invasive weeds and reducing the amount of food and water available to support the animals. When the BLM determines that the mustang population exceeds habitat capacity, the excess animals are removed from the range and prepared for adoption to qualified adopters.”
That is the goal for Makena.
From day one, Estrada knew that creating trust was the most important step in preparing Makena for the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition and eventual adoption.
“In order to get a horse to accept a rider, I certainly don’t just throw a saddle on its back and get on its back and cowboy it the old way,” Estrada said. “You’ve got to bond with it initially. You’ve got to spend time on the ground with groundwork, and you’ve got to gain its respect and trust. If you don’t get that, you’re just heading for a training wreck.”
Focused on building a relationship with Makena, Estrada practiced patience. He began by making her feel comfortable around him, and then started working on the ground with her. After mastering basic commands like lay down, stand, move backward, spin left and spin right, Estrada moved to saddle training. Throughout the process, he kept a balance, never asking for too much too soon.
“He did not try to rush her through things,” Kraus said. “There were times when he would just sit there and stand there … just to get her to take a step to him and get her to trust him.”
Imboden said the first few days of training posed several challenges. Because Makena was an unbroken horse, getting her to listen to commands was difficult. He said her lack of human interaction and her gender were issues in getting her to listen and obey commands.
“She’s never had humans push her before in getting her to do certain things,” Estrada said. “She has given me attitude on some of the things that I’ve asked her to do. They say (female horses) are a lot harder to train than their (male) counterparts, because, of course, the hormones kick in. So, when I see that display of what’s obviously hormones, then I just let it slide.”
Makena eventually learned from her mistakes, and was released from the training pen. She now runs free in the pasture with the other horses at the farm. According to Kraus, “she fell right into the herd, like she belonged there.”
Despite not being a professional trainer, Estrada also learned from his mistakes. He has owned horses since 2000, but trained his first horse four years ago. He said when he first got involved with horses, “I was getting kicked, I was getting bit, I was falling off saddles, getting bucked off, so it was more trying to fix problems that I was having with horses.”
A new life for Makena
Estrada said a documentary, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” inspired him to enter the Extreme Mustang Makeover (which, by the way, is open to the public). The event showcases the beauty, versatility and trainability of the rugged horses that are housed at BLM facilities in California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. In addition to its permanent adoption centers and facilities, the BLM holds adoptions at temporary locations year-round throughout the U.S.
The makeover competitions grew out of this adoption program. Makena is a 6-year-old gray mare from Adobe Town, Wyoming.
During the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition, trainers have four minutes to present a freestyle performance that showcases their mustangs’ abilities and talents. Afterward, the horses are available for adoption by competitive bid.
The trainers are competing for cash prizes, but Estrada said working with a horse that had never had human contact was what attracted him to the competition.
“What’s cool about a mustang is you’ve never really had a human touch this horse before, so you’re working with a clean slate,” Estrada said. “The horse is reading you just as much as you’re reading the horse, and I think that’s the coolest part of it…you’ve got this animal learning from you, and they’re trying to find the right answers.”
Estrada and Makena’s bond is something special to watch.
“I swear, if I didn’t know better, there were times I saw her bat her eyes at him,” Imboden said. “They drew each other in and he successfully created a sense of trust and admiration between the two of them.”
Likewise, Kraus is impressed to see how far Makena has come and how well she is learning and adapting.
“I guess what my amazement is, is this is a wild horse, that has never seen a human being,” Kraus said. “All of a sudden it’s taken from the wild west with a herd, thrown into a horse trailer … hauled up to Chicago, turned loose (to be) vaccinated, dewormed, everything that would actually put more fear into a horse, especially a wild horse, and then herded into a … horse trailer, started down to St. Louis, turned into pen and (then someone says) ‘now, I am going to get you to trust me.’”
Kraus said whoever buys Makena will be getting a very good horse and that Estrada has done an exceptional job in training her.
“I’m most excited about knowing that when the final day comes where she is up for auction, that Chris knows he did a good job,” Imboden said. “He did right by her, he did his best, and as a result, he will have peace of mind knowing that she is going to have a good home.
“She’ll be good for someone else; her transition into this new life that she has, has gone well.”