Competition Day and Beyond
At the end of our last article, I’d been out of town judging shows and wishing I had more time to prepare my mustang, Journey, for the upcoming Mustang Mania Trainers Challenge (see the July/August issue). These mustang competitions demand a solid, trusting relationship between horse and rider. Horses have to be exposed to and get comfortable with a lot of different situations. Journey was building his trust with me and was getting to the point where he would do most of what I asked of him, but the clock was ticking.
I was down to two weeks before the competition. I rode him at new places including the facility where the competition would take place. Although he was still a bit apprehensive at times, he was getting braver. We worked on all our gaits, upward and downward transitions, trail obstacles, opening gates… all the required elements of mustang competitions. The one thing that is difficult to expose your horse to prior to a competition is the energy and noise of an arena packed with excited people. The cheering and clapping alone can startle or scare a timid horse. I did what I could do to prepare him in the time that I had.
Our day arrived to take Journey to the competition! Even though the facility was very close to our ranch, we left at 6:00 a.m. so we’d have time to warmup and prepare for the day’s events. The day was cold, grey, and windy with a light rain that threatened snow. When we arrived, there was already a lot of activity. The other competitors were also arriving. Horses were being unloaded, people were hauling equipment and supplies around, organizers were setting up for the show, spectators were arriving and setting up chairs inside. These changes made Journey unsettled and anxious.
My strategy always is to go about our normal routine of brushing, cleaning feet, and tacking up. I took him into the arena to do our warmup ride. We had ridden quietly in this arena many times, but the newness of the event had Journey worried, and he struggled to focus.
Our first class was handling and conditioning. In this class the handler takes their horse into a round pen set up inside the arena. The handler turns their horse loose, leaves the round pen, waits 90 seconds, then re-enters the round pen to catch and halter their horse. Next, they walk in-hand to a station where they demonstrate they can brush their mustang all over plus pick up all four feet. Lastly, they load and unload into a horse trailer parked in the arena. Overall, Journey did well until he came to the strange trailer; he wanted nothing to do with that and just wanted to leave the arena.
Next was trail class. In this the mustangs are ridden through a gate, over a bridge, trotted over poles, loped into a chute, backed around a corner, and walked into a box where the rider dismounts and drops the bridle for inspection by the judge.… it was a lot! These are all things Journey and I had done together in our 90 days of training – but with the crowds, the stormy weather, and all the other elements of a show atmosphere he was unraveling, his anxiety building.
Maneuvers was the third class. Here, the rider shows their mustang at a walk, trot, and lope both directions while performing the transitions in a specified order. I could barely get poor Journey into the arena; his nerves were shot! At that point, with two more classes to still compete in, I made the decision to pull him from the remainder of the competition. I had to admit to myself that I had done the best I could to prepare him for the competition, but he just wasn’t ready. Even with his anxiousness and difficulties at the competition we still managed to get sixth and eighth place ribbons in two of our classes.
Becoming a Good Horse – The Journey Continues
Fast forward six months later: Journey is maturing into a beautiful 15’3” horse (huge!). We can smoothly pick up both leads, he’s got lovely transitions, enjoys trail rides, and I’ve successfully taken him in other events. He has a wonderful personality, a sign of the confident horse he’s becoming. He enjoys his paddock up front where he can greet everyone and keep an eye on the busy traffic at our place. He’s still not a fan of the trailering thing, but we keep quietly working on that to build his confidence.
The timeline of a 90- or 120-day competition is exciting and energizing – and a learning adventure for both horse and handler. Not all mustangs are cut out for this and it’s important for a trainer/handler to be able to recognize and read this in their horse so we do what’s best for the horse. Journey continues to learn and enjoy the adventure before him and that’s what is important. And I look forward to continuing our journey together.
Part 1 of this series: https://www.nwhorsesource.com/trainers-corner-what-is-a-mustang
Part 2 of this series: https://www.nwhorsesource.com/trainers-corner-my-journey-with-journey-the-mustang-part-2
Part 3 of this series: https://www.nwhorsesource.com/trainers-corner-my-journey-with-journey-the-mustang-part-3
Matt Livengood is a seasoned reining and ranch riding competitor who holds judging certifications with NRHA, NRCHA, AQHA specialty, and ASHA. He teaches riders and horses about ranch riding and ranch versatility, as well as groundwork and starting Mustangs. Matt has competed in four Mustang Makeover events, reaching the finals in all four and winning both the 2017 Reno Extreme Mustang Makeover and the 2019 Mustang Madness freestyle in Cle Elum, WA.
Matt has judged numerous Extreme Mustang Makeovers, including virtual shows. He’s been an NRHA judge since 1999, judging shows across North America each year, including A and AA shows. In 2020, he judged at the AQHA World Show in both reining and ranch riding. Matt teaches and trains from his home, Sweet Pepper Ranch (sweetpepperranch.com) in Nampa, ID. Call 206-909-0511 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.