It's day one of the Nampa, Idaho, Extreme Mustang Makeover and exhibitors wait their turn in the handling and conditioning class.

Photo: Alayne Blickle

Some of you might recall that my husband, Matt Livengood, competed in last year’s Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) in Nampa, Idaho, with a mustang we named Bud. It was challenging, exciting, and at times frightening. In the end it was a rewarding experience for Matt and me, and hopefully Bud found it a positive experience as well.

The EMM, as it is more often referred to by participants, is a chance to showcase the trainability and versatility of America’s Mustangs. As told in the 2011 documentary "Wild Horse, Wild Ride," participants are given 100 days to gentle and train a wild horse. Each contestant is randomly assigned a Mustang from a pool of horses that are approximately the same age, sex, and color. Eleven EMM competitions were held around the US this year, organized and run by the Mustang Heritage Foundation.

This summer the 2015 Nampa, Idaho EMM was held, featuring 5- and 6-year-old mustang mares. Matt and I attended as spectators and found ourselves completely captivated. We got to know several participants and their mustangs quite well. I’d like to share a few of their stories with you.

The New Zealanders

New Zealand's Kelly Wilson preforming her freestyle.

Photo: Alayne Blickle

In March of 2015, five hopeful young women arrived in Boise to ultimately meet five mustangs and compete in the Nampa Extreme Mustang Makeover. These women, ages 18 to 26 years, were a little different than the usual horse enthusiasts coming to participate in an EMM. All five were experienced show jumping trainers, straight from New Zealand. Besides riding and training jumpers, they had also trained the New Zealand version of mustangs, called Kaimanawas.

I caught up with Kelly Wilson, spokesperson for the group, earlier this summer to visit with her and hear their story. Here’s what I learned:

AB: Can you introduce me to you and your group?

KW: There are five of us: the three Wilson sisters, Vicki, Kelly and Amada, plus Alexa Dodson and Kirsti Wagstaff. We work in New Zealand as professional trainers, show jumpers – Vickie and Amada are about World Cup level. We will have two horses in the Nampa EMM, mine and Alexa’s.

AB: Why did you and your group decide to compete in an EMM in the United States?

KW: In 2012, we saw a New Zealand wild horse compete and do very well in jumping. Up until then we didn’t even know New Zealand had wild horses, we were ignorant about what was happening in our own country. My sisters and I decided to adopt a wild horse. The mare almost died, but over the course of a year we got her sound, and eventually were able train her to become a top level jumping mare. That got us started down the wild horse path.

AB: What are the Kaimanawas like in New Zealand?

KW: Similar to your situation in North America, early Spanish explorers brought horses on ships and these horses were eventually turned loose. And during WWI, army horses were turned loose when they were finished with them. The wild horses now live high in the mountains where there’s snow in winter on 63,000 acres owned by the military. Wild horses are mustered by helicopter and delivered right to an adopter’s home. Stallions come as stallions and aren’t gelded. In general, the horses are a lot older and wilder than American mustangs. We have worked with stallions up to 18 years of age.

AB: I understand you’re doing a television program in New Zealand. Could you tell me more about it?

KW: Yes, it’s called "Keeping up with the Kaimanawas." The program follows our journey with 10 wild Kaimanawas from the May 2014 muster. It premiered while we were here, and you can watch it online.

AB: What are your impressions of the mustangs here in the United States, especially compared to New Zealand Kaimanawas?

KW: We are impressed with the situation here. The American BLM yards (holding facilities) are much bigger and roomier than we expected. Horses seem happy and well cared for. In the yards, we have horses walking right up to us to say hello, a horse that’s never been handled. That’s because it’s had no negative experiences. This shows that horses by nature are very interested in people.

Mustangs are actually very talented and kind, capable horses. We think it’s the public’s responsibility to offer the horses a home. It’s our job to show that these Mustangs deserve a good home.

AB: What are you doing with your Mustangs to train them for the EMM?

KW: We are used to having 60 horses in New Zealand in training. (Here) we were planning to stay in the area (Southwestern Idaho) with our Mustangs and work with them, but we got bored. Since we had some spare time, we decided we should make the most of it and go see the American West. We are taking our Mustangs and going to the national parks we have always wanted to see: the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, several Parks in Colorado and Yellowstone National Park.

AB: At the conclusion of the EMM all participating Mustangs are up for adoption to the highest bidder in a public auction. How will that be to see your horses get sold and go to new homes?

KW: We are very attached, it’s incredible. We just hope we can set them up for a life where they can be loved and appreciated.

As it turned out, both the New Zealanders’ Mustangs ranked in the top 10, making it back to the final freestyle competition Saturday night. Kelly Wilson’s eye-appealing black mare, Jackie, got seventh place and was the high selling horse, adopted by a recently retired soldier for $7,200.

From Idaho to California

Matt and Stacie Zimmerman, trainers in Caldwell, Idaho, competed in this year’s Nampa Extreme Mustang Makeover as well. This year Matt and Stacie are making a name for themselves by competing in six EMM’s throughout the United States: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. That’s 100 days for each Mustang, plus traveling to and from the pickup points for each horse and attending the final EMM.  They have one EMM competition left in Fort Worth, Texas in September. That is making for a very busy year for Zimmerman Horse Training and a substantial investment in travel expenses, horse care, vet, dental, etc. So far Matt and Stacie have finished in the top 10 with every Mustang that they competed on. Combined, they have one Championship, three Reserve Championships, two thirds, one fifth, and one sixth. Every one of their Mustangs have found homes, from California to Kansas. At the Nampa Extreme Mustang Makeover Matt placed third and Stacie fifth.

"We made the decision to train mustangs, because we feel they refine you as a horse trainer plus Mustangs are a ‘clean slate,” explains Matt Zimmerman. “For an Extreme Mustang Makeover, every trainer has the same amount of time. All trainers pick up their randomly assigned Mustang at the same time, and all animals have had the same amount of minimal handling. The rest is up to the trainer,” Zimmerman goes on to say. “If we can consistently place in the Extreme Makeovers that we have entered, it proves to us that we are successfully training quality horses.”

A crowd favorite was Joshua Mani of Jerome, Idaho, and his mustang mare Liberty. Mani cried tears of joy hugging her when he was successful at buying her back in the final adoption Saturday night. He knelt in the arena dirt to give thanks, and I don’t think there was a heart in the crowd untouched by his show of emotion for his horse.

Another touching story was of the winning EMM horse, Truffles, and her trainer Willow Newcomb of Napa, California. Since Willow is a friend of a friend, it was fun watching her and Truffles from the start all the way through, cheering her on as she won the entire competition. She, too, was also able to buy her horse back in the adoption, but she had to outbid an enthusiastic audience at $6,900.

I liked this mustang mare ridden by Shannon Allison so much I bought her!

Photo: Alayne Blickle

And last but not least, this EMM has a story about me. As I sat there watching this year’s EMM, I realized one quiet little brown mare had all the right parts to be a reining prospect, the discipline I compete in. The little mare, trained by Shannon Allison of Grandview, Idaho, ran reining patterns, never spooked, side passed, and moved nicely off her rider’s leg, all while looking lovely in the arena. So guess what? As luck would have it, I brought her home with me that night to start my very own mustang adventure.

The adoption at the end of all Extreme Mustang Makeovers is definitely a somber note to an otherwise festive occasion, as each trainer hopes for a positive outcome for his or her mustang. This year’s Nampa EMM had happy ending as all 22 of the trained Mustangs were adopted at an average price of $1,409.

EMM’s are an adventure, a reality show for horse lovers. They have the “feel” of a rescue, where a person helps bring out the potential in an individual animal in a super short period of time, helping get them to a good home. Spectators and contestants alike end up rooting for each and every horse.

A friend of mine summed up the EMM saying, “These events are more fun than a regular show, where riders and horses are so polished. This is fun because you get to see, hear, and feel the stories... and witness their honest emotions. I guess I’m just a mustang junkie.”