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Wild at Heart

One man aims to buck the odds at the Mustang Million, where trainers transform feral horses into obedient steeds

Author Eric Benson Photography Suzanne Tennant

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On a crisp fall morning in Fort Worth, Texas, Matt Zimmerman pushed his black gelding, Mojo, through a final warm-up before the second round of the Mustang Million, an annual competition in which riders from the more rugged regions of the United States show off their skills at taming wild horses. With the sun casting a vivid light on the red clay practice rings of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, Zimmerman sped Mojo into a canter, finessed him around a tight curve and navigated him forward, sideways and backward through a maze of wooden poles. As he worked the horse, Zimmerman sat perfectly erect in his saddle—back straight, shoulders relaxed, his black chaps and wide-brim Stetson spotless. Only a slightly pained look on his face betrayed the fact that something was wrong.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The sound rang out across the still morning. Mojo was dragging his hooves into the wooden poles, striking each with a resonant shudder, when he should have been stepping over them. Zimmerman shook his head. “He’s a real clumsy bugger—he hits every one,” the 38-year-old Nevada native called out to his girlfriend, Stacie Shaber, a
willowy strawberry blonde six years his senior, who was standing inside the ring.

 Shaber laughed. She’d been showing horses all her life and knew what it took to have a half-ton animal execute a series of intricate commands. “Really, it’s almost impossible what we’re asking these horses to do,” she told me. “They say it takes 90 days minimum to get really good results with a horse. And these horses had never had a human hand touch them. When Matt got Mojo, that horse would sooner eat you for lunch than have you ride him.”

Zimmerman had adopted Mojo just four months earlier from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holding facility in Burns, Ore., and had spent the summer gentling the horse at his and Shaber’s five-acre ranch in Kuna, Idaho. But as his practice run in Fort Worth showed, the mustang wasn’t fully gentle yet. Mojo may have left the range, but the range hadn’t quite left Mojo.

Mojo was born sometime in the spring or early summer of 2010 in the arid high desert along the Oregon-Nevada border. As a foal, he traveled in a small band of eight to ten horses, foraging on cheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass and salt desert shrubs while navigating a windswept landscape punctuated by craggy ridges and scraggly sagebrush. Mojo encountered no natural predators, but his life was not without peril. In the summer months, he and his band would often roam ten miles or more just to find water to drink. Still, Mojo was well adapted to life in the Great Basin, as his forefathers had been roaming similar expanses since not long after the early conquistadors brought their Andalusian steeds to the Americas in the 16th century.

For the first year of his life, Mojo was one of 40,000 mustangs living free in the West. Then, in September 2011, the BLM caught him as part of a large roundup that deployed low-flying helicopters to chase him and the other horses into corrals. Over the next year and a half, Mojo lived in a government holding pen, stuck in what is often a lifelong limbo between wilderness and domesticity.

This situation pleases no one. Horse activists argue that “injuries, trauma and death are the common results of wild horse roundups” and that conditions in BLM holding facilities can be inhumane. Western ranchers allege that the BLM has shirked its duties and allowed the mustang population to grow to dangerous levels, leading to the denuding of public lands on which cattle graze and wild species like antelope and elk roam. The BLM is struggling mightily to craft a solution that placates both sides. It is looking into new population-control measures, among them spaying wild mares, instead of relying almost entirely on roundups that include castration once stallions are taken off the range (so far with limited success), and it’s seeking owners for as many of the captured animals as it can. Everyone agrees that the status quo, in which taxpayers fork over more than $40 million a year to keep 48,000 wild horses in holding facilities, is not working.

The Mustang Million was created as an out-of-the-box, showbiz solution to this bureaucratic boondoggle. Mustangs had long been considered the junkyard dogs of the equine world, rangy mutts of poor genetic stock that were essentially untrainable. Between 1900 and 1950, more than 1 million mustangs were slaughtered and turned into glue, clothing, violin strings and pet food, and by 1959 there were fewer than 20,000 left. The brutal treatment of the animals pushed a Reno secretary named Velma Johnston, better known as “Wild Horse Annie,” to spearhead a campaign to save the mustang. In 1971, largely due to Johnston’s efforts, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which designated the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and made it illegal to kill or harass them on public lands.

In 2007, Patti Colbert, executive director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation—a nonprofit that works with the BLM to facilitate the adoption of wild horses—saw an opportunity to pick up where Wild Horse Annie left off. Inspired by ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Colbert alighted on a reality-TV-ready concept: The Mustang Heritage Foundation would give 100 trainers 100 days to gentle 100 mustangs. At the end of the 100 days, the trainers would show off their now tame horses, and the public would buy the horses at auction. The first “Extreme Mustang Makeover” was held that year at the Will Rogers Memorial Center and soon spawned a series of regional Makeover competitions. This year, the national event was renamed to reflect its record $1 million in total prize money.

I first heard Zimmerman tell the story of his near-fatal accident two hours after meeting him in Fort Worth, when he whipped out his phone to show another rider an X-ray of his fractured pelvis and snapped left femur. Late one afternoon in August 2011, Zimmerman was riding a horse on his Idaho ranch at a slow trot when it responded to a whoa! command by simultaneously throwing back its head and digging in its hind hooves. The awkward maneuver caused the animal to flip onto its back, crushing Zimmerman against the ground and thrusting the hard, knobby saddle horn through his rib cage and into his chest cavity. Zimmerman was medevaced to the hospital in Boise and spent 11 touch-and-go days in the ICU. “I was laid up from August to December,” he told the other rider. “The cool thing was, I could bounce back.”

It was unclear if Zimmerman would ever walk again, let alone ride, but less than a year after his accident, in June 2012, he competed in a regional Extreme Mustang Makeover competition in Albany, Ore. Zimmerman made it to the finals, riding onto the dirt of the Calapooia Arena with Katy Perry’s “Firework” playing in the background. As the pop star sang, “Do you know that there’s still a chance for you/’Cause there’s a spark in you?” Zimmerman dazzled the crowd, capping his comeback by standing on the back of his horse while waving a car dealership–size American flag with his left hand and cracking a leather bullwhip with his right. He placed first.

The Oregon win should have given Zimmerman plenty of momentum heading into the Mustang Million, but his life since then hadn’t been easy. In December 2012, he and his wife separated, and it became a struggle for Zimmerman to see his two young daughters. Then, while Mojo was in the early stages of his training, Zimmerman caught more bad luck. One day in July, a ranch horse kicked Zimmerman just below his right elbow, snapping a bone in his forearm. He lost time with Mojo, and his mobility during the lead-up to the competition was badly hindered. The evening before I met him at the Mustang Million, Zimmerman tore off the plaster cast over his still-healing arm. It had been his third cast in two months.

When Patti Colbert and I spoke about the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s mission, she made a point of describing how training a mustang could be a healing process. “These wild horses are branded. They’re displaced. They’re highly sensual, highly reactive, highly PTSD. And if you put one of them with somebody who understands what it’s like to be taken from your home, or somebody who understands what it’s like to be stressed in that way—it’s incredible. I’m telling you, that’s the good Lord at work.” Colbert was talking primarily about a program that matches combat veterans with wild horses, but it was hard not to see the battered Zimmerman and the reeling Mojo in her words.

After their flawed morning practice, Zimmerman and Mojo walked out onto the clay of the John Justin Arena for their second round performance. They’d had a less-than-stellar opening run and would need a near-perfect showing to stay in contention. Horse and rider cut a striking profile. “Showing is showing off,” Shaber said when I commented on Zimmerman’s spotless appearance. “You need to look pretty and you need to act pretty.” Zimmerman sat with what he called his “English woman at a tea party” posture and seemed to have complete control of his animal. He coaxed Mojo into executing a perfect sidestep over to a wall and calmly guided him through a figure-eight pattern.

Then, just as it looked as if Mojo might execute a flawless run, there was that sound again. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The horse hadn’t gotten over his bad habit of slamming his hooves into the wooden obstacles. It almost seemed intentional, as if Mojo were trying to get himself released back onto the range.

The following night, Zimmerman stood on the dirt of the John Justin Arena, along with the other trainers, waiting for the finalists to be announced. Zimmerman looked sullen. He watched as the big-name trainers, many of whom were being followed around by film crews, heard their names called and ran out into the center of the ring to salute the crowd. There was Bobby Kerr, the reigning champion, who looked and performed like a modern reincarnation of Buffalo Bill Cody. There was Wylene Wilson-Davis, a spunky blonde who’d won the competition twice and was a fan favorite. There was Tom Hagwood, a Wyoming cowboy who had so far dominated the Mustang Million. Zimmerman’s name remained uncalled.

On the night of the finals, 6,000 fans streamed into the Will Rogers Coliseum to watch the elaborate freestyle performances, and although Zimmerman wasn’t on the program, he was hard at work. First, he rehearsed his own impromptu freestyle routine on the pavement outside the arena, straddling the backs of Mojo and another horse, cracking his bullwhip in the air. After this, he entered the coliseum as a paying customer and studied the elite trainers. He saw Wilson-Davis—dressed as Elvis—seduce her horse into lying down placidly. He saw Kerr lead his horse into the passenger seat of a circus convertible, dismount into the driver’s seat, and zoom off with his steed. He saw Hagwood lasso a calf in front of the roaring crowd and all but clinch victory.

Zimmerman departed before the results were announced. A Texas family had approached him about adopting Mojo, and he needed to prepare the horse for what might be their final ride together. An hour later, after Hagwood had been announced the winner, Zimmerman was riding Mojo around an outdoor practice ring under the stars as he told the family about the journey he and the horse had shared. He encouraged the towheaded middle child to take a ride on Mojo, and she guided the horse in circles with apparent glee.

But when Zimmerman and Shaber got on the road three hours later, Mojo was still with them. Zimmerman wasn’t entirely upset the family hadn’t taken the horse. He’d grown attached to his clumsy bugger. He and Shaber would use him in clinics, displaying the impressive skills that the three-year-old continued to perfect. “If the right person comes along, we’d move him,” Zimmerman told me. “But otherwise, he’s here for the duration.”

ERIC BENSON is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He moved to the Lone Star State from New York City to chase stories just like this one. 

2 Responses to “Wild at Heart”

  1. Ann Souders Says:
    January 13th, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Priceless!

  2. Ann Souders Says:
    January 13th, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Priceless

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