California’s two recent Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenges resulted in the domestication, training and adopting out of 47 wild Mustangs. Staged by the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management, the May 15-17 Norco Extreme Mustang Trail Challenge and the June 13-14 Western States Mustang Makeover, held during Horse Expo in Sacramento, were deemed successes in keeping with the events’ mission of promoting the trainability of America’s wild horses, 30,000 of which stand today in holding pens and pastures awaiting adoptions. The Norco event, however, was marred by a controversy stemming largely from a BLM mix-up.
Norco trainer Buzz Riebschlager wound up sharing the Extreme Mustang Trail Challenge Champion title with Lorrie Grover after the Foundation learned that Riebschlager’s horse, Windy, had received previous training. The premise of the Mustang Makeover is that the trainer who can do the most, in 90 days, with a previously unhandled Mustang wins.
The Makeover, which debuted in Sept. 2007 and was won then by another Norco horseman, Ray Ariss, judges the horses on body condition and their performance in in-hand and mounted obstacle courses. A rugged rural and urban trail challenge were added components in Riverside County’s Norco, “a.k.a. Horsetown U.S.A.” As elsewhere, the event concluded with freestyles finales from the top 10 participants.
Riebschlager’s winning routine with Windy included hauling the mare into the Norco arena in the back of a flat bed truck, from which she leapt to the arena floor. Holding an American flag, the veteran Mustang trainer performed a “relaxed and smooth” reining pattern, according to the Foundation’s press release. Windy pushed a ball across the ring with her knees and moved calmly through the waving arms of an inflatable balloon figure. By many accounts, it was a hands-down clear winner performance. Yet, when news arrived that Windy had four months of previous gentling and ground training from Chatsworth trainer Kristy Reed, who adopted the mare in June 2008 and named her Jewel, praise for Riebschlager’s performance was overshadowed by criticisms variously described as everything from sour grapes to suspicions about the event’s fairness and the winner’s actions.
Reed says elation was her first emotion on realizing Windy/Jewel was the mare she’d had to return to the BLM in October, 2008, because of financial hardship. That was on the competition’s first day, Fri., May 15. Soon, however, she realized she needed to share the discovery. She says she approached Riebschlager the same day, and that his response was to ask if she’d spoken to the BLM or the Foundation about it. By Saturday, Reed had confirmation from a staff member in the BLM trailer, she reports, but complied with Riebschlager’s request to keep it quiet.
“Little did I realize he was going to win,” Reed wrote in a blog after deciding to speak publicly as news and gossip reeled on YouTube and Facebook. “Wow, now there is even more pressure: I was having trouble sleeping.”
After the horses were auctioned off at the event’s Sunday close, Reed brought the matter to the attention of the Foundation’s event director Randi Blasienz, who says she’d heard nothing about it before then. By midweek, the BLM issued a statement acknowledging and taking responsibility for the horse mix-up and detailing steps to prevent it happening again. Earlier, the BLM also took responsibility for the fact that seven of the 25 mares loaned to participating trainers were pregnant. This was the impetus for an additional Mommy & Me competition, complete with a baby shower, in which Norco trainer Bob Mundy was the victor with Mustang Sally and her three-week-old filly Delilah.
The Foundation’s response to the Windy/Jewel problem was to move the top 10 winners up one notch with Riebschlager sharing the co-champ status with Lorrie Grover and Jessie Jane, with each trainer receiving a $3,000 winner’s prize.
In The Hot Seat
Riebschlager has taken heat for not relinquishing the title, returning the prize money and/or withdrawing from the competition upon learning Windy/Jewel’s history. “I’m getting a lot of grief and a lot of bad press,” acknowledges a “very irritated” trainer who moved to Norco from Colorado many years ago to train horses. He can’t remember whether Reed approached him Friday or Saturday, but either way says he “wasn’t going to quit” because he’d invested too much time, effort and money into a horse that “the BLM had guaranteed had not been touched.”
“What bothers me the most is that everyone is blaming me,” Riebschlager says. “It’s not like I rode her for just a couple of hours or seven days. I rode her for five hours a day, probably 40 hours a week. For 90 days, I didn’t take any other training horses. It probably cost me $10,000.” There was more than money at stake, he says of doing all that for the $3,000 prize. “I wanted to win it!”
Reed roached Windy/Jewel’s mane when she returned her to the BLM in October of 2008 in hopes that a prospective adopter would realize she’d had previous handling. She says she made a point of telling BLM staff at the time what a nice horse the mare was. “I did not return her because she was bad or because I couldn’t handle her,” Reed emphasizes. Having adopted his first BLM Mustang in 1982, Riebschlager says there were no indicators the mare had had any gentling or schooling.
Even Reed asserts that Windy/Jewel having previous training doesn’t negate what Riebschlager accomplished with the mare. Oddly, the BLM informed Reed several days after the Windy/Jewel news was official that the horse she’d drawn, Sheeza Hottie, had also received previous training.
The Foundation’s Jennifer Bryant dismisses the notion that the Norco trainer was purposely given a pre-trained mount or that the competition was rigged in his favor. Per the competition’s rule, horses were assigned to trainers randomly by computer prior to pick up in February. Event director Blasienz says Riebschlager and another trainer did not break any rules by stabling their horses at home at night, although she admits there may have been some confusion on this point.
Sixth placed finisher Madelyn Wagner, an amateur horsewoman and three-time MHF event participant, is among those disgruntled. “We knew there were politics, but after Norco we know it’s not a fluke anymore,” says the San Diego resident who finished fourth at last year’s Makeover in Sacramento and was part of the Mustang Smackdown in Arizona. “There’s something going on. They seem to be choosing certain people to promote, but I don’t know why.”
Wagner cites unsuccessful attempts to get clarifications from City of Norco personnel regarding pre-event use of the arena as indicators of the competition’s unfairness. “They ignored me, then treated us like crybabies when we complained afterward,” she says. Event officials assert that all participants had equal access to the arena for schooling, but some trainers vigorously
Although these and additional allegations were circulating crazily on social networking sites in the weeks following the competition, Foundation officials described the controversy as quiet by early June and not that widespread to begin with. Blasienz received e-mailed complaints from two trainers, along with conveyance of support from another five to seven participating trainers. “They know that our mission is about helping the horses and they stand by us,” she says. Blasienz and Bryant were not worried that the Norco events would do permanent damage to the Mustang Makeover program, which was slated to stage nine events in seven states this year. Along with the Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program, the Makeovers have been directly responsible for the adoption of 1,200 Mustangs since the competition’s 2007 inception. The ripple effect of that is even more important, Bryant adds. She estimates that 100,000 spectators will see Mustangs in a new light this year as a result of the Makeovers. “If that changes their mind about going to a BLM facility and adopting a Mustang, that’s one more horse out of the holding facilities,” she says. “The Makeovers are all about the horses, not the people. Those who don’t see that are missing the mark.”
Smoother Success in Sacramento
The drama appears to have stayed in the ring during the June Western States Mustang Makeover. In what wound up being a battle of the sexes, the top two finalists faced off for a 90-second “smackdown.” Katherine Cumberland of Santa Maria and the mare Wendy edged out Joel Sheridan of Acton on Lilly Bet to win the event’s $2,000 top prize.
Swordplay, small jumps and standing on a platform put Sheridan and Lilly Bet on equal footing with Wendy and Cumberland, a recent Cal Poly Animal Science graduate and Wendy, who performed a polished reining pattern with lead changes, spins and varying speeds as approximately 5,000 spectators cheered them on. “This mare has been the sweetest horse since the day I got her,” said Cumberland. “I was able to get on her after only three days and from then on she was just so willing to learn what I had to teach her.”
For more information about the Mustang Heritage Foundation, visit
Norco Extreme Mustang Trail Challenge Winners
|1. Windy (tie)
|1. Jessie Jane (tie)
|2. She’s Country
|7. Tiny Dancer
|| George Ortiz
|10. Shez Arwyn R
Western States Mustang Makeover
|2. Lilly Bet
|5. Cowgirls Hotrodd
|6. Wild Rose Mustango
|9. Abby Lane