Photo by Rani Douglas.
The horsemanship resume of this year's Extreme Mustang Makeover winner proves the adage that when one door closes, another opens. Quarter Horse and Paint horse breeding had comprised a sizable chunk of Don Douglas' business back in the early 2000s. He sold his broodmares and stallions, however, when he foresaw that the cessation of horse slaughter in the U.S. would "cause the value of horses to drop like a rock."
Although he still had his core business of starting young horses and working with problem cases, the trainer had a little free time on his hands. Right around the same time, the Mustang Makeover came into being. The now-familiar collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management and the Mustang Heritage Foundation gives trainers a wild BLM Mustang and 90-100 days to train it for a competition showcasing the breed's trainability. "That would be fun," Don recalls thinking when he first heard of the event. He trained the first horse he drew to a second place finish in Norco, in 2010, the Makeover's fourth year in Horsetown USA.
The next year he went back and won it, and he's since taken a total of seven Mustangs to Makeovers, in Norco, Oregon and Texas, and earned the two titles. He's now working with two Mustangs toward the inaugural Mustang Million, to be held in Ft. Worth, TX this September. (His wife Rani has a mare on the same path.)
Don Douglas and Mariposa, winners of the 2013 Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Training Mustangs has indeed turned out to be the fun challenge Don predicted it would be. Some horses have been more challenging than others, but he considers Mustangs the easiest breed he's worked with since he began training horses professionally 41 years ago. "They are easier to train than Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Morgans, etc.," he says. "I think that's because the desert selects for intelligence and soundness: those are the desert's two criteria. When you have to travel 30 to 40 miles to find water, the horse develops really good, strong feet and legs and great intelligence."
The wild steeds are more fearful than horses bred in a domestic environment, Don notes. Gaining their confidence is one of many areas in which Don draws on a deep well of horsemanship knowledge. The Montana native moved to Central California in the mid-80s when he recognized that "a few of the guys I ran into just knew things about horses that I didn't know," he explains. Some of those "guys" were natural horsemanship practitioners before there was a label for that way of working with horses. Guys like Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt, and cow horse experts including Les Vogt and Don Murphy.
The idea he distilled from those trainers, along with his own experience, "is that horses have the ability to reason or sort their way through a situation that we set up," Don says. "It's almost like pruning a vine: we allow the 'life' or reactions of the horse to go in the direction we choose. Using this process, we can construct a horse's expected responses or habits and these habits will eventually override instincts.
"During the training process, we keep adrenaline out of the equation by keeping things simple and consistent," he continues. "We believe that horses have no concept of good or evil, therefore none of their behavior merits punishment. We are benevolent and patient with them, and we feel that it takes several years to produce a well broke, all-around horse."
Rani and Don Douglas with Ruby and Mariposa. Photo by Tim Kirby.
His Makeover champ this year was Mariposa, a 4-year-old mare taken from a BLM herd management area called Sand Springs West in Nevada. Among 26 competitors, Don and Mariposa finished first in the preliminary categories of handling and control, obstacle course and pattern, and they were second in the Norco event's unique component, the Trail Challenge that winds four miles through town streets. Those performances put them at the head of the pack of 10 finalists to perform a freestyle in front of a packed arena at the George Ingalls Equestrian Event Center on the Makeover's final day.
Early in his Makeover career, Don figured out that crowd pleasers are usually judge pleasers, too, providing they are within the framework of what's appropriate for each horse. He and Mariposa's winning freestyle included working a cow at top speed, lots of flying lead changes, walking up and down a teeter-totter, jumping up onto a small wooden platform and galloping bridle-less, again at top speed.
It takes a long time to teach a horse the kind of tricks that turn crowds on, Don notes. But there's a good pay-off in the satisfaction of turning out a well-started horse, not to mention, in Norco, $6,500 of the event's $20,000 purse.
Much as he appreciates them, Don has not kept any of the Mustangs he's trained. They've been sold in the Makeover's end-of-competition finale, a public auction. Don and Rani don't need any more horses at their Central California ranch. And, afterall, the whole point of the program is to get the Mustangs started well enough to be safe and suitable for the general horse public: owners with some skill and knowledge but not that of a professional trainer. "It's all about the general public having a chance with these Mustangs," Don notes. "They wouldn't have any chance if these horses came straight from the wild. They'd just get hurt."
Don considers most of the Mustangs he's competed with to be half-broke by his training standards and enjoys going against trainers working with the same time constraints. He likes that fact that fellow Makeover contestants get no say in which horse they get: the organizers assign freeze brand numbers to contestants on pick-up day, and the trainer's only role is finding the horse with that number on its neck and hauling him home. "It's like playing poker: you don't get to pick your cards," Don laughs.
Don Douglas and Mariposa, winners of the 2013 Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Don has trained horses for reining, sorting and stock horse competition, but his main gig is and has always been the training itself rather than competition, and with an emphasis on starting youngsters and helping solve issues with older horses. Located in the beautiful but remote Panoche Valley, in San Benito County, the Douglas Ranch has also trained many horsemen in its day. Most clients send their horse to Don for a spell, sometimes visiting on weekends for lessons. Don also offers multi-day horsemanship clinics at the ranch and the occasional backcountry trek, both by special arrangement.
Two of Don and Rani's three grown sons have taken their ranch upbringing out of state. One is a farrier in Montana, another does some work with horses in Wisconsin, and their third son lives in nearby Hollister, but set aside his riding talents for a career as an electrical contractor.
The winning trainer in September's Mustang Million will get $200,000 and a 2014 Ram truck. With an estimated 1,000 horses being readied for the competition, it won't be easy, but Don has extra incentive. The last time he took a Mustang to the big show in Texas, he missed the top 10 by
half a point and he's determined not to let that happen twice.