Mustangs are our YourDressage Breed of the Month for June! Known for their wild and majestic spirit, these free-roaming horses are rounded up periodically to be sold to new homes where they will be tamed. These unique equines are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.
Dressage enthusiasts who ride Mustangs have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as The American Mustang & Burro Association Inc. is a Participating Organization.
We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special. Here, an equestrian shares about her journey of working with a completely wild Mustang mare aptly named Wild Heart, and how it has changed her life forever.
By Ariana Sakaris
Wild Heart is a beautiful, 14.2h, gray, Mustang mare from Fish Creek, Nevada. She lived in the wild until she was 3 years old, and was then placed in a holding facility with other wild horses until she was 5 years old- which is when I first met her, and was assigned the task of working with her. Prior to that time, she had never been haltered, touched, or handled directly by a human.
Before meeting Wild Heart, I had always felt this very deep calling in my heart to work with a completely wild horse. Learning from an animal in their rawest state always sounded like such a rich and challenging experience. I had once heard about a dog trainer that spent time studying wolves, and how he brought that understanding back to his dog training program with a lot of success. I knew in my gut that working with a completely wild horse would challenge me beyond belief, but I also knew that I would grow immensely from that experience. The desire to work with a wild horse was like a little voice inside of me that I could never turn off.
Previously, I had been an extremely dedicated student pursuing dressage. When I was 14 years old, I started riding with a former Olympic Coach and Russian Master of Sport and spent 8 years under his instruction. I fell in love with learning, and spent every moment I could studying under Grand Prix trainers both nationally and internationally, including a working student position with Yvonne and Kim Barteau for almost 2 years.
Alongside my dressage journey, I became fascinated with liberty work and learning how to dive deep into understanding a horse’s mind, thoughts, and emotions to work with them in harmony while they are completely loose. I always wanted to know what the horse thought of me, and whether they really wanted to be with me. To me, the ultimate question I would ask myself was, “Does my horse still want to be with me once all the tack is removed?” I was on this deep quest to learn as much as possible, and always had that question at the forefront of my mind through every ride. How my horse feels about me became the ultimate “Olympics” that I was striving for with every horse.
While actively taking many weekly dressage lessons with the Barteaus and learning an incredible amount from them, I heard about the Extreme Mustang Makeover. In these makeovers, each trainer is randomly assigned a completely wild horse that they have to work with for 120 days. Then all the trainers return together to compete in the final competition.
I started asking a few people about these competitions. I’ll never forget one extremely talented horseman that gave me advice about these challenges. I asked him, “What do you think about working with Mustangs?” He responded, “Mustangs have changed my life.” I remember pausing when I heard those words, and wondered if the same thing would happen to me. My curiosity outweighed my doubt about whether I was ready for the challenge and I mustered up the courage to sign up for a chance to work with my very first wild horse.
I was accepted into the 2017 Kentucky Extreme Mustang Makeover, and soon found myself on the way to pick up my new wild Mustang that I would be spending the next 120 days with. I had no information on the horse that would be assigned to me, as it was a random assignment. On the ride to the facility to pick up my Mustang, I held the intention to get assigned a horse that would change my career forever. I wanted to grow, change, learn, be pushed past my comfort zone, and come out far better than before I began. And, I also secretly threw in a wish for a gray mare.
I walked into the office at the holding facility where she was and I sat down at the secretary’s desk to do the paperwork. She handed me a blue folder that contained all the information about the Mustang they had assigned to me. I had butterflies in my stomach as I opened up the folder. My eyes scrolled halfway down the page and I saw the words, “Gray Mare, 5 years old.”
I walked outside and started slowly walking next to each pen, peering through the horses grouped together trying to find a gray Mustang. After a thorough search, I finally spotted her. I watched her for a long time. She seemed very quiet, keeping to herself and not really engaging with the other horses. My initial thought was that she might not be so challenging to work with. Little did I know, the life-changing journey that I was about to embark on.
The first day I worked with her, I remember standing as close as I could get to her. Her mane was a tangled mess and her eyes were watching me very cautiously. She had a little plastic tag on a string around her neck, with the number 1463 on it. Her tag number was her identification number at the holding facility. I remember standing there near her, with no connection to her. We had no bond, and no trust between each other. Little did I know, this 14.2h Mustang would become the best thing that ever happened to me. But it would take the ups and downs of our journey for me to discover that.
When it eventually came time to put a first ride on her, I felt pretty confident that she would be okay with it. We had done a lot of preparation work, and she wasn’t saying much about the experience up until this point. However, about a minute into our ride, I ended up coming off of her. She had an immense amount of power in her, and her raw instincts were so much more present and alive than with any horse I had worked with up to this point. I had been riding 16-17h Warmbloods for years, and nothing compared to the rawness of the reactions of this little, wild horse. She was built for survival, and was protecting herself. I had to take a step back, and go back and revisit all of her training thus far, looking under every stone for what I had missed – and what she was here to teach me about.
Like any dedicated student, it’s very important to continually consult with coaches and mentors. I sought out the help of a very good friend of mine, Sid Zacharias. He had worked with many Mustangs, and has the softest and most compassionate approach to understanding them that I’ve ever witnessed. I left all my clients and training horses, packed my bags, and moved with Wild Heart down to his facility for a few weeks to learn.
I spent almost 6 to 9 hours a day with her, diving deep into compassionate, reflective groundwork that helped Wild Heart learn how to process her emotions, and develop confidence. I realized that she was the most introverted horse that I’ve ever worked with. I had to learn how to read silence, and read her invisible signs about how she was feeling about each task.
After countless hours and days of preparation work to peel back the “layers of the onion” of her personality and how she was feeling about the training, it was time to ride her again. With the assistance of Sid’s brother Zeke and his pony horse, I climbed up on her back. I remember looking down at my hands, and they were shaking. As a professional, it was a humbling moment to experience that level of fear. I was always able to channel my fear into productive work, but this time I felt it almost flowing through my veins. My confidence had been shattered, but the only way to grow it back and build it even stronger than ever was to trust in the work I had done with this horse. I knew the power she had in her, but I had to trust that I had now equipped her with enough coping skills to go through this next phase with me. I remember her looking up at me, and me looking down at her. I just silently thought to myself, “Just please give me a chance with you, I promise I will listen to you better and it will all be okay. I am committed to us as a team.”
At this point, we only had 6 weeks before the final competition. I remember looking at all the other competitors’ posts online, feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t yet even really ridden my horse. Little did I know, the next 6 weeks would become one of the greatest memories of my life.
Wild Heart began trying harder and harder for me. Anything I asked her to do, she would try and really think her way through each exercise. I felt this deep part of her that now wanted me as her partner, and enjoyed our work together. She started nickering to me in the mornings when I would come get her, and sometimes nicker at me when I would get off of her at the end of a ride. My heart was starting to melt for her in a way that I had never experienced before. It was a deep love and appreciation for all that she was, a wild horse that was truly affording me her full trust.
We returned back to Kentucky, and two weeks before the final competition, I took her to the Kentucky Horse Park to gain a little experience performing at a small daytime demonstration. At the end of one of our performances, I walked Wild Heart up to the rail for the meet and greet. There was a little girl that quickly made her way to the fence line. She gently hoisted herself up on the fence, wrapped her arms around Wild Heart’s face, and kissed her on the forehead, whispering to her, “Don’t worry, you’ll find a home too.” Her mothers eyes instantly welled up with tears. She looked at me and said, “She heard you say that Wild Heart has to go up for adoption at the end of the competition, and she knows what that feels like because she herself is adopted.” Tears began streaming down my face, and I was speechless. My heart filled with emotions, as I knew that my guaranteed time with Wild Heart was soon coming to an end. I had developed indescribable feelings towards her, and I knew that I would do everything in my power to be the last bid on her in the final adoption auction.
Soon came time for the competition. I felt like I was taking my best friend with me. She was a horse that I had at one point initially lost my confidence with, but now a horse I would protect with all my heart. I stayed so focused on her, carefully guiding her through each class and each task we had to complete. I didn’t look at any of the other competitors, and I didn’t even consider them our competition. I felt like just getting her to the competition and having her so relaxed, calm, and willing was the biggest success I could ever ask for. I felt like her and I had already won, and we were the only ones that needed to know that. Having her trust me was the blue ribbon in my heart.
We competed in 3 classes, and came in first place in the riding class, securing a spot in the finals which consisted of 10 competitors. When it came time for the finals, we had to ride a riding pattern and then do a freestyle. During our riding pattern, I could feel her trying her heart out for me. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation; her legs were my legs. It was one of the best 90 seconds I’ve ever experienced on a horse. We ended up winning the riding pattern again, but could have gained more points in the freestyle with some more creativity! We ended up being named Reserve Champions. I felt like I had the best horse in the entire world.
The auction was about to start, and I was ready to step up to the plate and adopt her. I was really nervous during the auction, because I was worried I wouldn’t understand what was going on. I sat on her back and laid the reins down on her neck. I held my bidders card up high in the air, and didn’t put it down. As the bidding price started to rise, I started waving my card from side to side, but never putting it down once. My heart was pounding, but finally the auctioneer turned and pointed to me. The whole crowd cheered and I immediately leaned down and gave Wild Heart the biggest hug. She was now part of my family for life.
Since the Mustang Makeover, Wild Heart has gone on to do educational demonstrations and performances at events such as the Midwest Horse Fair, The National Mounted Police Colloquium, private events in Kentucky, and has even competed in some Western Dressage.
My goals with Wild Heart are to continue to train her in dressage as far up the levels as possible and to show that dressage is for all horses, even a 14.2h, downhill built Mustang! Our goals are also to continue to develop her liberty work and develop educational demonstrations and performances that combine both dressage and liberty – showing the blend of the two and the partnership that can be achieved through riding and on the ground.
She has a heart of gold and tries so incredibly hard for me every time I ride her. Her ears stay locked into a “focused” and “listening” position when I ride her, and I can feel every fiber of being saying, “I will ALWAYS try for you.” What matters to me is how she truly, really, feels about working with me together when no one is watching.
Even though I am a busy professional trainer, clinician, and coach, every single day I go into Wild Heart’s stall and hug her and thank her for having come into my life. She is the best thing that ever happened to me. I will even sit in her stall with her while she eats her hay, and just soak in how lucky I am to have such an amazing animal in life. She has opened up my heart to a level I didn’t even know was possible. She is one in a million, and the greatest horse I’ve ever known. Now having gone through this experience, I can for sure also say, “This Mustang has changed my life.”