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Trainer takes a personal approach to solving wild horse overpopulation
by Coleman Cornelius | Photography by Ryan Brooks
Cayla Stone had worked for two months to train her fearful mare for an Extreme Mustang Makeover contest when she finally was able to mount the wild horse. It was disastrous. Atalanta – named for a fierce huntress in Greek mythology – spooked at a shadow, bolted, and sent Stone smashing into the steel railing of a round pen.
Her riding helmet cracked, and Stone suffered a concussion.
Now, unable to ride, she had just one month to ready Atta for the challenging event. So, Stone schooled Atta using groundwork, which teaches horses responsiveness through close trainer contact and movement exercises.
“I had a bunch of people tell me to take her back,” said Stone, a professional horse trainer who graduated from Colorado State University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in equine science. “But I like what I do, and the second I got Atta, I knew she was a special horse.”
Stone is also devoted to the cause.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation holds Extreme Mustang Makeovers to showcase the trainability and versatility of American mustangs; each event involves preselected trainers and is capped by the sale of competing horses to permanent, adoptive homes.
By promoting mustang adoptions, the makeovers aim to alleviate the vexing problem of wild horse overpopulation. The federal Bureau of Land Management routinely removes wild horses and burros from public lands in the West to prevent their starvation and the harmful effects of their overpopulation on the landscape and on other species. As a result, some 46,000 animals occupy equine holding facilities, requiring about $50 million in care each year, according to the BLM. Wild herds continue to double every four years on public lands, sparking intense disputes between managers and activists about potential solutions.
Stone, who works at Poudre River Stables in Fort Collins, has her own approach: During the past several years, she has trained about 30 mustangs for adoptive owners. She has competed in four Extreme Mustang Makeover events. And she advocates for adoption by using her own two mustangs to teach riding lessons and to participate in shows and clinics in the English discipline.
“Mustangs are an undervalued asset to the equine community. Some of them could be fantastic partners for any sport,” Stone said, as her horses munched hay in their corrals.
“Their minds are what made me fall in love with them,” she said. “A mustang will think things through. They don’t waste unnecessary energy being foolish. They know how to pick their way through different terrain. They’re brave, honest, and street-smart. If more horse people are aware of what they can do, that’s how change will come about.”
Atta is the most difficult mustang Stone has started – and also the most promising.
In the final days before the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Collins, Atta proved her willingness to be ridden, to navigate obstacles, and even to jump. Valuable time spent on groundwork resulted in a horse that was “lovely, calm, relaxed, and happy to work,” Stone said.
The pair placed fifth among 30 competitors in the makeover, and Stone used a chunk of the $800 she earned in prize money to buy and keep Atta. Stone then stepped up work with Atta in eventing, a sport that involves dressage, cross-country riding, and jumping. The two are on their way to qualifying for the 2018 American Eventing Championships, to be held in Parker, Colo., in September.
For Stone, it would be fulfillment of a longtime goal to compete at that elite level with a mustang.
“Atta is my ambassador for the mustang breed,” she said.