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Mustang makeover: Trainers have 90 days to fully transform wild horses

HERRIMAN — With a giant lunge, the black gelding twisted and reared in the loading chute, its hooves flailing before it returned to all fours.

Joni Cox looked a little dismayed.

"I hope that one is my husband's," she said.

Cox, of Mapleton, was one of 34 horse trainers from eight Western states who showed up Friday at the Salt Lake Regional Wild Horse & Burro Center to pick up a preselected wild mustang, sight unseen, to partner up with for the next 90 days.

The goal is to ready the horse for competition in the Mountain Valley Extreme Mustang Makeover held in Heber City on Nov. 7 as part of city's Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair.

Cox and husband Josh Campbell decided to each get a horse and have a friendly competition in the interim between husband and wife.

"That one there," wrangler Greg Parker said, motioning toward the bristling black horse, "he jumped our 6-foot fence. You should take it slow. He's a real athletic horse. Some are just high strung."

Scanning her horse's number on the paperwork, Cox smiled.

"That's my husband's. I get the other one," she said.

Sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation out of Texas in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the Extreme Mustang Makeover is a way to showcase the qualities of the mustang by pairing them with trainers. These horses are 3 or 4 years old, geldings, typically solid in color and less likely to be adopted than flashier counterparts like paints, palominos or grays.

Debbie Doneyson traveled from Hooper to pick up her horse and aims to finish in the top 10 of the competition. Doneyson watched her quiet little bay first sniff the trailer and then scamper in, as if it had been trained to do just that.

"It looks good so far," she said. "But this is the first time I've done something like this. It's definitely going to be a challenge."

Actually, several veteran mustang adopters turned out Friday, drawn by what they say is the quick intelligence of a rugged animal that has already proven its smarts in the wild.

"I learned on mustangs. If you want to be a good trainer, it is best to start with a mustang because they will let you know what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong," said Jared Haddock of Price. "They're smarter because they've had to survive out there in the wild. All the dumb ones get eaten by coyotes."

Darius Simons, who owns two mustangs that have gone on to win national championships, also swears by their smarts and adaptability.

"With a mustang, if you teach it something, it will learn," Simons said. "The biggest trick is to get their trust."

He, too, was looking to pair up for the competition, leaving the center that day with an inquisitive little bay.

Before the horse was loaded into the trailer, Simons was eyeing it carefully, and his assessment was positive.

"He looks like a good, calm horse," he said.

After the makeover competition in November, the horses will be available for adoption.

While horses straight off the range go for $125, these horses sell on average for $1,200 and some can go as high as $5,000. The trainers get a commission from the sale price, compete for prize money and receive $500 for expenses.

And, at times, the trainers are so reluctant to let their "student" go they buy the horse themselves.

"The Mustang Makeover is a wonderful thing because it puts magic and energy into people who are seeing these horses as valuable, wonderful and adoptable," said Donnette Hicks, a volunteer with the Heber event and all-around mustang fan. "There's a lot of passion behind this in showing the partnership that happens between horse and rider."