The Making of a Champion
How do you measure the size of a horse? Do you take a stick and measure from top to bottom, wither to road? Do you use a measure to circle their girth and add a few numbers for a good guess on how much feed they might need? Or is size a relative measure? Does it really matter? Or maybe, just maybe…it’s not about height and weight, but the size of the try, the exertion, the effort, the mental strength to succeed. Some would call that “heart,” and this story is about a horse and a trainer who came together in an unlikely way, and found more heart in each other than they thought possible.
The Introduction, by way of Mississippi
Marsha Hartford-Sapp, (MHS) raised in the north woods of Maine on her family’s dairy farm, is right where she is supposed to be. The Tallahassee, Florida resident is the owner of one of the most respected and well-loved equine training facilities there, Southern Oaks Equestrian, where she coaches the Florida State University Equestrian Team. She is also the trusted partner and friend of one of the most difficult and dangerous wild mustangs to come through the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) wild horse adoption program. Their story couldn’t have been imagined in the most far-fetched fiction, and yet it happened, and it’s as true a tale as has ever been told.
In May of 2010, a tough 6-year-old dark bay mustang with pinned ears and the haughty arrogance of a herd leader paced restlessly in the confines of the Bureau of Land Management adoption pens in Piney Woods, Mississippi. At 15.2 hands, he was the largest mustang in his group and carried unique identification symbols, some on his neck like all other BLM mustangs, and also a quad-set of numbers on his left hip, marking him forever as one of the BLM’s “three strike” mustangs. He was a long way from the cold desert winds of Nevada and the Buck and Bald Herd Management Area (HMA) where he had come of age. Rounded up with many others as a young stallion, he was unceremoniously gelded and prepared for a series of adoption events. After being passed up for adoption at more than three events, these “three strike” mustangs were destined to spend the rest of their lives corralled like feeder steers in anonymous long-term holding pens, nothing more than government livestock.
If any of these long-term horses were ever going to be adopted, they had to get noticed by trainers skilled enough to see their potential. With the success of the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s (MHF) Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions, it was only a matter of time before the MHF marketing team dreamed up an idea just crazy enough to work.
As a non-profit Texas-based agency, MHF’s stated mission is to place hundreds of mustangs each year into new adoptive homes. Such a dubious challenge requires unique marketing and promotion efforts to be successful. With much hard work and great expectations, the MHF team rolled out a slick marketing campaign designed to entice talented trainers from across the country out of their home arenas and comfortable show pens. With help from a select group of sponsors, in early 2010 MHF announced the first Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover to be held in Fort Worth, Texas in September of that year.
The competition would be designed to uniquely highlight the versatility and trainability of the American Mustang while capitalizing on the popularity of the Extreme Mustang Makeover events. All mustangs being offered for adoption and eligible to compete for the $100,000 would be pulled from long term holding pens across the country. Along with the enticing purse, the Supreme competition also offered a new twist. The wild horse selected by these elite trainers must be adopted prior to the 98-day training period. Many trainers, like Hartford-Sapp, chose to adopt their selected mustangs themselves, thus competing as an owner/trainer.The opportunity to evaluate and choose the mustang each trainer preferred had added a unique competitive spin to the event as a whole.
This would be different than the familiar Extreme Mustang Makeover events where the horses were assigned to trainers through a random draw process, then offered to the public for adoption at the close of the competition. In the Supreme there would be a competitive-bid live-adoption event held prior to the beginning of the 98-day training period. Each trainer or trainer’s client, if they were the high bidder on the mustang of their choice during the live adoption auction event, would “own” the horse with which they would be competing.
The trainers chose carefully, using all their skills and talents and intuition to determine what mustangs might be the best fit for their expertise. Most chose the stocky cow-horse types with quick reflexes, a natural sliding stop and quick spin. Hartford-Sapp was looking for something a little different. Her dressage foundation gave her a different take on the conformation of a horse, and in the line up of prospects for the Supreme event she was sure she had found a winner.
With the stakes set high, Hartford-Sapp put her Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) experience to work. Her 2009 Top Ten EMM win on a once-wicked black mustang mare named Onyx would help give her the confidence she needed to face her Supreme candidates eye to eye. As she looked at the nervous group of prospective champions milling around in the Piney Woods corrals, she looked for the two she had bid on during the video adoption event. The smallest mustang in the group, a gelding with eye-catching color, was sorrel with “chrome,” 4 white socks and a star, strip and snip. In spite of his size, he would leave an impression with many. She named him immediately, and “Frodo Baggins” would be Florida bound soon. As she looked for her second prospect, there he stood, big and dark, with ominous double brands as obvious as twin neon Exit signs. He was the largest mustang in the group.
As he wore a familiar path over and over along the edges of the corral, the sharp eye and practiced observation of Hartford-Sapp recognized an athlete as he moved with ease. She was impressed with his size, structure, and despite the double brand, let herself listen to her inner voice. She felt something about this fellow. He didn’t look like a “bad” horse to her. She looked long and soft into his eyes that day, and what she saw reflected back convinced her that this horse would be somebody, if she could win his trust. She knew what his fate would be if she hadn’t chosen to bid on him in this special adoption event. And though she knew there were other horses that might be easier, safer, and assure a better path to success, she paid her bid on the big three strikes horse, and got ready to haul him and the little pretty one home to Florida.
“He was the larger of the two mustangs, very muscular and strong. I was pleased by his size, heavier build, and his uphill stride. He looked like a dressage horse! His fancy white cuffs also made him stand out when he moved, too!” Hartford-Sapp knew that she had found her mustangs. It would be a 400-mile return trip to her farm in Florida and along the way she had every opportunity to change her mind. But like the northern farm girl she was raised to be, she remained resolute and determined, two traits that she would wear to the bone as she began her work with one of the most difficult horses she would ever encounter.
The Road to The Supreme
As training began for the mustangs, all involved in MHF’s programs and outreach efforts agreed that these Supreme mustangs, as a group, were tremendously talented but uniquely tough. With the stakes richer, the horses and their trainers were pulling out all the stops. The panel of judges would be looking for mentally sharp and physically fit equine athletes who worked together as a team with their trainers. Those trainers who could throw in a bit of creativity to their freestyle patterns while displaying consistent and dependable basic skills would be awarded higher scores. With her mustang training experience and success fresh on her mind, Hartford-Sapp began the hard, careful work of getting to know her mustangs, and letting them get to know her. There were 97 days left until show time, and from day one she knew her work would be cut out for her.
Upon arriving home, the two mustangs were turned out immediately into a safe and secure round pen. They would only have one day to relax and get accustomed to the farm before Marsha began her work with them. After that first day home, she separated Frodo Baggins from the big bay, a necessary step in order for her to begin building a relationship of trust and understanding with each horse. With her first steps into the round pen, the big horse didn’t hesitate. He pinned his ears and charged her with mouth open. He meant business.
How do you change the mind of a charging, angry horse, born wild and thoroughly wild at heart? How do you teach them that you mean them no harm? How do you find that open door leading to trust and confidence when all the horse wants is to be left alone? There are many answers to these questions, and there are as many ways to train a horse just as there are horses to be trained. But there is only one way to become the trusted companion of a horse like Cobra, on this first day so dangerously full of anger and fear.
In spite of their beginning, Marsha knew he was acting out of instinct. She stayed calm, consistent and basic, asking him through her specific body language for behaviors that would build one upon the other and lead them to the team she hoped to become. She never threatened him, she never hurt him and she never humiliated him. Soon his ears, once pinned back in fear and anger, would swivel forward in relaxed curiosity when she approached. Within a few weeks, he began to understand that she would always be fair and he would always have time to think things through and to solve the problems she presented to him.
In Cobra, Marsha discovered a sharply intelligent, deeply intuitive horse.As they became more familiar with each other she was pleased to see the return of his confident pride, left behind in the winter dust of the Nevada holding pens.Even with their daily training progress, it was several weeks before the saddle, bridle, brushes, and other tools of her trade were as familiar to him as the western desert where he was born.
Even though she had adopted him specifically to compete with nearly 200 other mustang/trainer teams in the August 2010 event, this would not be the culmination of their relationship, but rather the beginning of what has become a most remarkable journey for the pair.
After a missed mark on a compulsory pattern, the judging panel, while impressed with the discipline of their performance, deleted a few points from the overall score, dropping them to 24th out of all competitors there. Such a small mistake would cost them a coveted Top Twenty spot and an opportunity to show the full-house crowd, in a musical freestyle routine, what the three strikes mustang had learned. Overwhelmingly disappointed but not knowing what lay in store for them both, she loaded Cobra back on her trailer and headed home to Florida for some much needed rest. For the next few months he would be turned out to pasture, making new horse friends for the first time in well over a year. Marsha would spend the next few months catching up on business.
The Magic Begins
For the Supreme, Marsha and Cobra had performed all the required elements in the compulsory stages of the competition in western equipment, but with the discipline and cadence of a finely tuned dressage presentation. Cobra’s soft responsiveness and supple impulsion together with his bold and forward strides earned him high scores from the predominantly western judges, but not high enough to win the big check in a town renowned for cattle and cutting horses. Did he have the talent to play in the big leagues of dressage? Did he have the athleticism to garner qualifying scores from judges who probably had never seen a real American mustang up close?
In late 2010, Marsha decided to enter Cobra in a local dressage competition. Several more competitions and a few months later, the pair had won the year-end High Point award for Tallahassee’s Southwind Dressage and Eventing Club. His size, color, balance and correct movement, combined with what appeared to be effortless communication between horse and rider was beginning to prove that magic was not always invisible.
Cobra began to make his name known, closing out 2011 as the Year End Reserve Champion at Training Level for the North Florida Dressage Association. They had discovered the best of each other and had become an inseparable team. Their effortless dressage movements thrilled crowds as they continued to compete on a national scale. 2013, their second full year of showing together, concluded as the pair was named the USDF All-Breed Reserve National Champions at 1st Level, and Reserve World Champion Western Dressage Freestyle.
Marsha and Cobra had become familiar faces on the United States Dressage Federation/United States Equestrian Federation show circuit. At year’s end, the formerly wild and dangerous “three strikes” mustang, the one no one wanted, the one who was destined to live the rest of his young life in a government holding pen with hundreds of other unwanted mustangs, had achieved what many purpose-bred dressage horses rarely do; qualifying scores at First, Second, and Third Level performances, and Marsha received the scores she needed to be awarded a USDF Bronze Medal.
Perhaps their greatest achievement were the hundreds of fans they accumulated along the way. No one could have guessed that this roughneck western mustang and his double dose of freeze-branded notoriety would become a “poster boy” for the thousands of other forgotten mustangs still waiting in the holding pens for a chance to prove their value. Cobra had become their shining star.
As 2014 began to unfold, Cobra and Marsha just got better with every performance. They concluded that year with the USDF Adequan All-Breeds National Champion 3rd Level horse and rider, they qualified for the Regional Championship show in 2nd and 3rd level musical freestyle and were named Reserve World Champion Musical Freestyle for Western Dressage, as well as being a multiple top-ten finisher at the World Championship show in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 2015, Marsha and ten-year-old Cobra, now a USDF Silver Medalist for 2015 as a result of Cobra’s accomplishments, were on their way to becoming the first ever Mustang Makeover graduate to be crowned a Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) National Champion at the Prix St. Georges level, the second highest level of accomplished movements in the dressage discipline. As a mustang, Cobra and his distinctive double brands still turn heads wherever they go, and he has indeed become the ambassador to the mustang that the Mustang Heritage Foundation staff had hoped to find in their roster of Supreme Extreme competitors.
In many ways, the mustang is as unique as the DNA that defines bay from palomino, Percheron from Paint horse, cutting horse from running horse. They are American icons with a history rich and vibrant but largely lost in misconception. Their value has declined and soared over the years, along with their popularity. As for Cobra, no one knows from where the roots of his Nevada ancestors come, but it is certain they are not descended from Native American stock as there was none in those times. Nor were they descended from the small tough mounts of the Spanish explorers, as those intrepid men never made it as far as the cold western deserts. What has become certain is that each herd from each of the more than one hundred herd management areas in Nevada alone, have unique histories and unique ancestries.
It doesn’t matter much to Marsha now though. From the beginning, Marsha was struck by the intelligence of this horse, wanted by no one. He has remained steadfast and dependable, the kind of horse always ready to stand next to his lead mare, taking direction or giving direction, whatever the need may be for his herd. She gives credit to Cobra first, and his uncanny ability to survive, adapt and thrive. She also credits her time on the ground in those first days and weeks, being patient and understanding of who he was as an individual.She made their training time relevant to the horse, and in doing so forged a bond as strong as any he might have had with members of his wild herd or band of bachelor brothers.
With Cobra she has learned that it’s rarely the size of the horse that wins the race, but rather the size of their heart. She is certain that the heart of this once-wild and unwanted mustang is twice the size of any mountain they may face no matter how many miles they may travel together. She has seen his heart, felt it, and held it safely in her hands as they learned together. When you meet a wild mustang, there is no greater discovery.
- Victoria Demore Heil
- Kimberly Chason