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It’s not often you meet a person who has an uncanny communication with horses, at least with five American mustangs at once. Add a zebra to the mix and develop a routine that shows off the talents and passion of each individual, and not only will you be astounded, you will be awe-inspired.
Mustang Maddy Shambaugh is a petite blonde and blue-eyed buckaroo born and raised in northeastern Indiana. Her dad’s love for the mountains resulted in frequent family trips to Telluride, and other parts of southwestern Colorado, where Maddy and her sister would ride horses from sun up to sun down.
“I don’t know how else to say it but I was obsessed with horses from a young age,” Maddy recalls. “I was that weird horse girl. My sister and I started riding at a farm nearby where we lived in Indiana. Then we would ride in the mountains in Colorado eight-to-ten hours a day. Once I got on a horse, you just couldn’t get me off.”
AN AFFINITY FOR HORSES
There’s an obvious affinity and understanding that Maddy has with horses. To repeat the phrase “horse whisperer” might be cliché, but it is also very accurate.
“The understanding that I have with horses didn’t come naturally,” says 24-year-old Maddy during our interview at the Cave Creek, Arizona, ranchette where she is staying. “I know a lot of people may look at me communicating with the horses without any ropes attached and they attribute it to some gift. The only gift I have is my passion for these horses and for teaching other people.”
In middle school, Maddy was riding seven horses a day. “Any horse I could find that someone wanted messed with I was on it.” By the time she was a junior in high school, she started training horses for people and taking on clients.
Much of Maddy’s knowledge comes from direct, hands-on experience. Growing up, she had her local riding coaches, but there was something else the young horsewoman needed to know. “I really wanted to get into understanding how this animal thinks. I wanted to know how to clearly motivate them and answer that ‘what’s in it for me’ question.”
WILD MUSTANGS AND A ZEBRA!
“Wild horses taught me so much about equine behavior because they are a horse with incredibly strong instincts,” says Maddy. “The zebras taught me even more because they are a horse with instincts times like 100,000. They evolved in Africa for millions of years to be the master prey animal, to survive hyenas and lions, and have very strong fight or flight instincts. So working with these animals, I couldn’t just go about it (in a normal way). I would have gotten myself killed. I had to figure out some new ways of going about it and be open to that.”
A lot of Maddy’s technique involves rope-free work. Her demonstrations with a group of five unhaltered mustangs is to say the least, impressive. Side by side, the group aligns to follow the subtle messages of their trainer with an intent and willingness to walk, trot, and canter in formation, and even lie down in perfect order.
“One of the main things I think really becomes important when you’re working with a wild horse or zebra is two-way communication,” says Maddy. “When working without ropes, the two-way communication becomes very clear. When we come out, we’re very planned, we’re very organized. The mustangs have taught me to not just worry about my own agenda but look at what they’re telling me. What does that horse need? I might have a certain set of things I want to look at when I go into the round pen with a horse, but it’s ultimately up to the horse to tell me what they need in that moment. It may not be what you were wanting to work on that day.”
“It’s all about that two-way communication, especially when you’re building trust with a brand-new horse. If they’re saying they’re not ready for something and you keep pushing it and you don’t listen to it, that’s when the trust really starts to break down. So it’s just about reading the subtleties and learning when to start approaching, when to retreat, and just being really tuned into that and respecting what they have to say.”
SAFETY AROUND HORSES
“I’ve never been seriously injured by a mustang. I honestly think that goes back to being able to read your horse. So many people say, ‘Oh my gosh, my horse bolted out of nowhere,’ or, ‘He was just completely fine and he just blew up.’ Usually there’s something. It’s just that we’re too oblivious to actually see what that something was and to read our horse. It’s about fine-tuning our attention to those little details that are a very big deal to our horses. If we can see that coming, then okay, what do I need to do to get this horse more confident?”
“Any time a horse goes to hurt someone, I believe it’s based out of fear. Even if a horse is acting very pushy and very aggressive, a lot of times that’s out of fear. It’s an ‘I’ll hurt you before you hurt me’ mentality. If we can understand horses from that place and have that empathy to really, truly understand why they’re acting that way, then I think we can save ourselves a lot of trouble in the long run and ultimately stay much safer with our horses.”
EXTREME MUSTANG MAKEOVER
Maddy’s first real interactions with mustangs began in 2013 when she discovered the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover program and adopted her first wild horse from a Bureau of Land Management holding facility in Wyoming.
“When I heard that you could gentle and train and build a relationship with a completely wild horse in 100 days and then go and showcase it to the public to show how trainable these horses are, I was all onboard. I was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
In 2015 and 2016, Maddy won the reserve title in Mustang Makeover competitions, took first place in the individual freestyle divisions, and ended up with four adopted mustangs.
She gained overwhelming national attention at a Mustang Magic competition in Fort Worth in 2017. On the mustang, Amira, a 3-strike, 7-year-old black mare who had been put up for adoption three times with no takers, Maddy performed in–and won–the horsemanship and freestyle competition. She also won the hearts of the audience after her breathtaking performance, bareback and without a bridle while dressed in a Cinderella-themed gown. The resulting standing ovation and video which was shared on social media quickly went viral and thrust the young horse trainer onto the national equestrian stage.
Maddy was still in school—a full-time college student at the time—but she rode the wave and is now growing into her business of clinics and demonstrations around the country and, in fact, the world, with appearances in Canada and Germany.
“In June of 2016, I decided to go on tour because everyone was like, “Oh, we want you to come here. We want you to come here.” I was like, “Oh yeah. No big deal. I’ll just go travel.” I really didn’t think it through. It was a lot more than I had bargained for, but the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned, it’s been awesome. I mean, there’s always a tough part to it. So it’s definitely not all sunshine and daisies. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
THE GROWTH CONTINUES
“There’s not a lot of days that are the same,” says Maddy. “Right now, I’m actually trying to cut back from the travel to develop my online courses and my first training book and DVD set outlining my five golden rules. It’s the foundation to my program. I’m trying to get that done and then go travel some more.”
Maddy has been living on the road for the past two years, and now says she’s ready to find a place to call home.
“I’ve kind of called Colorado my home base—that’s where my parents are. I just recently got to Arizona—just north of Phoenix in the Cave Creek area, and have actually fallen in love with the desert. I think the ideal situation would be to stay here maybe eight months out of the year, and then for four months go to Colorado. So we’ll see how it pans out. But I’m definitely ready to put my roots somewhere a little bit.”
THE AMERICAN UNDERDOG
“For me, it’s more about the mustang, the complete American underdog. Everyone loves an underdog because these horses have been viewed as a pest and as un-trainable and labeled names like range rats and things like that. There are certain measures we need to take, obviously, to properly manage these populations. But I just want to show people what these horses are capable of. It’s really hard to believe in these horses and see anything in them when you walk up to the holding pens and their manes are in knots and all dreaded. They’re notoriously known to have kind of that big mustang head. Things like that. It’s just hard to really imagine what they’re capable of.”
“To me, the most plain-Jane bay horses, big head and all, have become the most absolutely incredible animals once you form that relationship with them. So it’s really about seeing in the mustang a part of ourselves. I think that’s why a lot of people are attracted to them. That part of ourselves that is told we’re not good enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, smart enough to do whatever it is that we want to do in life. For everyone that’s been told that they can’t, the mustang says that you can.”
FIND MADDY ONLINE
Maddy’s social media footprint has grown to include a large following on Facebook and Instagram. Mustangmaddy.com is her website where she shares history about herself, her training programs, and the mustangs she loves most.