Prizes in the six figures, a variety of in-hand and mounted competitions and the passionate horse culture of Fort Worth, Texas, make the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s flagship event a mecca for talented horsewomen—and cowgirls dreaming of riding their own formerly wild icon of the American West.

It’s called the Mustang Million, and it’s by far the biggest and most spectacular showcase of America’s recently wild horses in history.  The inaugural event in 2013 was held in the world-class Will Rogers Memorial Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Mustang Heritage Foundation, who produced the show, is hoping to make it a yearly event.

The event attracts a variety of horse enthusiasts: fearless horsewomen who come to compete on animals that, only a few months prior, were running wild on the open range; spectators who come to see living, breathing icons of the American West, now gentled and broke to ride and performing complex maneuvers that belie their recent capture; future mustang owners who come to experience the potential of riding a wild horse—and maybe even find their next equine partner.

The Mustang Honor by John Wheland

Mustang Million is the latest brain child of renowned horsewoman Patti Colbert, a member of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame Board of Directors and current Executive Director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, or MHF.  The MHF is an organization established in 2001 to support the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program by facilitating adoptions with various programs and events.  In 2006 Colbert partnered with the BLM to create the wildly successful Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenges, competitions designed to demonstrate the trainability and versatility of the rugged wild horses that freely roam the open range on public lands throughout the West, and to make as many as possible available for adoption.

In Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenges, trainers are traditionally assigned their horses, and have roughly 100 days to gentle and train the mustangs which are then auctioned off to the public at the end of competition.  In contrast, the Mustang Million trainers adopt their prospective mounts up front, with or without a sponsor.  In late April, trainers set out to find the horse of their choosing in sanctioned auctions held in Tennessee, Texas, Oregon and California. They have until Sept. 17th, approximately 140 days, to work their magic with their wild charges.  The Mustang Million includes competitions for every level of horsemanship and experience, ranging from “extremely competitive and challenging riding divisions to working with your horse in hand.”

This year, two outstanding cowgirls walked off with impressive honors in the Mustang Million event, showing before a sold out crowd of  cheering fans. Mary Kitzmiller from Kemp, Texas earned a Fifth Place finish and a purse of $50,000 with her four year old gelding, Gandalf the Bay.   Kitzmiller selected her mustang from a herd that was rounded up in the Jackson Mountains of Nevada. She sensed a quiet temperament in the gentle horse that she first spotted near a group that was lunging and biting. Her sponsor and client, Kelly Jackson, was able to purchase the horse for $300. Kitzmiller has been professionally training horses since graduating college in 2005 and she quickly acclimated Gandalf the Bay (named for the wizard Gandalf the Grey in the J. R. R. Tolkien novels) to a halter and was on his back the second day of training. (Readers, don’t try his at home!) Mary’s focus was defined and consistent; to deliver an “honest, gentle, quiet, broke horse.”

In the Mustang Million Youth Division, seventeen year old Jacqueline Donahue from Seymour, Tennessee was crowned Champion along with her mustang, Calibrated Cadenza, a dun yearling she found at an auction in Tennessee.

Jacqueline, who has been riding since she was four and training horses for others since she was thirteen, adopted her first mustang at the age of just fourteen in 2010, and placed second in her first MHF event. At fifteen she repeated her success with her second mustang, earning another second place. Despite the challenge of simultaneous competitions in 2013,  and the significant obstacle of starting her winning gelding six weeks late in the Mustang Million training time period, Donahue managed to grab the spotlight with her expertise and showmanship. “It was an amazing experience for me—the Mustang (enthusiast) family is so helpful and supportive, and the other kids were so cool. I feel very, very privileged,” she told me during the interview for this article. Donahue took home a purse of $10,000, a Gist trophy belt buckle, and some horse products from sponsor businesses such as Vetericyn and Classic Equine. Her dream is to one day open a Youth Ranch for both underprivileged youth and mustangs in need of a home.
If you’re interested in testing your mettle and horsemanship with a wild mustang, the Mustang Heritage Foundation provides a variety of venues in which to get involved, along with a wealth of information on adoption, and help finding assistance in training your wild horse into an authentic equine partner.  Building trust and bond with a wild mustang—a true living legend—is a definite challenge. But for many who have been inspired to take the leap, it has proved to be nothing short of a transformative experience, for both horse and rider.