Katie Ketterhagen pets wild mustang

National nonprofit organization showcases the beauty of wild horses

Katie Ketterhagen couldn’t move a muscle. She had spent hours in the horse pen watching and slowly working toward one goal. A quick move or an errant flick of a finger would send her back to square one. Katie wasn’t rushed, but in the back of her mind, the all-important countdown had begun. She had one hundred days to complete a seemingly impossible mission, but right now there was only one goal. “For hours, I just remember thinking, ‘All I want to do is touch this horse,’” Katie says.

Katie grew up around horses. She got her first horse—a bay Arabian named Hearts—when she was nine years old. Her mother passed down not only a love of these beautiful four-legged wonders but also a firm foundation in horsemanship. Katie even took equestrian studies at the University of Findlay in Ohio.

Yet all her training was with domesticated horses. The three-year-old bay mare that stood a few feet away wasn’t born on a farm. She was a mustang, a truly wild horse, and Katie had just one hundred days to gentle her and get her ready for the 2012 Extreme Mustang Makeover in Madison, Wisconsin.

Katie Ketterhagen with two mustangs

The Extreme Mustang Makeover is a national event held in cities across America. It’s the brainchild of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Georgetown. Their mission is to facilitate wild mustang and burro (wild donkey) adoptions.

In 1971, Congress sought to protect and preserve wild mustangs and burros. They gave the Bureau of Land Management oversight of herds in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. The 26.9 million acres of federally-managed lands were meant to be a wide-open, multi-use range for mustangs and cattle to roam and for other public uses.

But because mustang herds are doubling their size every four years, the land can’t support their numbers and still remain diversified for other uses. Currently, there are approximately 50,000 mustangs roaming freely in the West; another 48,000 have been rounded up and placed in pastures and short-term corrals to await adoption by the general public.

Heritage Foundation mustangs

In 2001, the Mustang Heritage Foundation stepped in and created a series of events and programs designed to better facilitate adoptions, make the public aware of mustangs, and showcase the mustangs’ intelligence and versatility. “One thing that our events do is to show not only the general public, but also the equine industry, that mustangs are very usable, functional, and trainable and can be incorporated into a lot of different disciplines,” explains Kyla Hogan, marketing director for the MHF.

So far, the MHF has placed more than 6,200 gentled mustangs with private owners. Their Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) utilizes qualified trainers to gentle mustangs and put them up for adoption. The Mustang Mentors program pairs military veterans with mustangs and, with the help of a trainer, both horse and soldier build a bond. The foundation also has several youth programs designed to teach the next generation about the beauty and wonder of America’s wild horses.

This year, the MHF celebrates the tenth anniversary of their most recognizable event: the Extreme Mustang Makeover. The intense competition is held in ten cities throughout the year and challenges even the most skilled trainers.

Katie Ketterhagen rides a mustang

“We’re taking qualified trainers and matching them with wild horses that haven’t been touched,” Kyla says. “We give them one hundred days to gentle these horses and prepare them for an event. It interests a lot of people to see what they can do in that short period of time.”

Katie Ketterhagen knows that time crunch all too well. “Typically—even with a domestic horse—to take it from not being ridden to what we do with these mustangs would be six months to a year,” she explains.

Since her first competition back in 2012, Katie has gentled and trained five mustangs for adoption—two of them she’s adopted herself. “I’m still in the process of learning how to not own all of them,” Katie jokes.

The training begins the same for each mustang. Katie starts with basic handling, getting the horse used to being touched, groomed, led by a halter, and saddled. Then Katie begins to train the horse to navigate over obstacles and perform other maneuvers that translate into everyday life on a ranch.

But it’s not just the mustangs that are learning. “So far, every mustang that I’ve trained has taught me something, and I do better with the next one. I’ve become a better trainer,” Katie says.

At the EMM competitions, each horse and trainer perform an identical series of maneuvers in the arena. The top ten move on to the finals for a freestyle display of skills set to music. After the competition, each horse is auctioned off.

During the 2015 EMM in Fort Worth, Katie made it to the finals with her fourth horse, a chestnut pony named Hakuna Matata. She aptly played theme music from The Lion King. Katie and ’Kuna trotted and danced around the arena, showcasing both her training and the deftness of her mustang. At one point, she even got off ’Kuna and held him in place with a hand gesture as she backed up. At her signal, he joyfully leaped into the air and returned to her.

Katie Ketterhagen kisses a mustang

Katie ended up placing sixth, but competing in this event isn’t the only reason she and other trainers keep coming back, or why the MHF draw large crowds to venues across the country. These events and programs give people a glimpse into America’s past, to a historic time when mustangs and cowboys defined the West. And for those who, like Katie, have adopted these mustangs, it’s a chance to take home a horse whose intelligence, stamina, and spirit were forged in the wild.


For more information about the Mustang Heritage Foundation, upcoming events, and programs, please visit www.mustangheritagefoundation.org. Also, check out MHF’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/extrememustangmakeover.

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