YAMHILL, Ore. — When Sophie Lanodwehr first tried to get her mustang yearling, Mabel, out of the stall, it took an hour.
“I was at the point of if she puts one step on (the concrete) we’re good,” the 17-year-old said. “I’m done.”
Fifty days later, leaving her stall immediately is just one of the things Mabel has learned from Lanodwehr during the Teens and Oregon Mustangs adoption challenge.
In its 10th year, the Mustang Adoption Challenge pairs an adult trainer with a youth in-hand trainer, and gives them 100 days to train their mustang and show what they have accomplished at the High Desert Horse Fest in Prineville, Ore., on May 30 through June 1.
“I honestly never knew how it would do,” Erica FitzGerald, creator of the competition, said. “It means a lot to me because I know what that took, how many people, how much work, blood, sweat and tears went into each horse to make them family members.”
FitzGerald has helped 400 Oregon mustangs get adopted, and she said she’s just one solution to the problem of the wild horse overpopulation and overgrazing on public rangeland.
As a young adult, FitzGerald said she had no interest in mustangs, but when a horse training competition came up with the chance to win $10,000 she and her husband decided to give it a try.
“I learned more from those horses than any horse we’ve ever trained,” she said. She adopted the horse she had trained, and was determined to find a way to teach adolescents what she had learned from the experience. “What the horse gave me wasn’t something I could teach to the kids.”
Then she had her eureka moment and Teens and Oregon Mustangs was born.
Linda Hockett, Lanodwehr’s adult partner, said she thought it would a “neat challenge” but after the first time she had met her horse, Addie, she said that she thought: “Oh my gosh what did we get ourselves into.”
They received their horses on Feb. 16 and Lanodwehr said she is amazed at how calm Mabel is now. She said that it’s not noticeable now, but when she thinks about how untrusting she was in the beginning, the change is apparent.
“It’s amazing how much they can trust you,” she said.
Hockett said that it has been a huge learning experience and it made her realize how much she took for granted a horse who can walk or trot, especially on cement, as well as be comfortable around noise.
For the remainder of the training period, Hockett and Lanodwehr said they want to get their horses more comfortable around noise as well as have them encounter obstacles. Lanodwehr added that she needs to train herself for the showmanship portion, which she has never done before.
“I have social anxiety and horses really help with that,” she said. “Getting out there and having people watching me makes me nervous but I have to do it. (The competition) is really helping with that. I think I’ll be much more confident.”
Hockett said she has already seen growth in Lanodwehr. While she’s enjoying training Addie, she said she’s also having fun watching Lanodwehr. In the beginning, she would help Lanodwehr with Mabel, and now Lanodwehr can take care of it all herself.
“You can tell; I can see the confidence,” she said. “It’s just as rewarding to me as seeing my horse do well, just how far she’s come.”
For Lanodwehr, the competition is just her first step towards a career working with horses.
“I really wanted to do this,” she said, “and I’m already learning a lot.”