Competition transforms wild mustangs into saddle horses
Last updated 1/3/2023 at Noon
Maddie Siler was a horse-crazy kid with dreams to rescue and train a mustang. When her family lived in the Sacramento suburbs, she saw an article about mustangs being captured and held in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) corrals, and she begged her parents to put a round pen in their tiny backyard. The answer was no for many years, but eventually, after her family relocated to Oregon and Siler was a freshman in high school, she finally got her first horse. It wasn’t a mustang, but it gave her the opportunity to learn how to train a horse. Her desire to save a mustang never wavered and she knew, someday, she’d make it happen.
Even with a busy schedule working and going to school at OSU Cascades, Siler recently joined a hardy group of horse people in a training competition organized by the nonprofit Teens & Oregon Mustangs. The challenge was started ten years ago to help save some of the mustangs captured by the BLM to manage herd sizes on public lands.
Siler is quick to point out that she understands the difficult situation surrounding managing mustang populations.
“I’m a huge advocate for the BLM and what they do for the horses. They take awesome care of them and do the best they can given the parameters,” said Siler.
Busy training and competing on her own horse as well as coaching the Sisters High School Equestrian Drill Team, Siler knew the time was right to get involved.
“I decided to do the Mustang Challenge this year because I’m going into nursing school in 2023, which will be a full-time job plus some. This is my last opportunity to do it for a while,” she said.
Now 20 years old, Siler applied to adopt a mustang in the adult riding division of the competition. The horses in the riding division are all mares from different herd management areas (HMA) including Palomino Butte, Stinking Water, Beaty Butte, and Hog Creek. Trainers pick their horses in the order their application was received. Siler was 28th out of 38 applicants and was worried the horse she wanted would be gone by the time they got to her number. Luckily for Siler, the mare she wanted was still available.
“She didn’t have the best pictures, but I had the chance to go there and see her and knew she was a nicely built mare about 14.3 hands, and pretty stout,” said Siler.
Siler was notified on November 14 that she was accepted into the program. She and her mother, Theresa Siler, drove to the BLM holding pens in Burns on December 3, to pick up her horse. The beautiful chestnut mare had a thick white stripe down the front of her face and a tag hanging around her neck with the number 7302. When Siler approached her, she was restrained in a squeeze chute, and terrified of what was happening to her.
“When we first walked up, she got really scared and reared up and tried to escape over the top of the chute. Then she tried kicking at us through the panels. Thankfully, they’re over six feet tall and made of heavy metal and built to deal with scared mustangs, but it was my very first impression of her,” said Siler.
Siler’s concerns about the horse she’d chosen were soon calmed.
“When they let her out of the squeeze and encouraged her to head into our trailer, she was very calm and walked forward like she’d done it a million times. Given her reaction in the squeeze, I was expecting her to either bolt out or refuse to move, but she took it like an old pro,” said Siler.
The next defining moment came when the mare, who Siler named Lola, was released from her stock trailer into an enclosure.
“When we got back to Sisters and let her into the round pen, she walked out of the trailer slowly. She got to the end of the round pen, stopped, and just looked around for about five minutes, taking everything in.”
Once again, Lola’s world had completely changed.
About a month has passed since Lola arrived at the Silers’. At first, she refused to make eye contact with Siler, choosing to stand still and look away instead.
“In my opinion, it was Lola wanting to ignore the problem in hopes it would go away,” Siler said. “To counteract it, I focused my training on releasing the pressure when she looked at me. This taught her to face her problems head-on instead of in fear.”
Siler considers December 5th their breakthrough day.
“I was up early cleaning her run before I went to work. I didn’t have a lot of time to work with her, so I just continued being a calm presence. Ignoring her piqued her curiosity enough that she gave in and decided to walk up to me! I didn’t want to scare her, so I stopped what I was doing and stood still without looking up,” said Siler. “I could hear her taking small steps in my direction, then (pausing) to sniff the air. It was a repetitive cycle of step and sniff before she stretched out her nose and started to wiggle her lip on my jacket.”
Over the next few weeks, Lola was gently taught to accept a blanket, the touch of a pole on her body, and eventually being brushed all over. During two training sessions, Siler successfully saddled and even got on her back for short, confidence-building rides.
The following month will require more rides, desensitization to being around other riders, learning how to exercise on a long-line and accepting a bit. We’ll check in with Siler and get an update on Lola’s progress over the next month.
Siler’s training will give Lola the chance to start a new life after she’s bought at a live auction held on March 26th. Before the auction, there’s a riding competition at the Northwest Horse Fair & Expo at the Linn County Expo Center in Albany March 24 –26. To see Lola’s progress, follow her on her Facebook page, Maddie’s Oregon Mustang: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100087582080528.