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Training Wild Mustangs

The words “wild mustang” often conjure up images of free-roaming horses cantering across a high desert or Old West cowboys hanging on to bucking beasts.

Now, University of Idaho Extension 4-H Youth Development horse project participants in Idaho and other Western states are changing this image by gentling mustang weanlings for public adoption in as little as six to 10 weeks.

Hundreds of horses adopted

The 4-H mustang project started in 2009 when the Idaho Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program and the UI Extension 4-H program created a partnership and invited 4-H youth ages 12 to 18 to participate in a project to gentle captive weanling mustangs being held in BLM facilities. The project benefits the BLM by increasing the adoption of young mustangs and helps 4-H youth learn about horse behavior, communication and training, as well as participate in community service.

Since its beginning, the project has secured adoptive homes for 288 horses and raised $28,540 for the participating horse 4-H clubs in Idaho.

Idaho County youth bring challenge north

The UI Extension, Idaho County 4-H Lively Livestock Horse Project started working with wild mustangs in 2016. Three youth have participated in the project the past two summers and have earned the Trail Challenge Championship two years in a row at the Western Idaho Fair in Boise.

“Mustangs feel your energy and are better at reading you than you are of reading them, at least at first,” said Stacy Van Steenwyk, Lively Livestock’s horse project volunteer. “This incredible project pushes participants to study their horse and listen to what it's telling them with its body language. Trainers must read their horse and adjust their actions in order to even get close enough to touch them at first. The trust between trainer and horse is wonderful to witness.”

The first year of the project was funded by donations from volunteers, but with the sale of two yearlings, the club raised $975 to support another mustang in 2018. Traveling back and forth to Boise is the most expensive part of the project, followed by feed expenses.

Once 4-H horse project members select and transport their mustang home, the gentling process begins using least-resistance methods. Training consists of, at a minimum, gentling the horse enough to be able to halter and lead, pick up its feet and load in a trailer. After a period of six to 10 weeks, the mustang is transported to the Western Idaho Fair, where members show their horse in a Trail Challenge as well as other classes, such as showmanship and quality. Members also talk with fair visitors and potential adopters about their experience training their horse. The project ends with a competitive bid auction and the mustang is homed with a pre-approved adopter. Proceeds from the auction, minus a BLM fee, are distributed directly to the 4-H club.

The Lively Livestock Horse Project members' first goal was to develop a consistent training plan that was in line with least-resistance objectives. For three people to train one horse cohesively, they had to agree to follow through with a pre-approved plan and be willing to work as a training team. The challenge for the 4-H volunteer is helping youth to become trainers and ensure consistency without doing the training themselves. 

Van Steenwyk’s goal is to bring the 4-H mustang project to more participants in North Idaho. She wants to find a venue to replicate what Southern Idaho clubs are doing and introduce the versatile mustang to the northern part of the state.

Interested horse project volunteers can apply for participation in the 4-H mustang project by contacting their local UI Extension office.

A teen leads a horse down a plank walk.
Mustangs must learn to pick up their feet and be led along.

University of Idaho Extension

Physical Address:
E. J. Iddings Agricultural Science Laboratory, Room 52
606 S Rayburn St.
Moscow, ID

Mailing Address:
University of Idaho Extension
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2338
Moscow, ID 83844-2338

Phone: 208-885-5883

Fax: 208-885-6654


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Barbara Petty