Wild horses at the Kansas State Fair

Elizabeth Long and her colt, Jack Rabbit, walk off after a successful trail course. The Wild Horse Youth Mustang Challenge took place at the Kansas State Fair on Sept. 16-17. (Lexi Studebaker | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: Added a hyphen between “one” and “year” in the third paragraph.

The Kansas State Fair ran wild on its last weekend. The Wild Horse Youth Challenge took place Sept. 16-17 in the equine category of the fair. The Wild Horse Youth Challenge is a training competition open to all youth aged nine to 18.

Kids pick up their mustangs in May and have three months to tame, train and prepare their horses to show in three categories: Halter, based on showmanship and the horses’ appearance; Trail, a small obstacle course the handlers guide their foals through; and Freestyle, a seven-minute session for contestants to show off their horses’ tricks and training. 

Each mustang is a yearling foal — a one-year-old horse — and has no handling experience whatsoever. This means the youth trainers are the first human contact these horses have. 

This challenge is not just a competition, but also a way for young horses to get adopted. Adopting these animals assists in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) supervision of herd populations throughout the United States. 

Crystal Cowan, public affairs specialist and 15-year wild horse and burro specialist for the Wild Horse and Burros program, said 26,000 animals can occupy federally protected lands, but as of today there are over 82,000 within the reserves. There are over 20 million acres of land in 10 western states set aside for these mustangs, but that doesn’t mean the areas are perfect for the horses. These animals are put through harsh mountain winters and dry desert heat, and with no natural predators, starvation and disease are leading causes of death throughout the herds, Cowan said.

“Having over double the amount of animals on the land has created lots of problems,” Cowan said. “They may have millions of acres but only so much of that is forage. These animals live in harsh conditions already; with this amount it’s a much lower survival rate.”

Many associations, such as the Wild Horse Youth Challenge, Mustang Makeovers and Hutchinson Correctional Facility, take in these wild animals and train them to become projects or riding horses. This helps to manage the growing populations and give the animals a better quality of life. Kristina Saliceti, co-founder of WHYC, said these facilities and associations are only a tiny percentage of mustangs on the range, but the transformation of the horse once given the proper care is astounding. 

Saliceti’s family has owned mustangs for over 12 years and has seen the effect proper nutrition, exercise and housing has on an animal. However, Saliceti said, “knowledge is only half the battle.”

The Wild Horse Youth Challenge is working toward bettering horses and their trainers. Elizabeth Long, a sixth-year trainer, ages out of the program this year.

“You definitely learn patience, a lot of patience, because horses have their own morality,” Long said. “Some of them figured things out really quick and some of them took a little longer.”

The program teaches both horses and trainers patience, responsibility and confidence throughout their time in the program. Jodie Bentz, junior in biology at Kansas State and former competitor, said even after two years of not competing she still feels like part of the WHYC family.

“Everyone’s there for the same reason,” Bentz said. “I’ve honestly met some of my greatest friends through the challenge and it’s opened a whole new world to me.” 

Trainers stay in contact for years after the competition, helping each other through project horses, personal problems and figuring out next life steps, Bentz said. 

After six years, the program has seen over 100 young mustangs adopted. It has provided thousands of people with education about these animals that roam federal lands and received support from all over the nation. 

“In my opinion, there’s not a more well built, hardy, sturdy, diverse breed out there,” Saliceti said. “It’s the best $125 I’ve ever spent.”