Willow Newcomb’s only mistake at the Extreme Mustang Makeover may have been to not predict her own success.
After showing off the skills she had taught a pair of once-wild horses over 90 days, the Coombsville teenager was shocked to hear the name of one, Bella Rose, among the Mustang Makeover’s top 10 finishers on Saturday.
Having made the trip to Albany, Ore. to learn rather than win, Newcomb and the mustang she affectionately calls Rosy suddenly found themselves in a freestyle competition for which they had barely practiced, with a 15-foot-long black tarpaulin for their main prop.
“I found out you have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario — which was actually the best-case scenario,” the 18-year-old mustang “gentler” said with a laugh.
“When I heard my name called I was really happy, but at the same time it was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s three months gone by and I do not know what to do now.’ Come prepared to win; that’s the biggest lesson.”
Still, it was a pleasant problem for Newcomb to have. In addition to guiding Bella Rose to 10th place in a 35-horse field, the New Technology High School graduate took home the Mustang Makeover’s Young Guns Award as the strongest entrant in the 18-to-21 age category. Her prize was a Gist belt buckle.
A second mustang she entered, Boomerang, finished 32nd.
“I’m only riding a 90-day horse; anything could happen,” she said Saturday night after the contest. “They could get spooked or refuse an obstacle or completely blow up. Rosy only had 50 rides on her, if that, and she just handled everything real nice. This was a major learning experience and I didn’t expect us to make it that far.”
The Oregon event, which began Friday at the Linn County Expo Center, is one of eight regional makeovers held annually by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit that promotes the training of feral horses and their adoption for riding duties. Each competition showcases untamed horses that are rounded up, corralled and auctioned by the federal Bureau of Land Management in a program to prevent the animals from overgrazing rangeland in Western states.
Newcomb, who graduated from high school in June, has trained feral horses in Napa for the past five years, entering two of them in trail-riding competitions of up to 50 miles. She acquired her two newest mustangs in March at a BLM auction in Nevada, the start of a 90-day period in which Makeover contestants train their animals to take a saddle and halter, trot on command, and change direction in response to pressure.
In an event designed to show audiences how quickly untamed horses can be taught to carry riders and follow their lead, the final proof is not in the competition itself but the mustang auction that follows.
On Sunday, the same animals that showed their abilities at the Linn County fairgrounds were put to bid. Their new owners would inherit from the old ones the one-year requirement the BLM imposes to care for the animals and oversee their training.
Bella Rose was adopted for $200, while Boomerang was placed in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program to continue training and find an adopter.
Despite her familiarity with mustang training and the brevity of her partnership with Bella Rose and Boomerang, Newcomb admitted her attachment to this equine duo would not easily fade away.
“I’ll be sad, to be honest, to see them move on,” she said. “It’s tough to have a horse you trained for 90 days and see them go, but I have to trust the new adopters will be just as caring as I am.”