As a full-time student at Napa Valley College, Willow Newcomb is a somewhat unlikely competitor for an event as time-consuming as Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Trainers across the country were invited to train wild mustangs over the course of four months, then battle it out for $10,000 in prize money aboard them last Thursday through Saturday in The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo at Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Most of the entrants in the annual competition are professional trainers who make a living off their winnings, so they don’t take lightly to amateurs who give them a run for their money.
But Newcomb and her 5-year-old mare, Patches, did precisely that. She placed in all six judged events — first in handling and conditioning, third in reining, third in preliminary classes, fourth in trail, seventh in compulsories, and 11th in freestyle.
Out of 30 trainers who started the competition, 19 showed.
Newcomb was also a fan favorite for many. People who had followed her journey on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EMMustangs) flew in from all around the country to see and bid on her in the Saturday night adoption.
The purpose of the adoption is to place the participating Mustangs in forever homes.
Arianne Hagwood’s champion mare, Amy, fetched a $3,500 bid, but all the horses after that sold below average in the $1,000 range. Newcomb was worried about how Patches would sell in light of her past injuries. The bid opened at $2,000 with all auctioneers yelling. After a heated bidding war, Patches was the highest-selling horse in the event at $7,500. The winning bidders turned out to be Napa’s Lauren Ackerman and Angie Ulitin, who had bid over the phone.
“I left the John Justin arena that night in tears. For the first time since picking up Patches I knew that everything was falling into place,” Newcomb recalled this week. “I felt like I succeeded in making something out of nothing. I didn’t feel like celebrating my win, though. I just wanted to hurry back to the hotel room to finish my online computer science exam before midnight.”
Newcomb flew out of Texas that night to resume classes while her grandparents, Karen and Ray Mecchi, drove back to Napa with Patches.
A 2012 New Technology High School graduate who was the salutatorian of her class, Newcomb is working to complete her undergraduate studies and plans to transfer to UC Davis to become a veterinarian. She plans to continue with training horses only as a hobby.
Patches was rounded up in Elko County, Nev. and assigned to Newcomb just over a year ago. After spending several months in the Litchfield Wild Horse Corrals, the mare was loaded into Newcomb’s trailer and brought to The Olive Branch Ranch in Napa to begin training.
The first three weeks were virtually nonproductive, Newcomb said, because the horse had some severe injuries that needed to be taken care of before the work began. The mare’s need to be “patched up” led to her name.
“Training a wild horse to work under saddle in four months is a huge challenge, even when you are given a healthy horse. It is like the equivalent of taking calculus, chemistry, biology and computer programing all in the same semester,” said Newcomb, referencing her NVC class schedule. “Now imagine missing the first three weeks of class because you were home sick. That was basically the situation I had with this horse.”
Newcomb was so far behind in her training, almost everyone was telling her to scratch from the competition. However, she said her grandparents pushed her to continue and “show how you can make something out of nothing, just like you always do,” she said. They had given Willow her first mustang when she was 13, and had taken part in the training of each one since.
There was some doubt that Patches would be healthy enough to make it to the competition in Texas, let alone compete. Nonetheless, Newcomb made the commitment to patch up her mare and give her a chance at life.
Three weeks into training, the facial fractures — which had produced a bloody nose and prevented Patches from opening her eye and using her jaw — seemed to be healing up. Newcomb was given the OK by her vet to ease into light work with Patches. At this point, though, every other trainer was already riding their horse.
“Spare time” was terminology that came up only sarcastically at the Olive Branch Ranch. Newcomb could be found in her arena before class, during lunch break, after class, just about every day.
“The trick is to use time wisely,” she said. “I had just finished patching this horse up, so I had to be especially careful not to overtrain and risk injuring her again.”
Newcomb said most of the training she implemented had to do with psychology. She slowed every step and maneuver, to make sure that things like a “sidepass” or “spin” were correct before adding speed.
“You must ride the horse’s thoughts, not the bit,” Newcomb explained.
As Patches got in better condition, she was able to lope — a three-beat gait Newcomb likened to a human sprinting — for a minute rather than just 10 strides.
Newcomb, her grandparents and Patches made the haul to Fort Worth two weeks ago. Upon arriving, Newcomb saddled up the mare and rode through the city streets in The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo Parade, with about 2,400 other horses.
“As a coach for this horse, I had to take a step back from the competition and reward my horse for how far she had already come. It can be demeaning if all you do is look at where you need to be instead of where you are,” Newcomb said. “It only took three days of driving to make me appreciate everything that I have in front of me.”
Newcomb was interviewed and photographed Thursday by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, and was on the front page the next morning. Despite the fame, high placings and selling price, what seemed most satisfying for Newcomb was that she had “gentled” Patches, not “saddle broken” her.
“I like to gain trust and build a relationship with my horses, and that is atypical to the rough way of asserting dominance over a horse,” she said. “When I think of gentling a horse, I like to think of it as a way to take the wild out while leaving the soul in.”