FAIRFIELD — You wouldn’t think that the calm equine Sweet Pea was a wild mustang from the high deserts of Nevada.
The horse was eager to follow Alyssa Radtke’s prompts as the B. Gale Wilson Middle School science teacher put Sweet Pea through her paces in the pasture behind the Napa Horsemen’s Association, where Radtke keeps her.
“She’s like my buddy,” Radtke said of her relationship with Sweet Pea.
Radtke spent the past 90 days working with Sweet Pea to get her ready to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, which is taking place Thursday and Friday in Norco in Southern California.
Radtke and her fiance Anthony Weytjens, who spent this year working with his mustang Luna, were picked last year to compete in the makeover, where trainers show how well their horses can be handled on trails and obstacle courses. This is the third time Radtke has participated in the event; it’s the first time the two have participated together.
A Michigan native, Radtke is an experienced dressage rider and a Certified Horseman’s Association instructor. Her passion, though, is training mustangs.
Radtke heard about the Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2009 and decided to give it a try. After adopting one of the wild horses she named Neo Noir and spending three months training it, she was hooked. She has trained 10 mustangs since. Sweet Pea is the latest.
“We clicked very well,” Radtke said of her time with Neo Noir, who showed Radtke that she could work with mustangs. Neo Noir, auctioned off to a new owner after that year’s makeover event, now lives not far from Norco.
Because Neo Noir did so well, Radtke was asked by a spectator to train two other mustangs. From then on, “the BLM had my number and called whenever they had someone who wanted to train mustangs,” she said. Her customers have even included two parents of students she taught.
Radtke and Weytjens collected their current horses in late January from the Bureau of Land Management corrals in Nevada, where the mustangs were kept for a year after they were captured. The couple then had 90 days to train them, or “gentle them,” as Radtke describes it.
That gentling is a time-consuming task without any magical formula. It’s patterned to fit the particular mustang’s personality.
“They are not going to work for you if you are not going to listen to them,” Radtke said while describing how she trains her horses. “It is listening, watching, getting a sense of their energy levels and a good feel for their personality.”
She said the trick to having the horse follow her commands is to convince the horse it was the equine’s idea to do what she wants.
Radtke said mustangs are easier to train than other horses because there is no previous owner’s training or conditioning of the horse to deal with.
“They are tabla rasa, a blank slate,” Radtke said.
Luna is the first mustang Weytjens has worked with after growing up in a family that raised Arabian horses.
“It is totally different from training domestic horses because when they trust you, they trust you fully,” Weytjens said.
Luna initially proved to be a challenging horse that required a lot of work, he said
The BLM periodically takes mustangs from the range to ensure the rest of the wild herds stay healthy and to protect rangeland resources. Thousands of the removed horses are then put up for adoption.
The makeovers were started in 2007 by the Texas-based Mustang Heritage Foundation to educate the public more about mustangs and to find the horses good homes.
All of the participating mustangs are judged on their physical condition and their training that includes riding them over rural and urban courses. Once the competition is over, the horses will be put up for adoption through competitive bid.
“The makeovers are very important because it is a great way to show the athleticism and the trainability of these horses,” said Khristie Schulte, marketing coordinator for the foundation. “Many people are not aware of just how easy it is to train a mustang.”
The makeovers have been growing in popularity since 2007. The foundation now holds five to six such events a year and has also started a trainer incentive program that places about 100 mustangs a year.
“We have placed more than 4,000 mustangs since 2007 and it is increasing every year,” Schulte said.
For those who don’t want to travel all the way to Norco to see and possibly bid on mustangs, Napa Mustang Days will take place June 14-16 at the Napa Valley Horsemen’s Association at 1200 Foster Road, Napa.The event will offer demonstrations that involve trained mustangs, clinics on care, and adoptions of young mustangs and burros brought in by the BLM.
For more information about the event, go to www.napamustangdays.com or call 866-4MUSTANGS. For more information about the Mustang Heritage Foundation, go to www.mustangheritagefoundation.org.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.