TALLAHASSEE — American Mustang horses have long been symbols of freedom, strength and indomitable spirit. But as their population has grown and competed more with cattle and other livestock for grazing land, many have lost their freedom. They have been rounded up into holding pens, where many spend the rest of their lives awaiting adoption.
Tallahassee horse trainer Marsha Hartford-Sapp is doing what she can to promote the breed and increase adoptions of these beautiful animals. She sees the wild mustang as a blank slate, a canvass that when painted with kindness, trust, and ability can be transformed into a work of art.
On May 20, Hartford-Sapp and her latest piece of art, a beautiful palomino mustang mare named Chason Dreams won the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM) at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center. This marked Hartford-Sapp’s second consecutive win of this competition.
Hosted by the non-profit Mustang Heritage Foundation, EMM gives selected trainers 100 days to gentle, train, and then compete for cash and prizes on a wild mustang. The Mustang Heritage Foundation’s mission is to increase the rate of adoption of excess mustangs that are in holding facilities. The goal of the event is to spotlight the trainability of the mustang and find a suitable adopter for each competed mustang.
In front of a large crowd, Hartford-Sapp and the mustang, who less than three months earlier had never been touched by a human, completed a musical freestyle spotlighting the golden horse’s mastery of movements usually only attempted by horses with years of professional training.
Hartford-Sapp won a $25,000 cash prize. Chason Dreams won a new home with Cynthia Smoot and will continue training with Hartford-Sapp.
In the 2016 EMM, Hartford-Sapp rode another mare, this time a stunning gray, named Freedom. Marsha rode Freedom without a bridle, to the amazement of those attending.
Arguably, her biggest challenge and biggest success with mustangs came with one who did not win the EMM competition.
In 2010, Hartford-Sapp, via a 15 second video, adopted a wild, dark brown gelding, identified as a “three strike” mustang because he had been up for adoption three times before but was passed up.
He was beautiful, but mysterious and aloof. Hartford-Sapp named him Cobra and worked diligently to gain his trust and respect. A slight misstep during the 2010 competition was enough to send Cobra and Hartford-Sapp back to Tallahassee without a win, but that was just the beginning of their journey together.
Cobra’s build and athletic ability was perfect for the equestrian sport of dressage. Hartford-Sapp began showing Cobra in local dressage shows, and then qualified for and competed in regional dressage competitions. Cobra won three National Championships in three years from the United States Dressage Federation, competing up to Prix St. George.
In 2015 Cobra also won the World Championship for Western Dressage, which made him the first mustang to ever win a world championship.
Later in 2015, he became the first mustang to ever be named United States Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year for Western Dressage.
Hartford-Sapp said she likes mustangs because she likes the story of the underdog, “Just because a horse isn’t bred for greatness, doesn’t mean he can’t achieve greatness.”
Photo credit: Kimberly Chason, Chason Photos