The unique relationship between a girl and her horse is timeless, and in Gilbert, South Carolina, 12-year-old twins Robyn and Reagan Leitner have literally taken their love of horses to the extreme. Both participated in the Extreme Mustang Makeover this past May in Jacksonville, Florida and came home with much more than championship ribbons. The foundation’s youth program allows kids ages 8 to 17 and their families to adopt a wild horse and demonstrate their ability to “gentle” the horse within 100 days.
The girls first started riding when they were around 6 years old and eventually turned to barrel-racing and riding in area horse shows. “They actually had a Palomino and miniature horses when they were younger,” recalls Jennifer Leitner, their mother. “Reagan fell one time, breaking her arm. She didn’t get back on a horse for about a year.”
Any fear the young equestrian may have had is certainly gone now. The girls learned about the program to tame wild mustang horses when Diana and Don Kirkland, their great aunt and uncle, took them to an event in Georgia. From that point on, the girls insisted they wanted to put in an application to adopt a mustang, and after much discussion, their parents finally agreed. “We prayed a lot about it –– a lot,” says Jennifer. “I was so afraid we’d end up with a crazy horse and, of course, I was afraid one or both of the girls might get hurt.”
Reagan showed great patience with her wild mustang, Backstreet Bay, and eventually taught her to dance using the “clicker” method.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, developed the Extreme Mustang Makeover. To protect the herd’s health and rangelands, the BLM rounds up wild mustangs with the goal of adopting them out to the public. More than 6,700 horses have been adopted since 2007 through the Mustang Heritage Foundation.
Robyn and Reagan submitted their application along with the $25 adoption fee and waited to hear back. “We were so excited when we found out that our application was accepted,” says Reagan. When they arrived in Green Cove Springs, Florida to pick up their mustang, Jennifer, again, questioned whether it was a good idea after seeing the untamed horses in the corral biting and kicking.
Even more surprises awaited as they realized that both girls’ names were called out to claim –– not one for both, but one for each. As both horses walked right into the trailer, Jennifer felt much more at peace with the adventure on which the entire family was about to embark.
Because Jennifer home-schools Robyn and Reagan, they adjusted their schedules to accommodate the hours needed to train their new horses. A typical day began around 8 a.m. with chores to feed and water the animals. The Leitners have five other horses, Robyn and Reagan’s barrel-racing horses — as well as three western pleasure horses — goats, chickens, donkeys and even a newborn mule. After chores, it was then time for their own breakfast and a couple hours of hitting the books before heading back to the barn for more training. In addition to training their mustangs, the girls still had to keep up their training with the barrel horses as well. By the time all of their schoolwork and horse work was done, it would be 9 or 10 p.m. before they fell into bed. Then they were right back at it the next morning.
The adoption was in January, and the girls had to be ready for the competition in Jacksonville by May 6, a total of 100 days to tame two wild mustangs. “We had to take everything in baby steps,” says Robyn. “The horses were really nervous and not in great shape. They were skinny and had mats in their coats.”
Reagan’s horse, Backstreet Bay, and Robyn’s horse, American Legend, would have to develop a confidence in their trainers, just as the girls would have to learn to trust the horses. The horses hadn’t really had any human interaction since being captured the summer before in Salts Wells Creek, Wyoming, and Bay even had to undergo ulcer treatment in addition to training.
Reagan found that using apples and sweet feeds to train Bay didn’t work well because the horse had never had such, so her mom suggested she try the “clicker” method. “I would go into her pen and slowly back up to her one step at a time. If she didn’t run away and let me get close, I would click and then give her hay.” Reagan’s patience with Bay eventually paid off. “I remember the first day that Bay actually let me touch her,” says Reagan. “I knew then that she was my horse.”
As the days progressed, so did the relationship between horse and trainer. Touching, petting and grooming transitioned to the next task at hand — getting halters on and off and leading them around the paddock. Robyn then focused on teaching Legend how to lunge. “Every day began with lunging him in the round pen. It let him run off some steam and nerves, and it allowed me to show him that I was in control,” she says.
Bay was a little more of a challenge for Reagan because Bay was so nervous, but Reagan showed great patience with her. Continuing with her clicker method, Reagan even taught Bay to dance. “I started out by tapping her leg gently until she lifted her leg. When she did, I clicked and gave her a handful of hay,” she recalls. The process continued until Bay would raise a leg each time Reagan did. Reagan also taught Bay to turn around in a circle using the clicker and hand signals, as well as weaving in and out of poles without using her lead line. Bay now responds to commands just with hand signals.
Robyn has developed a deep trust with her mustang, American Legend, evidenced by the fact that he will lie down and put his head in her lap.
The girls also had to get the horses accustomed to sights and sounds they had never seen or heard so they wouldn’t get spooked. “We had to desensitize them to anything that would normally spook them,” says Reagan. “We would do things like put chickens on their backs and ride bicycles around them.” The girls also used flags and exercise balls, even plastic bags attached to the end of their training whips.
As the training continued, Larry, the girls’ father, says that he began to notice the impact of the relationship between the girls and the horses. “I was just amazed at what these two have been able to do with these animals. I don’t know if you call it ‘whispering,’ but these two have a truly special gift.”
Finally, the big day arrived, and the family headed to Jacksonville for the two-day competition, which consisted of three sections including handling and conditioning, trail and freestyle. In handling and conditioning, competitors have to demonstrate a control over their animals which included walking the horse into a round pen and removing their harness before leaving the pen. Competitors then must re-enter the pen, halter the horse and walk him out to a barrel. Other steps include brushing, picking up all four feet, trotting to a cone and having the horse back up. The last task was loading the horse into a trailer.
After the first day, Robyn learned that she and Legend were tied with a more experienced competitor for first place. For the freestyle competition, which allows the trainer to showcase the best of what they have been able to teach their horse, Reagan and Bay performed their routine to Carolina Girls. Horse and trainer wore matching costumes including pearls and pink bows; Bay’s pearls were made from Styrofoam balls strung on fishing line. Bay’s performance consisted of her standing on a podium while Reagan walked behind her and beneath her, having Bay walk over a teeter-totter bridge, turning in a circle by hand signal and jumping over barrels and through a hoop. Reagan planned an exciting grand finale. “I led Bay out while I was riding a bicycle,” she says. “The crowd cheered loudly because horses are generally afraid of bicycles.”
Robyn and Legend performed to Stayin’ Alive. Robyn had developed such trust with Legend that she could get him to lie down and put his head in her lap. “Everyone was so impressed with the way he responded to me,” she says with a smile. Robyn is especially proud to have been recognized by Elisa Wallace, a nationally known horse trainer, who commented that in all her days of competing, she had never seen anyone lie down with a mustang 100 days into training.
It wasn’t one of their original goals to place at the competition; in fact, Larry has the notebook in which the girls wrote down their goals for working with the horses — goals that included developing trust with the horse and making them gentle. In the end, both had done such a great job of surpassing those goals that they each came home with ribbons –– Robyn as overall champion, including first place for freestyle, second place for trail and third for handling and condition, while Reagan took honors for first place in trail, third place in freestyle and fourth overall.
It’s obvious that Jennifer and Larry are extremely proud of the effort the girls put into their joint project. “We never pushed them to do this, but we supported them entirely,” says Larry. “We went down with no expectations, competing against older trainers with a lot more experience, and in 99 days these two horses went from being wild to becoming champions.”
Now that the competition is over, the girls still work with Legend and Bay every day. The Pure Breed Paso Fino Federations invited them to perform at this year’s South Carolina State Fair. They spend a good deal of time on horsemanship skills, such as side passing and backing. Legend and Bay are both young, less than 2 years old, so the girls only ride for short periods of time, which will increase as the horses grow. Reagan is working on teaching Bay to lie down, while Robyn wants to teach Legend to sit!
While they would gladly enter the competition again, the parents know there is only so much time in the day to devote to training, but they did bring a third mustang named Gatsby home with them from the competition.
Neither of the twins could imagine not having their mustangs, and they have learned some valuable lessons as part of the makeover. “You have to really work for something if you want it enough,” says Robyn. She also believes that working with Legend has helped build confidence in herself. While they would like to turn their homestead, named Rockin R Ranch, into a working farm one day, for now they’re content to spend their days doing what they love most –– horsing around.