- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Andy Blevins admits to being competitive.

“I like to win,” he says. “I never walk away from a challenge.”

So when the 39-year-old captain in the Chattanooga Fire Department recently nabbed a first-place finish at the Extreme Mustang Makeover (horse, not car) competition in Gainesville, Ga., he rode away happy.

In 100 days, Blevins took a wild Mustang, whom he named Ledoux, and transformed the horse into a calm animal who now permanently lives at Blevins Performance Horses, Blevins’ 10-acre ranch in Cleveland, Tenn., where he trains horses on his off-days from the fire department.

The Extreme Mustang Makeover is a competition in which trainers come from all over the country and are randomly assigned wild mustangs who have had no prior human contact, Blevins explains. “We then have 100 days to train these horses and come back and compete against each other.”

Horses, by nature, have a “fight or flight” attitude, he says. “It’s their nature to run, so when you try to capture a wild mustang, you’ve got your work cut out.”

Most of America’s mustangs are the descendants of wild horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 16th century. Others come from stock that was released or escaped from people who settled in the West.

More than 2 million wild horses and burros are reported to have roamed the West by the late 1800s, according to mustangheritagefoundation.org. Over time, the numbers were reduced by a myriad of factors, including being slaughtered for pet and chicken feed.

In 1971, the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed, placing the animals under federal jurisdiction. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service was charged with preserving and protecting wild horses and burros as living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, the Mustang Heritage Foundation reports.

Each year there are five to 10 Extreme Mustang Makeover events across the United States, says Mustang Heritage Foundation Executive Director Kali Sublett. “Our first event was in 2007 and since then we have held over 60 events in 21 states and have placed over 6,000 mustangs into private care. We average approximately 35 to 75 youth and adult trainers at each event.

“We are very lucky and grateful that trainers like Andy find the time to participate,” she says. “We continue to be blown away by the amount of time and energy that the trainers put into these mustangs, all in an effort to prepare them for adoption by someone else.”

Some of the horses are purchased by the trainers; Blevins, for instance, has participated in the program twice and each time purchased the horses he trained.

“My first goal in working with a wild mustang is to just touch him,” Blevins says. “When you go to pick up the horse, you have to back your trailer up to get him to go in. That’s your first challenge.”

Once Blevins coaxed Ledoux into his trailer, the mustang kicked the back of the trailer for a good portion of the ride from Jackson, Miss., back to Cleveland.

“It took about two hours after I released him that he let me touch him,” Blevins says. “I softly touched his nose and he blinked and he let out a big breath. Horses are the prey and I am the predator, so I must try to communicate with him on his level. It’s the purest form of training. I was working with a blank canvas and taking baby steps. You have to build trust and go from there.

“It’s never easy,” he says. “Every single concept is new to the horse. He broke my ribs the first time I rode him. He jumped a pen, but I understood why. I held onto the rope when I fell and climbed back on. He was mad and took off. I told him that I could ride as fast as he could run.”

Three months later, Ledoux pranced around the competition ring as if it was as natural to him as running. But it was the “wow” factor during the contest that won over the audience and apparently the judges, Blevins says.

“Ledoux and I did something that had never been done in this competition,” he says. On the “teeter totter,” where the horse typically walks up and down a 13-inch wide ramp, Blevins had his 950-pound mustang back over it.

“The crowd went nuts,” Blevins says.

His love of horses was sparked in 1996 when he attended his first rodeo in South Carolina. But it wasn’t the horses that grabbed his attention, it was the bulls.

“I was somewhat familiar with horses because I rode some in Spain when I was growing up,” Blevins says. “My parents were missionaries, and we moved from Tennessee to Spain when I was a young child. I lived there 15 years.”

But the South Carolina rodeo convinced him that he wanted to be a bull rider.

“I loved what I saw during the competition,” he says. “I loved the challenge, so I stayed late after the rodeo to talk to a bull rider. He told me to meet him the following Friday and he’d tell me all about it. He ended up training me and we traveled to rodeos for the next 10 years.”

His love of the dangerous sport, which included a number of injuries - a few breaks and numerous sprains and bruises - migrated to his love of horses. And it was at a rodeo that he met his wife-to-be, Jessica, a barrel racer, whom he calls his “biggest accomplishment.”

His years in the rodeo taught him “what it takes to be competitive - talent and dedication,” he says. “You’ve got to stay in shape, practice often and be active in the rodeo community. And, for a long time, I was dedicated. I’ve competed in four rodeos in one weekend.”

Family life, though, took a priority over the commitment necessary for competition, he says, especially after the birth of his daughters, Cheyenne, now 12, and Savannah, now 9.

“After the kids were born, everything changed,” he says. “If I got hurt or killed when I was single, it would be no big deal. But if something happened to me now, who would watch after my wife and kids? Instead of my focus being on me, it’s now on my wife and my daughters, both who are barrel racers. They’ve both won their age groups.”

He misses the excitement of participating in rodeo events and, while bull riding is no longer a viable option for him, he has his heart set on being in the ring again, but this time alongside his daughters. He wants to form a father/daughters roping team.

“They’re as comfortable around horses as I am,” he says.

Blevins says he’s particularly proud that he gets to share the entire mustang-training experience with his girls. They saw the process of training Ledoux from beginning to end.

“I showed them that you just go out and try,” he says. “There’s no telling what you can accomplish. If you try something and you don’t reach your goal, at least you’ll know you gave it your best.”

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com

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