- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

BERRYVILLE, Va. (AP) - Mustangs are a versatile breed of horse, capable of doing anything other breeds can do. Unlike most breeds, the mustang’s survival depends on people like Michael Alway, who believes it is a breed worth saving. In fact, Alway stakes his reputation on it.

On May 13, Alway was in Illinois picking up a 5-year-old mustang mare he named American Legacy. The diminutive bay was one of a number of mustangs shipped to Illinois from Nevada, where they had been kept for years in a Bureau of Land Management holding facility.

She was only 4 months old when she was rounded up with other mustangs and confined. When Alway got her, she was untamed and unaccustomed to horse trailers and humans.

This September, four months after Alway loaded the reluctant mare onto a trailer to take her to Berryville, she’ll walk back onto the trailer for a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, and an Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.

This will be Alway’s second Extreme Mustang Makeover competition, though American Legacy is the eighth mustang he has trained. She’s come a long, long way in the first nine days.

“When I got her, I couldn’t touch her legs. She wasn’t used to wearing a halter. She wasn’t used to anything,” Alway said. “So, we’re starting a relationship. I’m showing her I’m not a threat. I’m showing her I’ll be a partner.”

American Legacy lives in a small round pen set up in the middle of the riding arena at Clarke Haven Farm, where Alway leases the stable and facilities from Randy and Becky Loker.

On Tuesday morning, Alway demonstrated the mare’s progress. He rolled a huge exercise ball across her back, and let her nudge the ball across the pen.

Alway slowly waved a whip around the mare, and stroked her with it. One by one he picked up her feet, and she nuzzled him when he stood near her head. After a while, the mare began to yawn - a lot - a clear sign she was calm and relaxed.

“Untamed mustangs are blank slates,” Alway said, “so every first is significant, like putting on the halter. Whatever you put in will stay with the horse its whole life.”

Alway will keep the mare in the small round pen until he is sure he can easily approach her and get a halter on her.

He’ll work with her every day, and as she settles in, he hopes she’ll put on some weight.

“The stress of travel from Nevada to Illinois to Berryville definitely took a toll,” he said.

Alway, 26, has been riding and training horses for more than a decade. He began by cleaning stalls for his neighbors, Todd and Barbara Johnson, owners of JBIT Ranch. Riding came next, followed by a deep interest in training based on each horse’s personality.

“Horses are different, just like people,” Alway said. “Some are confident. Some are shy. You need to figure out each horse.”

He is a proponent of natural horsemanship, a training method based on behavioral psychology and techniques developed by Linda and Pat Parelli.

The trainer is always the leader, Alway said, but the relationship must be a partnership.

“I’m very analytical. I’m fascinated by the psychology of horses. I like to feel what the horse is feeling,” he said. “I’m not stronger than the horse. The trick is not to let the horse know it’s stronger than you.”

Alway describes himself as a “foundation for performance” trainer.

“I enjoy figuring out a horse, and giving the horse a proper foundation for whatever type of work it’s going to do.”

He specializes in starting young horses and working with problem horses. In both cases, his work involves teaching the horses’ owners, too.

An act of Congress in 1971 protected the wild horses and burros of the American West, but these animals have always been seen as pests by the thousands of ranchers who raise cattle and sheep on the same land where the mustangs and burros roam.

As a result, the Bureau of Land Management rounds up mustangs and holds them in more than a dozen facilities. The BLM is holding almost 50,000 mustangs in off-range, short- and long-term corrals and pastures, Alway said.

“Mustangs have no natural predators, and the ranchers want the land. The number of mustangs and the number of ranchers creates a huge conflict,” Alway said.

The BLM has a mustang and burro adoption program, and the Mustang Heritage Foundation is working with the BLM to find permanent homes for the horses, too.

It is the Mustang Heritage Foundation that hosts annual Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions; there are six events across the country this year.

Earlier this month in Illinois, Alway and hundreds of other trainers were shown videos of 200 just-arrived mustangs. Trainers could bid on the horses they wanted. No one else bid on the 5-year-old mare Alway picked, so he got her for a minimum $200 bid.

Most of the trainers and their horses will meet again in Fort Worth, where they will be exhibited under English or Western tack in classes such as handling and conditioning, compulsory and freestyle maneuvers and a trail class.

“Mustangs are fantastic horses,” said Alway. “They range in size from small and stocky to tall and lean. They are great for dressage, jumping, trail riding. … Really, they can do anything. The breed is wild, but they are very trainable.”

Alway first competed in the Extreme Mustang Makeover last year with a horse he named Freedom.

“Freedom was untamed, too, but compared to Legacy, Freedom was really wild,” he said with a smile.

Still, after 100 days of calm and consistent training, Alway and Freedom finished fourth in the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition held in Lexington, where they were voted Fan Favorite.

One photo from the event shows Alway holding a large American flag while standing on Freedom’s rump in the center of a huge arena. Freedom is calmly standing while the crowd cheers.

Extreme Mustang Makeover events end with an auction of the mustangs. Over the past 10 years, almost 5,300 mustangs have been adopted through these Mustang Heritage Foundation events.

At the competition in Fort Worth, American Legacy will be up for auction, too. Alway can bid on her, or some other lucky person will go home with a fabulous horse trained by the remarkable Alway.

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