Wild mustangs conjure up images of the Old West and raw, unbridled energy.
The horses are viewed with a romanticism frequently portrayed in Hollywood movies like "My Friend Flicka" and "Man From Snowy River." Off the silver screen, the wild horses are just that wild and untamed. They still capture the hearts of horse lovers everywhere.
One such person is Jim Hicks.
A horse trainer in Heber City, Hicks normally works with horses and their riders who are used to each other. But when he learned of a competition called the Extreme Mustang Makeover, organized by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, Hicks couldn't resist.
He, along with 3,000 other horse trainers, applied for a spot in the competition. Two-hundred trainers were selected and given a mustang to train, with a prize purse of $50,000. The mustangs came from the free range of Nevada and had virtually no contact with humans until being placed with their trainers. Hicks and his horse, dubbed Ringo, had 100 days together before leaving for Fort Worth, Texas, and the competition.
"What they're really trying to get the point across is that these mustangs can, with correct training and care, become horses you can deal with and they can be good citizens," Hicks said.
Hicks compared the mustangs, which roam free in several western states, to other wild animals such as bear, wolves or deer. But a horse, he said, can be adopted and the wild populations managed in a more dignified manner.
In Fort Worth, Hicks and Ringo competed well in the Legends Division.
While winning would have been nice, Hicks said the competition was much more than a contest to see who could score the most points at the end of the training.
"I didn't go down there with the idea of winning," Hicks said. "I went down there with the idea of showing the relationship I developed with this horse over 100 days."
In addition to training the mustangs, the competition features an adoption program where each of the once-wild animals is placed with new owners.
Jennifer Layman, who works with Hicks in the Heber Valley, said the 100 days the horses spend with their trainers create a strong bond particularly for the humans involved.
"You can tell he's fallen in love with Ringo," she said before leaving for the competition in Texas. "They have really spent a lot of time together, and I think that's kind of unavoidable."
Also taking part in the competition was Murray's Mary Lee Brighton. She trained Wild Sweet William in the Idols Division.
Brighton spent 45 days gentling her horse, 30 days of groundwork and 25 days of riding training.
"Gentling can be the most heartfelt and magical time as the horse-human kinship is created," Brighton wrote on her blog at Windhorserelations.org. "This mystical bonding is what the American wild horse still holds in his heart and has totally captivated me. Only fear separates the horse and human hearts, and the gift of time can transform this into a peaceful, loving relationship."
Training a horse that has never known human interaction can be a challenge. It can also be dangerous considering the size of the animal.
"It is important that the horse learns to let down and relax in my presence," Brighton wrote. "Eventually, I want the horse to choose to be with me because I am useful and interesting."
Hicks said the competition was judged, in part, on before-and-after pictures as well as how the animal and trainer interact with each other.
"From my personal mission," Hicks said, "that's what I was trying to showcase."
On the final day, the horses were showcased in front of prospective adopters. When Hicks took Ringo into the arena, the bidding was stopped suddenly by the announcer. When asked if he wanted to keep the horse he had spent the past 100 days getting to know, Hicks affirmed his intentions to try and win the auction for Ringo."The Mustang Heritage Foundation announced they were going to pay for the adoption process and Ringo was mine," Hicks said. "That was pretty extraordinary for me."