Training any horse is no easy task, but for the trainers who take part in the Extreme Mustang Makeover events around the country, the challenge is made even more difficult by four-month time limit and a horse that’s never been handled.
Rob West, of New York, says he has found his true calling in showcasing the potential of Mustangs. “It just doesn’t get any better than this. I am given a lump of clay to mold and sculpt the way I see fit, until I have a masterpiece to present 120 days later. … We take these scared wild animals and we ask for their trust. And guess what? They give it to us.”
If you were at the 2016 Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Virginia Horse Center, you may remember West and his red roan mare, Moonshine Lady. Their Native American-themed freestyle routine featured the mare jumping over barrels while a tarp flew overhead, earning them a Top Five finish. Moonshine Lady then was purchased at the competition’s auction by a family in Virginia. But that was not the end of West and Moonshine’s story together.
Not long after going to her new home, the mare jumped her pasture fence to escape a new pasture mate and disappeared into the dense woods. West, tipped off by a fan in Virginia that had heard about her disappearance, traveled to Virginia to help find his beloved partner. (See Rob’s account of training the mare, competing, learning that she was missing and how she ended up going back to New York with him by clicking here.)
The story of how the trainer traveling to Virginia to help find the horse he trained touched New Freedom Farm founder Lois Fritz. She later contacted West and they formed a friendship. Now the Buchanan, Virginia, nonprofit, which helps veterans suffering PTSD find healing through horses, has announced it will be hosting a Westang Equine Confidence Building Clinic on April 28-29, 2018.
The clinic’s basic goal will be to make a braver more confident horse and rider. The clinic is open to all disciplines and horses. There will be an trail obstacle course and a chance to have fun playing equine soccer on your horse. All experience levels are welcome. There is limited space available. The 2-day clinic will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.
The clinic costs $150.00 for both days and includes daily lunch. One day clinic is $85.00. Private sessions on Friday afternoon or before or after each clinic day available for $50.00/session. Audit only (includes lunch) $20.
Veterans who want to ride in the clinic are half price and veterans who want to come and audit the clinic are free (includes lunch). Call 540-855-1158 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or for more information.
$50 nonrefundable deposit due by April 10 to secure a spot.
We spoke to Rob about his start in the horse industry, the challenges of training a wild horse and his equine teachers/partners along the way.
Q: Tell me about your business. What kind of services do you offer?
I work mostly with both troubled or problem horses with issues ranging from bucking and rearing to bad ground manners and starting young and most times unbroke horses. Although I do not refer to my method as breaking. I call it gentling. When done right, it can be a nice experience for both horse and rider.
Q: When did you get started in horses? What is your riding background?
I started riding at the age of 3 and got my first Shetland pony “Cupcake” on my 4th birthday. My mom wouldn’t allow me to show until I was about 9 years old. Her idea was that I should love the horse first and showing came second. I am glad she was so wise, because that’s exactly what happened. I then began barrel racing and gymkhana gaming shows. I instantly loved it and excelled at it.
Q: What makes your stable/business different than others? What’s your specialty? What do you take the most pride in?
My specialty seems to be that I can gain the trust/respect of a horse almost right away. The horses bond with me and love me to a point that they can overcome their fears by putting their faith in me. My business is very much like a lot of others. All sorts of obstacles and desensitizing tools to make a more bombproof horse, but I believe its how I deal with the horses that makes my barn different. When it comes down to brass tacks, I care. I never started this as a business. I started helping horses because they needed it, and I care so much about them. When I see a distressed horse my heart goes out to them. The thing I take the most pride in is that I can speak to these horses in their language. I can regain their faith in humanity even if we don’t always deserve it. I believe that every horse that I encounter and work with is all the better for it.
Q: Can you describe your training/teaching philosophy?
My philosophy is simple. Make deals and don’t break them. Offer a horse an option and reward it with release of pressure or with praise. NO HAND TREATS. Your horse will not love you because you give him mints. He will however begin nipping and pinning his ears because you aren’t getting the treat when he wants it. I can’t say enough how important praise is.
Q: What is your favorite characteristic about Mustangs?
Its hard to pick just one. They are loyal to a fault. They will also do anything you point them at. Once you have a Mustang’s heart they will literally walk through fire for you.
Q: What is the most difficult part of training a wild horse?
The hardest part for me is far and away letting them go. I try to build a wall and not get attached by telling myself that I am training someone else’s horse for them, but it doesn’t work. I am devastated every time I say goodbye.
Q: How did you learn about New Freedom Farm?
The founder Lois messaged me after hearing I drove from New York to Virginia to find a mustang that I trained that had gone missing. We became instant friends with a mutual respect for each other’s passions.
Q: What will be the main goal taught to the riders at the clinic at New Freedom Farm?
I try to keep an open mind and invite whatever is presented to me, but I always strive to have both more confidant horses and riders in the end. I want to show how we teach our horses on the ground first and then transfer that to the saddle. Its safe and effective.
Q: Who are your riding mentors? How have they influenced your riding?
I don’t have a trainer that I follow. However I have picked up quite a bit from many of them. Like I’ve said before, I am a student of the horse and they teach me more than any other person ever has. On the national level I admire Monty Roberts and Guy McLean. I also had the pleasure of being guided by some people as a child that were great horseman like my neighbor Joan Norman and another strong influence named Richie Fisher.
Q: If you could spend the day riding with any horseman, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
I would have to choose Bobby Kerr. I have met him twice and I just love what he does for
Mustangs. He is a talented horseman and a showman of the highest caliber. We have similar ideas and a flair for a wow factor filled performance in our freestyles. I am not at his level yet, but I am on my way.
Q: What was your proudest moment in the saddle?
My proudest moment has to be finding my lost mustang Moonshine Lady after she was missing for eight days. We covered many miles and exhausting hours. She heard me speaking on my cellphone and came out of the dense woods to find me.
And like magic, all of a sudden, Moonshine turned right toward me from the darkness of the thick woods. I had begun recording her walking toward me. She heard me talking to Mike on the phone, and came to my voice. As I videotaped her, I called her name. My voice cracked and I just lost it crying my eyes out. It was the most beautiful moment in my whole life with horses. I saw the love and trust as she looked at me as if to say, “What took you so long. I was scared.”
— Rob, on finding Moonshine
Q: Do you have a favorite horse movie or book?
My favorite horse movie is “The Black Stallion.” When I saw that movie with my mom as a boy, I have to admit that I wished it could be me stranded on that island with that horse.
Q: What is the one item a rider shouldn’t leave home without when attending your clinic?
Probably their cellphone or camera. Its amazing how much you forget. So if you can record it, or have someone else record it for you, then you can always go back over it later or for years to come.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give new/young riders?
Enjoy your horse. Don’t get caught up in showing and pressure unless you like that. Its supposed to be fun, so make it pleasurable.
Q: If you could try any other riding discipline, what would it be?
I have tried many, but I really do like Dressage. Mounted shooting is a blast, too.
Q: What is the best thing about riding/training horses?
I look back on some people and horses alike that are happier because they met me. I love to get their success stories all the time. I mean some were at the point of selling their horse or giving up riding altogether and I was their last ditch effort. That makes me smile.
Q: What would be your idea of a dream vacation?
I want to travel the United States with my horse trailer and just trail ride every inch of it.
Q: What horse industry/riding trend do you wish would go away and never return?
There are way to many to list but the dying crab canter in western pleasure riding really
bothers me. That is changing at this point though.
Q: Tell us about the best horse you’ve ever ridden.
The best horse I have ever ridden is whichever one I am riding at the time. As corny as that sounds, they are all so amazing. I often refer to myself as an architect that has to carefully uncover each precious artifact. Each horse has those hidden treasures.
Q: If you could ride any famous horse from history, who would you ride?
Secretariat. From what I’ve heard, he was all heart.