Part Two: The Result
Three a.m. on a Friday morning and as the majority of people, particularly the majority of those in high school, are fast asleep, Kayden is piling into a truck with her mom, aunt, and trailer in tow. Two hundred and fifty miles stretched out in front of them with Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma in their sights through a fog that barely let them see it. Kayden was mere hours away from starting her 120-day journey and meeting her mustang.
“She was really anxious to get there,” noted her mother, Heather. “So we left at three so we could get there as soon as the gates opened.”
While last year’s contest was open to anyone who bid and won a mustang at the official auction, the Mustang Heritage Foundation decided to limit the contestants this year through a stringent application process. After months of waiting, hoping, and praying that her essay had caught the organizer’s eye, Kayden finally got the call she had been waiting for – she was selected as one of only 27 youth in the state to have the opportunity to take on the Mustang Makeover Challenge.
“It was exciting,” let on Kayden. “I couldn’t wait to meet my mustang and get started.”
For those that are unfamiliar with the process, as most likely are, the Mustang Heritage Foundation randomly assigns a mustang to each participant, and then that participant has 120 days to train their mustang before competing for the Championship in Fort Worth. Prior to being picked up from the reserve these animals have had virtually no contact with humans, and no training at all, they are completely wild as their name lets on.
This may seem insane to some but for Kayden it was all the more exciting, and soon it was time to pick up her new pupil, which meant a long drive to Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma to one of the designated reserves.
“We left really early so we could get there by eight when they opened. Surprisingly we got there on time,” Kayden joked of their tendency to always run a little behind schedule.
This time, however, as she noted, they arrived right as the reserve opened, and the long wait to meet her mustang was almost over.
“I went up to the gate when we got there and was looking out trying to figure out which one was mine,” explained Kayden. “Every time one came near I started to get excited thinking that was mine, then they would let them pass and the wait continued.”
It was then that a two-year old gelding mustang pranced up seemingly putting on a show for all of the selected Mustang Million participants waiting at the fence.
“He was strutting his stuff for sure,” remembered Kayden with a laugh. “Just running around with his tail in the air acting all studly.”
Soon Kayden realized this young showman was hers and the journey had officially begun.
“He actually loaded in the trailer fairly well,” Kayden said explaining their first true interaction. “Well that was until he decided to get his lead rope caught on the floor board of the trailer. Then he wasn’t too happy about us getting close to him so we had to use a stick to fish it loose.”
From there they traveled back to Texas and, as Kayden described, naturally it rained for hours as soon as they got him home. While the weather was not ideal, there was little time to waste as the 120-day time limit had already begun.
The first step was getting him in a pen so she could begin naturally gentling him. Soon they all found out the mustang had quite the adventurous side, and so his name was born.
“I was going to call him Legend short for his full name Legendary Keepsake,” explained Kayden. “Then he started trying to climb out of everything, his pen, fences – everything. So from there we started calling him LEGO, short for ‘let’s go’.”
Her mother fondly remembers these first moments.
“Well he is wild after all,” laughed Heather. “He just wanted to go, go, go all the time. Kayden wanted him to go around the round pen and he wanted to go over it.”
Soon though they came to an understanding and more importantly gained each other’s trust. There were good days and bad days, but those looking on continued to be amazed at how easy it all seemed for Kayden.
“She seems to have an unspoken way of connecting with a horse,” explained Heather. “I’m not sure if she learned it, or if it is just what she does, but it works.”
In Kayden’s mind it was simple, treat the horse that she was a friend and he would do the same for her. If only people acted the same, right?
“He wasn’t too hard to gentle,” Kayden said with a smile. “Every time he would come up to the fence I would scratch his face. Apparently his face is really itchy because he really liked that.”
Kayden brushes her training choices off as commonplace, as if everyone chose to gentle their horses the same. But the sad truth is they don’t.
“A lot of people train with force,” explained Heather. “But Kayden doesn’t do that. She treats them like a horse. That may seem obvious but what I mean is she watches how they interact with each other, how they behave, what their natural behaviors are, and then she tries to mimic those actions in how she interacts with them.”
In other words, she treats them with respect. It is this relationship that allowed Kayden and LEGO to make quick progress. From learning to lay and bow in the first week to going on a three-day trail ride that stretched over two counties, they were inseparable.
“He was my plus one wherever I went,” joked Kayden.
Ask her mother and she will tell you they even started taking after each other.
Kayden agrees, but describes his personality a little differently.
“I think I just got lucky,” said Kayden. “He is really easy going. He is more curious than scared I guess you could say.”
Her humble attitude is endearing, but it would be untruthful to say taking a mustang from wild to willing in 120 days as Kayden did was luck, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Granted, for Kayden it probably did seem easy, she certainly made it look that way in late September when she performed at the final showcase event held in Fort Worth, Texas.
Each participant was required to display three different skills that would eventually determine the overall champion. First was a conditioning and overall handling event, which the participant walked their mustang in and allowed the judges to inspect their overall physical conditioning. Then each participant put their mustang in a round pen loose for a few minutes before showing the judges they could calmly catch their mustang and exit the arena.
“Coming into it I wasn’t really expecting to win,” Kayden let on humbly. “I thought I would do better than last year since I knew I was more prepared and I had more experience, but I was expecting maybe to finish in the top five, not first.”
She certainly got the top five prediction started off with a bang, finishing a half point shy of first place in the handling and conditioning event. Next up was the Trail Class, of which required each participant to take their mustang through a pattern of obstacles, such as walking over a bridge, pivoting in place, checking the mail and other activities that allowed the judges to determine who’s mustang reacted best to each challenge.
Kayden excelled again, finishing this time only one and a half points behind the leader. Sitting only two points out of first place heading into the final freestyle round, Kayden slowly began gaining some confidence.
“After trail I realized as long as I didn’t completely bomb my freestyle I would finish in second,” Kayden outlined. “The guy in front of me was really good though, so I knew his freestyle would be great and I would need mine to be perfect if I was actually going to win the whole thing.”
For weeks Kayden and her crew of family and friends had done their best to keep her free style theme a secret, and in the end it turned out to be her secret weapon. With the arena decorated with the New York skyline and central park themed benches spread around, the crowd sat in anticipation of what was to come.
“Right before going in she was surprisingly calm,” Kayden’s aunt Rachel said. “But that’s just Kayden for you, she never seems to get too worked up over anything.”
As soon as the music started, the crowd’s ears instantly perked up, and knowing grins spread throughout the stands.
“Who you going to call,” the music blared.
“Ghost Busters!” The crowd finished the theme song’s popular chorus.
This was an exchange that was unplanned, and unexpected but only added to the overall atmosphere.
“I was trying to block it all out,” let on Kayden with a grin when asked about the crowd support. “Well that was until the music stopped, then I almost had a heart attack because I thought the CD was scratched. It turned out the DJ was just turning it down every time it got to the ‘Ghost Busters!’ part to let the crowd sing along. It was really neat.”
Her performance was pretty neat too. LEGO and Kayden ran through the arena both at lead and liberty (LEGO was freed from halter and lead rope), over central park themed jumps, and tracking down ghosts to the crowd’s delight. LEGO especially was quite the Ghost Buster, not letting the remote control car turned green goblin get out of his site.
“It’s funny really how we came up with that,” started Kayden with a laugh. “LEGO loves our cat, really he just follows it around everywhere, it’s hilarious. Soon I realized he would follow around my brother’s remote control cars too, and the idea just took off from there.”
Take a minute to think about that entire statement. What was a wild mustang just 120 days ago is now a cat-loving, ghost-busting, Central Park bench jumping, crowd-pleasing mustang named LEGO. Impressive isn’t it?
The judges certainly thought so as Kayden blew the competition away in the freestyle round, so much so she was able to make up the two points that separated her from first place to capture the 2014 Youth Mustang Makeover Championship.
“When they said my name I didn’t really react at first aside from smiling, laughing, and patting LEGO on the neck,” Kayden recalled fondly. “LEGO really didn’t seem to care, in fact he was asleep. I had to force him awake to come out there for pictures with me. He just kept looking at me like ‘What I already caught the ghost, I’m tired, you go take the pictures yourself.”
Of course, LEGO eventually relented and followed Kayden to the podium for pictures because why wouldn’t he? If Kayden truly wanted she probably could have gotten LEGO to take the pictures for them. Okay maybe that is a stretch, but given what she accomplished in only 120 days, I don’t think anyone would bet against her.
“It still hasn’t really set in yet,” said Kayden a few days after winning the title. “It was just this dream, but then it happened, so it’s hard to describe really how it feels.”
Who knows when it will set in but someday it will, and for the rest of her life Kayden will undoubtedly be able to look back and remember the day her talent was recognized in the greatest way possible. She took a dream and turned it into reality, turned a skill into a performance of a lifetime.
Now that the 120 days are up and the competition is over, Kayden has officially adopted Legendary Keepsake from the Mustang Heritage Foundation and will continue working with LEGO from her home in Comanche. This is the part of the mustang journey Kayden loves the most, the part where she is able to show people mustangs are more than a wild animal, and more than something that is pretty to look at from afar. It was never solely a competition to her; it was always a chance to prove to people that mustangs are just as capable as any other breed of horse. It is safe to say Kayden achieved this and more with her performance this weekend, and only time will tell what is to come for Comanche’s own Miracle Girl.For more information on the mustang breed please visit the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s website at: http://www.mustangheritagefoundation.org. For questions about Kayden’s journey or the Defining Wild series itself please email firstname.lastname@example.org.