Deaver resident Tom Hagwood’s story is one of humble beginnings. After living a somewhat nomadic life, working as a ranch hand, drifting from one large cattle operation to another throughout the west, Hagwood took what he learned from that experience and started his own horse training business, at the time living in southwest Idaho.
“I was doing pretty well until the crash in 2008,” said Hagwood. “Suddenly nobody had the money to hire someone to train their horses anymore. I had to come up with something else.”
He decided to look for ranch work again, but he needed a reliable horse to make himself employable. He heard about an auction of wild mustangs, where he adopted his first wild mustang “Pardner” (sic). After about 13 sessions, Hagwood had Pardner expertly trained for ranch work.
He said a friend and neighbor, Joe Black, was so impressed with Pardner that he suggested Hagwood enter a mustang makeover contest he had heard about to raise some still much needed cash to support his family.
“Literally, at the time, my wife Arianne was dressed in rags,” said Hagwood. “She had holes in her clothes. I had to do something to pull us out of this slump.”
Hagwood took Black’s advice and entered his first Mustang Extreme Makeover contest in 2010. The contest sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) required that he adopt a wild mustang from a specific pool of 4-6-year-old wild mustangs removed from herds in Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah made available to competitors for the event. He went to the adoption with not much cash in his pocket and for $150 adopted a 6-year-old horse he later named “Smarty.” With less than 100 days to train the horse, he quickly trained Smarty for a competition held in Texas. Living up to his name, Smarty helped Hagwood take third place in the competition, lining his pockets with $10,000 in the process.
“We were so poor at the time we had to put the gas to get to the competition on a credit card,” explained Hagwood. “The tires on the truck were so bare they had wires coming out, but we were determined to get there and desperate to win. We put a couple halfway decent looking shirts for me to wear during the competition on the card and off we went to Texas.”
Since that first competition, Hagwood has competed four times, winning money every time. Arianne also competed in a related event called the Mustang Magic, winning more than $10,000 in 2012. Their winnings have allowed them to purchase a modest ranch in Deaver, where training wild mustangs for the competition has become a way of life for the couple and their 7-year-old daughter Tommi Jean.
Currently the Hagwoods have nine head of horses, including six mustangs. Most of the mustangs were adopted through the contest and are from other states, though one is from Wyoming.
Hagwood said wild mustangs aren’t much different than any other horse he’s trained. He said the biggest difference he has found is that their “flight or fight” response is much more “engrained” than in a domestic horse. He said that is most likely in response to what it takes for a horse to survive in the wild. He said, because of this heightened response, it is important that a trainer not to make any mistakes during the training process.
“I really like training these mustangs,” said Hagwood. “They are smart and they like having a job to do, but because they are so smart you have to be careful not to make too many mistakes.”
The competition requires the horses be rideable and trained in all the basics in order to compete in the preliminary classes. The top 10 competitors take their animals to the final level, where freestyle is part of the competition. Though some competitors train their horses to perform tricks designed to dazzle the judges like sitting on a car seat, Hagwood said he likes to stick to the basics when training his horses and trains them the way he would to perform basic ranch work.
Hagwood said he learned a lot from the late Merv Takas, a “cow boss” he worked under who taught him how to handle “rough older ponies.” Hagwood named his top winning horse after Merv. The horse was so impressive that he brought more than $200,000 in winnings, including a new pickup truck, to the family coffers.
In addition to his big win on Merv, Hagwood has won the compulsory pattern (reigning, halter work, etc.) every time. He attributes those wins to focusing on showing a well-broke horse. In freestyle, he showcases his horse’s stop and turn abilities, along with the ability to rope a cow off the horse.
Since entering the competitions, the family has gone from “sleeping on the ground and living in a teepee” to a modest life in Deaver, doing what they love and doing what they do best—training and caring for a small herd of horses and cattle.
From wild to mild
With approximately 100 days to take mustangs wild to mild, trainers like the Hagwoods from across America continue to take the challenge of competing with an American mustang at Extreme Mustang Makeover events in different U.S. cities. In 2018, events will be held in Texas and Kentucky.
The idea is for trainers to not only compete for cash and prizes but to find a suitable adopter or purchaser for the horse they trained. Hagwood said he likes to keep the horses he trains and usually bids on his own horses after the event, though he has sold a few, including Merv, to make ends meet and to pay for a recent back surgery his wife needed.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation created the Extreme Mustang Makeover event “to recognize and highlight the value of mustangs through a national training competition and showcase the beauty, versatility and trainability of the rugged horses.” The mustangs offered to trainers for the competition have been virtually untouched by humans. The trainers have approximately 100 days to gentle, halter break and saddle train, build trust and develop a relationship with the horse in order to compete.
The mission of the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) is to increase the adoption of wild horses held in the Bureau of Land Management’s off-range short-term and long-term corrals and pastures. The events are designed to showcase the mustang’s “versatility, trainability and worth as an equine companion.”
So far, 3,866 wild mustangs have been adopted in connection with the competition. The BLM is currently responsible for more than 47,000 horses in short term and long term care. The MHF has sponsored 76 makeover competition events, during a period of 11 years. The highest payout to date at an event has been $250,000. Hagwood has earned around $375,000 during the four years he has been competing in the makeovers.
Hagwood said the amount of time it takes to train a horse for the competition is “dictated by the horse.” Hagwood said he typically works with his horses throughout the day in the course of his normal everyday ranch activities. He also takes his horses to brandings at neighboring ranches, where they get used to working around livestock.
He said competitors who enter the events come from all walks of life. Some are professional level trainers, while others are just everyday folks who enjoy working with their horses.
By Patti Carpenter