WILD MUSTANGS! WHAT comes to mind when you read those words? Perhaps pictures or movies of them rearing up and fighting hard not to be caught, ridden or trained, right? One doesn’t typically, myself included, think of young youths breaking and training wild mustangs, winning them over using patience and calm, repetitive training methods.
Steffen sisters Sierra, 17, Marissa, 15, and Eliza Steffen, 9, have successfully trained several young mustangs for 100-day teen and mustang competitions, applying horsemanship skills they’d already learned in the same quiet manner.
I met them in October when I featured youths in the Ranahan Pony Club. So imagine my surprise when I decided to click on a Facebook page, Sierra Farmergirl’s Equine Fiasco, that popped up on my page (as someone I have several mutual friends with) and see it was the Sierra I’d just met with pictures and videos featuring her mustangs and training for 100-day youth competitions. From there I discovered her sister’s page Marissa Zane’s Mighty Mustangs.
I immediatly called their mom, Erica Steffen, for an interview. Upon meeting the family and their horses at their property my first questions included ‘how did you get involved with wild mustangs?’ and ‘wasn’t mom too scared to let her kids work with wild horses?”“Marissa was the first one to do it. She was 12 when she saw in a horse magazine a 100-day youth mustang challenge. So she asked our parents if she could do it,” said Sierra.
Sierra was involved in America Quarter Horse Association activities and in 2019 was given a weanling, (a young horse weaned from its mother and usually between 6 months to 1-year-old), along with progressive assignments, to train for nine months. It went really well, so when Marissa asked to take part training in a yearling (a young horse 1-2 years old) mustang her parents looked into it and thought it a good idea to try it.
“At the time Marissa didn’t have as much going, so when she read this magazine article and said ‘I really want to do this,’ I thought perfect,” said Erica. She put her application in and after it was approved the family drove on the appointed day to an Oregon Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse corral to pick up Marissa’s yearling. Once there, they discovered no yearlings were available that year, so she was assigned a 2-year-old they were told was a Palomino.
While the parents were hesitant to let their young daughter train an older wild horse (the older the horse the more willful and strong they can be) they all went to the corrals to look at the horse.
“We looked and looked for a palomino but couldn’t find one. Finally we noticed a really filthy dirty horse standing in the back. We looked closer and the brand number matched the one she was given so we took her home,” said Erica.
She said it took a full week of brushing and grooming to discover the horse, Marissa named Stardust, was almost pure white not a palomino color. No matter. The girl was already in love. So much so, by the end of the 100-day challenge she became Marissa’s forever horse.
Now 5, Marissa said she and Stardust are in Pony Club events “competing in hunters and jumpers, and jumping up to three feet now.” Since the beginning Marissa’s also trained Stardust in Liberty (a style of riding without any tack. Not relying on a halter, rope or saddle is thought to bring a greater bond between horse and rider) and hopes to soon compete someday at the Liberty Festival in Kentucky.
Marissa demonstrated for me how, in riding Liberty style, Stardust is very responsive to cues and has learned to respond to many visual and soft touch commands. Marissa showed me two more advanced training feats — Stardust bows on command and also rears up beautifully on her hind legs while pawing her front hooves in the air — simply stunning to watch.
Still, in the beginning Erica said she was uneasy with a daughter working closely with a two-year-old, an age where horses are much stronger and reactive than a yearling; she didn’t want Marissa getting hurt, or worse. So the family went to the Teens in Oregon competition to “pick the brains,” of those who had, or have, kids in the program. There, they found an information booth and started the first of many conversations with Erica Fitzgerald, the founder of Teens in Oregon.
There, Erica discovered the youth competition programs started with 8 and 10-year-olds, so a 12-year- old wasn’t even at the bottom of the youth spectrum. The founder turned out to be extremely informative and “much like a cheerleader” from the start.
Now the entire family, including younger sister Eliza, 9, is hooked on competing in the youth competitions. She has already trained a BLM burro (which is what her age group takes part in the challenge with, and training her own mustangs.
Sierra again took the lead when I asked why they liked training wild mustang, “We absolutely love them. You have to move slowly at first to gain their trust, but once you do each and every one of them have the most willing and trainable personalities. They’re blank slates like no one’s ever mistreated or made mistakes on; they don’t have bad habits yet. So that is why they have the most trainable personalities.”
Both parents are experienced riders. Josh retired as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot so they could they begin their hay and horse training businesses.
The entire family takes part in the haying work of mowing, baling, stacking on the trailer, and then stacking the hay at home; and when sold helping with deliveries by taking hay from the stacks, stacking on the truck and/or trailer and then restacking it at the buyer’s home.
“Now we’re kind of trickling out of the hay business to focus more on our horse training business,” said Erica. “Mostly because the land to hay is getting sparse.” They started out with contracts for haying several large 80 acre parcels, with a few, smaller 20 acre parcels. Now they’re down to only two 80 acre parcels and 20 acre parcels “here and there,” she said.
Through word of mouth they’ve gotten requests to train horses for other people and ranches who are specific in wanting mustangs. And are now training a string of mustangs for a dude ranch.
The life certainly seems to have benefited the family. They were all a delight to meet and talk with individually, and supportive of each other.
On Dec. 3, Sierra brought home a new mustang to train Glamour, a BLM mustang from the Stinkingwater Herd Management area of Oregon. She’s training her in the 100-day Teens and Oregon Challenge, describing Glamour, 4, as “a sweet and sensible mare who is full of love and eager to learn.” During her first seven out of 100 days of training Glamour became easy to catch, leads well walking and trotting, lunges in both directions, likes to be groomed, yields shoulder and haunches, backs up, lowers head, carried a saddle, wore a bridle, learned to pick her feet to be cleaned and to stand calmly when climbed all over. By the end of week two she’d had a saddle placed on and off over 100 times, gotten comfortable with flapping stirrups, clanging girths and all the squeaky sounds a saddle makes. Sierra also starting riding her bareback wearing a halter. By the end of week two Glamour had learned forward motion with a rider and learned to walk, trot and halt with a rider.
Sierra emphasized most mustangs are not as easy to train as Glamour’s been so far. At the end of the 100 days Glamour will be available to purchase via a live auction on March 26 at the 2023 Teens and Oregon Mustang Trainer Showdown in Albany, Ore. Competition featured at the Showdown will be in-hand training for those age 10 and older with yearlings, and riding with trainers age 14 and older, taking place in the evenings of March 24-26, with the live auction adoption taking place March 26 at Linn County EXPO and online. For more information go to https://www.teensandoregonmustangs.org.
For more information on Liberty training visit the Web site https://horse libertytraining.com.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Saturday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at email@example.com at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.