Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Program partnered with State Fair for youth to train wild mustangs

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The Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Program partnered with the Kansas State Fair for the fourth time to put on the Youth Wild Horse Challenge—a chance for young trainers to show how they can train wild mustang yearlings.

Afnan Alhilali has participated in the Youth Challenge, a wild horse partnership program that takes place at the Kansas State Fair, for two years. Afnan, 15, trained six wild mustang yearlings, one of which is now trained enough for saddle riding.

Sergeant, the mustang she saddle trained, was wild at first but with positive reinforcement training, she said, he eventually became gentle and was easy to work with. “At first, he would strike and kick at me and he was a little bit aggressive, but he came around quickly… he became a really great partner,” said Alhilali of Towanda.

The six mustangs she has trained include Sergeant, Avalanche, Charleston, Footloose, Gilligan and Denver. Three of them she trained and showed this year.

“It took a lot of determination because I had three and then (Sergeant)… It takes a lot of dedication; you really have to, like, be on it and be consistent,” Alhilali said.

The Wild Horse Youth Challenge is developed and coordinated by Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Program and the fair provided the Expo Center as a space for the youth to show the progress they’ve made with the horses throughout the summer.

This year, the challenge included 25 contestants, which is a record for the event at the fair.

“Pickup was May 15, the youth got to pick up their horses in Derby and got to take the horses home… then they get to start working with the horse through the summer,” Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Specialist Crystal Cowen said.

The horses the youth receive are completely wild according to Cowen, and every year they face challenges with how wild the horses arrive.

“It’s amazing to see the work they’ve done from May to September, and what all they can do with the horses. How they lead the horse out of the trailer and just the sense of pride from the work they’ve completed,” Cowen said.

Training a wild horse from the yearling age comes with a myriad of challenges according to participants Alhilali, Alyssa Defacto, 15, from Topeka and Elizabeth Long, 17, from Leavenworth, but with many rewards.

Alhilali, Defacto and Long all said something similar when beginning—start slowly to build a bond with the wild animals.

“I don’t want to start them right away. I generally like to give them a lot of time to adapt to people since they haven’t been around us, so I just start off with feeding them, and they start to grow a bond with you,” Defacto said.

All three participants said starting slowly allows trust to form, so then more training can be built upon that initial relationship.

“I always try to gain their trust before I actually start working on anything with them, and then once they do something good, I let them have a break, so they know that they did it right,” Long said.

The participants of the challenge have the choice to auction or keep the mustangs they train, if they choose to auction the horse, they will receive all of the money from the auction minus a $25 fee for the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Challenge.

Often, the contestants will choose to keep their mustang and continue training them, so eventually they can return and bear the flags at the next challenge with their mustangs.

Mustangs wear an identification tag before adoption, and Alhilali enjoys taking the tag off at the end of the summer. “I like being able to take the tag off and (officially) name them,” she said.

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