By Special To The Washington Post · Eliza McGraw
But with Alhilali in control, Avalanche walked calmly. She patiently allowed a blindfold to be removed. She backed into a sitting position. Alhilali took a few skipping steps while holding a green umbrella. Then the filly moved with her, backward and forward. At the end of the routine, Avalanche folded into a deep, gracious bow.
The pair's work in late June was the culmination of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a 13-year-old contest in which horse trainers compete at training mustangs - the equines that roam 10 western states and are rounded up in the thousands by the federal government each year. At the start, horses are untamed, and many have never been handled. Trainers vie to see who can take their horse the farthest, showcasing the horses' versatility and usefulness for potential owners - and this year, they did it virtually.
"A hundred days from wild to mild," said Alex Kappert, executive director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which organizes the competitions.
Alhilali and Avalanche competed in the youth division, in which the horses are young, too - 12 to 24 months. Normally, they would have shown off their teamwork to a live audience in Lexington, Ky. But covid-19 interfered.
Instead, they and 42 other kid-equine pairs competed via video, recording their performances from barnyards, indoor arenas and riding rings.
"I was sad that it wasn't in person," said Alhilali, who rides English and Western styles. But Avalanche was good company, she added, describing the horse as "really smart and sweet and fun to work with."
The Texas-based foundation partners with the Bureau of Land Management to teach the public about mustangs and help find homes for them. Approximately 50,000 wild horses are in BLM off-range corrals and on long-term pastures, and another 90,000 or so roam public lands - three times more than the government says the land can sustain.
In normal years, makeover spectators bid to purchase many of the mustangs; some show up to the events with trucks and trailers. This year, any bidding happened virtually, and the foundation offered a $250 credit to help buyers cover horse transport.
Last year, the foundation placed 2,670 mustangs - horses that Kappert said have been stereotyped as "a nuisance animal."
The makeover contest strives to dismantle that perception. The youth division features trainers ages 8 to 17 who are allowed to work with adult trainers. Participants are randomly assigned horses, which they pick up from arenas near the makeover event.
That's when the hard part starts. On a domestic farm, horses are accustomed to being haltered, handled and led from a very young age. Not mustangs.
"You have to gain their trust and everything to let you take their neck tags off, put their halter on," Alhilali said. "And when you can go off and show people that this horse was wild a couple months ago, that's really cool."
Judges review the youth pairs' performances in three classes: handling and conditioning, in-hand trail - in which the horses demonstrate everyday skills that show trust in the handler - and freestyle. The freestyle class allows competitors to add elements such as costumes and music. This year, of course, the stakes were a little lower: If the pair made a mistake, they could shoot another video.
"At shows, you don't have a second chance," said judge Ginger Duke, of Lafayette, Ga.
But the rewindable nature also benefited judges. "You could go back and watch it again, where at a competition you have one shot," Duke said. Also, she added, "I got to judge in pajamas, so I was good with that."
Younger trainers' comfort with digital platforms made the switch easier for them than for some of their adult counterparts, Kappert said. Virtual makeover trainers could also enter video stories chronicling their training to replace the sense of community that was lost to the pandemic.
"A lot of times when you get to the events in person, you walk down the aisles of the stalls, especially where the kiddos are, and every single one of them is sitting there in their camp chairs or feeding, and they will stop anyone and everyone and tell them about their story of how they got there," Kappert said.
Garrett Shanks, 17, of Belleville, Ill., said the virtual format gave all competitors a sort of home-turf advantage. Still, he said, "it's also a bummer, because some horses and trainers, they don't get as much spark in their run, because they're so used to that. For me, I really like to compete in front of a live audience. It fuels me more."
Shanks volunteered at the competitions before participating in his first three years ago. This year, he worked with his mustang, Priscilla, for about 15 hours a week. She began as "standoffish," he said, but she became "a puppy dog."
In his freestyle challenge, the pair jumped over an obstacle painted like an alarm clock, Shanks shed pajamas, and Priscilla stood on a stool masquerading as a coffee cup.
This year's youth winner, Maleah Redmann, 17, of Athens, Wis., performed her freestyle routine in a sunlit field, with stands of trees and silos in the background. Her best friend shot the video.
The virus-imposed format "wasn't that big of a shock," said Redmann, who has been riding seriously for about four years. "But it was a heartbreak. This makeover is really about making connections with people with the same passions as you."
Redmann said her path to the makeover began last year when her agriculture teacher took a group of students to a horse fair where they watched an event that included mustangs.
"I'd always dreamed of having a wild horse, but I didn't think that it was possible - I didn't think it was a thing people could actually do," she said.
This year, Redmann arrived two hours early to pick up her mustang for the 2020 contest. Watching the waiting horses, she said she "felt drawn to" a stocky bay filly. But she was assigned a slighter filly with one white sock. When the horse took a long 20 minutes to load into a trailer, Redmann said, she earned her name: Rogue.
She soon decided Rogue was "by far the smartest horse" she has ever met. "When I took her home, she pushed me. I would never call her easy, but she made sure I was being my best self."
After the makeovers, some competitors keep their mustangs. Shanks's "forever horse," Sheza, was his draw in 2018. Priscilla - as well as Avalanche and Rogue - will live with their young trainers until they get rehomed.
Via computer or live, Redmann said, the process relies on partnership, like the one between her and Rogue. But she attributed the victory to the horse.
"There's nothing that sets me apart," she said. "There are so many talented trainers. It's her."