A Mustang Makeover

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Emilee Ann Knepp, a 16-year-old from southern Magoffin, has begged her mother for at least five years to let her train a wild mustang. 

“I wouldn’t let her do it because I was afraid she’d get hurt,” her mother, Gladys Knepp-Wireman said. “All I kept thinking was, ‘No, it’s a wild animal. It’s never been handled.”

The 16-year-old has had a life-long passion for horses. It started with “My Little Pony” cartoons and was shaped by the animated film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron,” about a wild horse that is tamed.

“When she was little she watched ‘Spirit’ so much, she wore out DVD’s,” Knepp-Wireman said. “She’s just always had a dream of taming a wild horse.”

Emilee grew up around horses, but this year marks her first encounter with a wild mustang. She told her mother if she can break a wild mustang, she can do anything.

 “I really wanted to do the mustang makeover because I’m really good with horses, but those are horses I’ve been around,” Emilee said. “So, what about a horse that’s never been touched before?”

Her mother relented, and on March 17, the family traveled to Illinois to pick up a captured mustang yearling, Vegas, who is now 16 months old.

The mustang was captured from the wild in Nevada and taken to the holding facility in Illinois, where the Emilee’s family adopted her from the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which works to increase the adoption of wild mustangs rescued by a program offered through the government’s Bureau of Land Management. Emilee named her yearling Vegas. Vegas is co-owned by both Emilee and the Bureau of Land Management, and after she completes the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Trainer Incentive Program, Emilee will be Vegas’ new owner.

Her family and friends call her the “horse whisperer.”

She learned about the “Extreme Mustang Makeover” youth training program available through the Mustang Heritage Foundation online. She and Vegas are currently preparing to compete in the challenge, which will be held July 6-8 at the Lexington Horse Park.

The family has 12 horses at its farm, located in Waldo, just off the Floyd County line in Magoffin County. Emilee and her stepfather built a round pen for Vegas, as required by the heritage foundation, and Emilee has spent three to six hours every day training Vegas since they brought her home in March.

At the time of the competition she would have had just over 100 days to tame and train her.

That first night Emilee was up until 2 a.m. working with Vegas. She would not go to bed until she had removed Vegas’ horse tag and fitted her with a halter.

The next day, Emilee started training Vegas to be guided with a lead rope. Since then, she's been teaching her to trot, jump, bow, and lay down. Now, Vegas even rolls over like a puppy.

It took a month to teach Vegas to learn to eat sweet feed from a trough and even longer for Emilee’s mother to feel comfortable touching the mustang. She is still hesitant to be involved with Vegas because Emilee “wants to do it on her own.”

When they brought Vegas home, her nose was covered in warts. Now, those warts are healed and Vegas is gaining weight, thanks to Emilee! She has even had her hooves trimmed. 

“Before they could do that, Emilee had to teach her to let them pick up their feet,” Knepp-Wireman said. “Now, she picks up her feet, crawls under her belly, everything. She spends so much time with her.”

Emilee said that training Vegas has been frustrating at times, but she is determined to do well in the competition. 

“When you try something and fail several times, you've always got to try again, do it again, over and over until you get it right,” she said.

The youth part of the makeover program is open to children between the ages of 8 through 18, and those youth are required to condition and train their yearlings. At the competition, which is also open to adults who are permitted to adopt older mustangs, the horses will be scored on handling and conditioning, trail and freestyle classes.

In the handling and conditioning part of the competition, judges will assess Vegas’ physical appearance, how well she responds during the haltering process, as well as her demeanor and her relationship with Emilee during walking, trotting and other tasks.

In the leading trail class, judges will asses Vegas’ maneuvering through an obstacle course.

In the freestyle class, Emilee and other competitors will create props, use music and/or costumes to show off their horses’ athletic abilities. Emilee is planning a Coal Mining theme for this part of the competition and is working to create props. 

She has been fundraising for this project since before Vegas was brought to Kentucky. The family set up a GoFundMe page, “Emilee’s Mustang Makeover,” to fund care for Vegas and travel expenses during the competition.

“She does not want us to be out anything,” her mother said. “She wants to prove that she can do this on her own.”

She’s proud of her daughter, talking about problems she faced as a child that made her become a more independent, mature teenager.

“I’m very proud. Extremely proud,” her mother said. “It’s a lifelong dream my child has had. She and I have been through so much in life, and I’m just really proud of her.”

For more information about Emilee’s Mustang Makeover, visit her site on GoFundMe. For more information about the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the upcoming competition, visit, mustangheritagefoundation.org. Wild mustangs trained by adults will be available for adoption at the event.