Cat Zimmerman was just 12 years old when she picked up her first mustang for the Extreme Mustang Makeover Youth Challenge. She and that horse, “Comacheria,” better known as Monche, ended up fourth overall out of 17 competitors, an experience Zimmerman calls “a huge roller coaster of ups, downs, and turns.”
Now 14, Zimmerman, Morristown, is starting out with a new mustang to participate in this year’s challenge.
She recently switched to online homeschooling because of how much she loves working with horses. “It didn’t feel right going to school and only getting two to three hours of pony time afterwards. Switching to online is amazing, I am not the kind of girl to sit inside all day. I’m meant to be out with the horses, and now I’m with them every day,” she said.
Her mom, Sarah Price, said teachers at school had expressed concern over Cat’s lack of enthusiasm for being there, a place which took her away from the horses. “I enrolled her in an online school. She manages her own time and is doing better than ever academically,” said Price.
Cat started with horses when she was just 3 years old. Price recalls that just after her daughter’s first pony ride, they drove by Seaton Hackney Stables, in Morristown, and Cat saw a horse in the paddock. “She was so excited that she almost jumped out of the car. I took her to see the horses later that day. The barn had just gone through a renovation and was under new management. They hadn’t officially opened yet and she became their first client,” said Price. “From that day forward, she was at the barn almost every single day. In order to pay for lessons, I did a lot of volunteer work at the barn.”
In 2010, Price and Seaton Hackney Stable’s owner Marc Schumacher were married on horseback at the barn.
Cat was introduced to mustangs and the Extreme Mustang Makeover when in California on a trail ride. “The rancher there told me about it, because I was riding one of their mustangs that did the competition a few years earlier,” she said. Cat looked into it, and with her mom’s approval, she signed up.
Mustangs are assigned to the participants by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which oversees the EMM. Those assigned to youth competitors are between 1 and 2 years of age. Cat said she found two “amazing” trainers, Elisa Wallace and Madison Shambaugh, and admired the things they had done with their mustangs.
Price said her daughter worked with Monche every single day for over three months. “Some days were great. Others ended in tears. But she never gave up,” said Price. Her experience taught her that mustangs are amazing horses. “People can spend thousands of dollars on pedigreed horses. But mustangs have heart and soul. Monche is like a puppy dog, following Cat around like a lovesick pet,” said Price. “In the beginning, it was really hard because Cat had no experience training horses, especially one that had never been touched by a person. She used love to tame that horse. And at the competition, both Cat and Monche demonstrated the power it means to bond with a horse.”
Cat notes that working with mustangs is much different from training a domestic horse. “They have had close to no contact with people, and most were living out in the wild on their own. They’re not used to having a person around them, let alone do all this crazy stuff with them,” she said. “They have never known what getting petted or ridden is, so you need a ton of patience and consideration while working with them. Domestic horses were born with people around them, and being loved by someone, and they have an idea of what you’re trying to do.”
While every mustang is different, Zimmerman said it important to show them you’re not going to hurt them. “Give them plenty of positive reinforcement, and talk nicely to them. I try not to get angry or mad at them, because they don’t know what I’m asking them to do. They’re completely new to this, and I shouldn’t expect them to be perfect,” she said, adding she loves having mustangs see her as their friend and boss. That means never getting too forceful, while still letting them know that she is the one in control.
Her new mustang mare, Bella, arrived in mid-April. “She is a lot different than Monche was last year, so I am trying to figure her out. I have pet her right side, and lightly touched her face. But it only has been two days with her, so I don’t expect much more. She spent a lot more time in the wild than Monche, so she’s a lot more skittish,” Cat said
Currently, she and Monche are working on liberty, and Zimmerman plans on having Monche and Bella do that together. She’s considering doing eventing with Monche, but points out the mare has many possibilities.
When asked what she would like people to know about mustangs, Zimmerman replies, “They have huge hearts, are incredibly smart, and so versatile. They can do anything from cutting, barrels, to dressage, jumpers, or hunters. They literally can do anything. Not a lot of people see them as the amazing horse they are, and they should.”
Unsurprisingly, Zimmerman plans on a career as a horse trainer. “My main plan is to take in horses, give them a few months of training depending on the horse, and then sell them,” she said.
Bella and Cat will compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, Aug. 5-6 in Topsfield, Mass.