Challenge Accepted

When teenager Rebecca Kennedy decided to sign up for the Extreme Mustang Makeover, she did it because she wanted to challenge herself as a rider. But she ended up learning so much more after working with her untouched mustang.

The first time Rebecca Kennedy saw a mustang compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover she had been searching the internet for horse-training content and stumbled across videos of the competition that immediately caught her attention. Like many tech-savvy teens, she began to scour the internet to learn more about the event and watch any kind of mustang-related video she could find. From there, she quickly learned that the Extreme Mustang Makeover offered a youth division at their competition in Fort Worth, Texas, and immediately knew she had to get involved somehow.

Last-Minute Entry

Through her research, Rebecca found the entry form to the youth division and immediately ran down to her parents to ask if she could enter the event, but there was one problem: they only had a couple of days to fill out the paperwork and gather the letters of recommendations that were required to even be considered.

“When Becca came to us and said she wanted to try and be part of this youth event, we immediately started working on filling out all the paperwork that comes with signing up for this event,” Rebecca’s mom, Tara, explained. “From that moment we were just running around trying to get everything filled out and submitted in time. Then we were just sitting there holding our breath seeing if she’d even be accepted to participate.”

It wasn’t until the Kennedys were on vacation when Rebecca found out that she would have the opportunity to work with an untouched mustang and compete at such a prestigious event.

“We were at the beach when my mom finally got an email that said I had been accepted into the program,” Rebecca said with a smile. “My sister and I immediately started going nuts. We were so excited that this was actually happening.”

Meeting Sergeant Reckless

When the day had finally come to pick up Rebecca’s newest project, she was thrilled to learn that during the random drawing, she had been assigned a little 2-year-old bay mare Rebecca would go on to name Sergeant Reckless, after the decorated war horse that participated in the Korean War by carrying supplies and ammunition, and evacuating the wounded—often without having a handler to guide her.

“It was such an exciting day,” Rebecca said. “I remember sitting at the trailer at the pickup location eager to finally see her in person. These are untouched horses, so it was a totally new experience for us to have to handle a horse that had never been around humans before.”

But Rebecca was up for the challenge and knew she would have to change her way of thinking and training to fit the needs of a previously untouched mustang.

“I knew she was going to be more skittish and that I needed to be very careful once I brought her home and unloaded her,” she shared. “The first couple of days I just focused on walking up to her, rubbing her, and then backing off so she learned to trust me. I didn’t want to overwhelm her and get her frustrated, so I took my time to build her trust.”

Overcoming Obstacles

Rebecca was adamant on forming a bond with Sergeant Reckless in approximately 120 days—the time frame she had before the competition—spending every day with the mare, regardless of the weather and time of day.

“There were days where Rebecca was out there two to three times a day working with her,” Tara said. “It didn’t matter what time of day it was, if the weather was bad, she was out there working with her horse. We even installed a big light pole over the round pen so she could have light when she was working at night.”

Rebecca’s hard work began to pay off, but not without the regular bumps in the road that come with a green horse.

“The whole point of doing this was to challenge myself to do something I had never done,” Rebecca shared. “But there were days where I would get frustrated because things weren’t going according to plan. I would have to stop what I was doing and figure out a different approach; that’s something I’ve taken away from this journey when I’m working with other horses.”

When Rebecca found herself stuck, she decided it was time to phone a friend. Chad Hamill has been active member of their 4-H group and has an extensive background working with kids and horses. He was even the one who wrote Rebecca’s letter of recommendation for this competition. She knew Hamill would be able to offer her training and showing advice when she needed it most.

When Rebecca first got Sergeant Reckless home, she spent a lot of time working on her groundwork to help build her horse’s confidence and trust. Photo Courtesy of the Mustang Heritage Foundation

“I like to think I was offering encouragement more than I was helping her with training,” Chad Hamill said with a smile. “She was doing so well for only having a certain amount of time to train this horse, and I was amazed at what she was doing. I think I basically told her to slow down, take it easy, and remember to breathe.”

Hamill had also attended the Extreme Mustang Makeover in the past as a spectator and had a few pieces of advice to help Rebecca prepare for the show.

“I remember attending the event and when a rider had a great go, I would hold back my applause because I didn’t want to startle the horses,” he shared. “But the whole arena would erupt in cheers and I knew that Rebecca would have to get Sergeant Reckless used to sudden noises before she headed to Fort Worth.”

With that advice Rebecca did whatever she could to desensitize her horse. She would trailer her to local events, include obstacles into her training routine, and have her friends and family stand around the arena clapping and cheering for her.

“We would take Sergeant Reckless with us everywhere we went,” Rebecca explained. “If I went to a barrel race, I’d bring her along and tie her up at the trailer to experience different sights and sounds. And when I was done competing, I would try to longe her at the new facility and just let her take in everything that was happening.”

The two were finally starting to trust each other, and Sergeant Reckless became more to Rebecca than just a project she was working with for a competition; she helped Rebecca get through some tough times she was facing in her personal life.

“This little mare was a saving grace for Becca, she kept Becca trucking along during some really hard times,” Tara shared. “There was a lot of stuff going on all at once. Becca’s riding mentor, Art Carranza, was battling cancer and eventually passed away, her horse judging coach was battling cancer, she had just lost her horse Lucy right before getting Sergeant Reckless, and her nana passed away right before the competition.”

Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

Rebecca pushed through the obstacles she faced, both in her training and in her personal life, and managed to keep working toward her end goal of competing. And when the time finally came to walk into the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas, to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, Rebecca could barely contain her excitement.

“In the first event, which was handling and conditioning, I remember walking into the arena and my hands shaking so bad,” she shared. “I had to take Sergeant Reckless into the round pen and turn her loose. I had no idea what she would do when that happened, but when I took her halter off and walked toward the gate, she followed me and waited for me to return. Then we had to load into a trailer, which was a shiny gooseneck trailer, and I wasn’t sure how she’d react because I just had a little stock trailer that I was using, but she walked right in and backed right out without any issues.”

They ended up taking home third place in that event, and it set Rebecca up for success in the other events she would compete in, like in-hand trail where she and Sergeant Reckless took home second place.

However, the moment that to sticks out in Rebecca’s mind most was her freestyle performance. To go with her horse’s name, Rebecca decided to create a freestyle routine with a military theme.

“I wanted to do something special to promote mustangs and honor the original Sergeant Reckless and our military,” she said. “After that performance I had members of the military coming up to me with tears in their eyes telling me how beautiful the performance was and how thankful they were to see it.”

To honor the original Sergeant Reckless, Rebecca created a military-inspired freestyle routine. Photo Courtesy of the Mustang Heritage Foundation

The team ended up taking home second place overall in the youth division of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, but that’s not the only thing Rebecca took home from this event. She learned to believe in herself, and that challenging herself to get out of her comfort zone and try something new was a great way to push herself to become a better rider and horsewoman.

“There’s no instruction manual that works when you’re trying to work with an untouched mustang,” she shared. “Each horse thinks differently. I had to pay attention my horse’s body language, try to understand what she was telling me and work with her that way. I also learned to listen to what others say to me. You might not always agree with their training style, but if you listen you might be able to take something away from that conversation and apply it in a way that fits you.”

At 16 years old, this is only the beginning of Rebecca’s mustang journey. Her love for mustangs is only getting stronger, and she enjoys being able to promote mustangs and share her experiences with other riders who are interested in the competition and mustangs in general. She also hopes to be able to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover again in the future. 

Rebecca says that this experience has changed her outlook on working with horses and that it changed the way she communicates with her horses and reads their body language. Photo Courtesy of the Mustang Heritage Foundation
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