Running Wild: Mustang Maddy

Madison Shambaugh helps horses and humans improve their communication—lessons she’s learned from her mustangs.
Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

Fresh off teaching a weeklong wild horse gentling clinic at a mustang sanctuary in Colorado, Madison Shambaugh returned to cell-phone reception. For the last two-and-a-half years, the clinician has been touring North America to teach clinics with her band of well-trained mustangs—and a couple of zebras. Today, she’s taking a break at her home base in Ridgway, Colorado, and reflecting on her whirlwind journey, from Midwestern horse-crazy kid to pre-pharmacy student to becoming “Mustang Maddy.”

Madison Shambaugh helps horses and humans improve their communication— lessons she’s learned from her mustangs. 

Madison Shambaugh helps horses and humans improve their communication—
lessons she’s learned from her mustangs. 

Learning the Hard Way

Born and raised in northeastern Indiana, Madison is the middle child of three sisters. Her older sister started taking riding lessons and eventually Madison was old enough to join her. Growing up, the Shambaughs split time between Indiana, where Madison’s dad, Mark, worked, and Colorado, where the family loved spending time in the mountains. In both locations, Madison gravitated toward horses, and by age 10, she’d bugged her parents enough to get a horse of her own. But it was far from being the fairytale she’d hoped for.

“The first horse we got had tons of issues—I got bucked off all the time,” Madison says. “So my dad got me a green-broke 2-year-old, but she was a flashy Paint and that’s why I wanted her. She liked to go fast, and I thought barrel racing would be good for her. So that was another disaster.”

Finally, Madison hooked up with a trained barrel horse named Joker. He could win at the local barrel race… if you could get him in the trailer… and once at the show, if you could get him in the pen.

Madison's dual-purpose mission—to understand horses and humans and help them relate to each other—allows her to produce clinics (like the one this summer in Colorado) as well as share educational videos.  

Madison's dual-purpose mission—to understand horses and humans and help them relate to each other—allows her to produce clinics (like the one this summer in Colorado) as well as share educational videos.  

“I had people telling me to blindfold him, to chase him with plastic bags—just do anything to get him into the arena,” Madison recalls. “Finally, I’d had enough. I really wanted to understand what the problem was, because I was pretty sure it was me. Once I took responsibility for that and invested in my education, that’s when I started to see results. And that was the beginning of everything.”

From a young age, Madison had devoured every book or video she could find about horses and horsemanship. She was inspired by liberty work demonstrations by Stacy Westfall and Guy McLean. She started riding even more—green horses, colts, project horses—everything she could climb aboard. By her junior year of high school, she was taking in horses for training.

“I’ve always been fascinated by human and horse behavior: Knowing why horses do what they do, why people do what they do, and what drives them,” Madison says. “The bumpy start I had—I think that caused me to look more closely at horse behavior.”

She strives to help humans understand what horses need to thrive. 

She strives to help humans understand what horses need to thrive. 

Making Connections

Madison enrolled in equine science at Colorado State University, intending to become a horse trainer. But after her first semester, battling self-doubt in her ability to make it as a trainer, she decided to pursue a more traditional career—with horses as a hobby—and enrolled at Purdue University in Indiana to study pre-pharmacy.

In 2014, Madison broke her leg, and she was laid up in bed for months.

While she was recovering, she audited several training clinics held in her area. Using the studying skills she’d acquired during her rigorous pharmacy courses, she applied those techniques to the subject she was most passionate about—horse training.

“It began with seeing the common threads,” Madison says. “One of the ways I learned in pre-pharmacy school was by finding connections instead of trying to memorize a bunch of different variables. So I’d make concept maps to visually see how things were connected. I did the same thing with horses. I drew out a concept map with five bubbles coming out of horse training principles. And the formula checked out across every program.”

These early discoveries in the importance of connections laid a foundation for the principles upon which Madison built her horse-training philosophy.

Soon, Madison changed course again, focusing back on horse training. She’s now pursuing a degree in communication from Purdue, an area of study that helps with both horse and human interactions. She felt that by only working with horses, she was treating symptoms and missing a way to really make a difference in a horse’s life.

“Instead of only training horses, I wanted to train people, and studying communications really helps,” Madison says. “It turns out there are many parallels between human-to-human communication and horse-to-human communications.”

Madison’s rocky start with horses as a child didn’t deter her horse-crazy spirit. Instead it led her to immerse herself in horse and human behavior. She’s now a role model for fans who follow her on social media as well as those who attend her clinics to improve their own horsemanship. 

Madison’s rocky start with horses as a child didn’t deter her horse-crazy spirit. Instead it led her to immerse herself in horse and human behavior. She’s now a role model for fans who follow her on social media as well as those who attend her clinics to improve their own horsemanship. 

Launching ‘Mustang Maddy’

In 2013, 18-year-old Madison got her first wild horse, planning to eventually compete in an Extreme Mustang Makeover. In these competitions, each trainer selects and gentles a wild mustang in 100 days to ultimately showcase each horse’s abilities in an exciting arena performance, with the goal of encouraging wild horse adoptions.

Madison honed and solidified her philosophies about communicating with horses while continuing to train difficult projects. In 2015, she entered her first Extreme Mustang Makeover, winning the Young Guns, Rookie, and Freestyle champion titles. Her bridleless freestyle video went viral after Stacy Westfall shared it, ultimately opening doors for Madison to tour and conduct clinics. She’s competed every year since, earning the 2016 Freestyle champion title and the 2017 Mustang Magic champion title.

“I love their raw, untamed spirit,” Madison says of the mustangs. “And you have to have so much more sensitivity in the animal—mentally, emotionally, and physically.”

Madison says wild horses are a challenge, but she respects their raw energy and what they’ve taught her.

“Mustangs and zebras are equines with very strong instincts,” Madison says. “I learned a lot about fear, how animals process fear, how we store it in our bodies, how to prevent trauma, and how to help resolve trauma once it’s occurred. Working with these animals caused me to be so much more sensitive to any changes in their energy and in my own energy.”

With credentials cemented in training all kinds of horses, she began to focus her efforts on both horses and humans.

Madison has a documentary film produced about how she trained her mustang, Amira, without any ropes or tack. She’s been sharing her insights about training on her Facebook subscription group, where she posts videos several times a week and hosts live Q&A sessions. Through these avenues, she’s gained a following online. Her Facebook page has 93,000 followers, and she has nearly 19,000 on Instagram. Her Facebook videos have recieved more than 15 million views.

In 2015, when an opportunity arose to hold a clinic on the East Coast, she jumped at the chance. But it was only the beginning of a very long road trip.

Hitting the Road

Over the last two-plus years, Madison traveled from Indiana to the East Coast and then headed west. She stayed at her parents’ place in Colorado for a month, then toured the Northwest and on into Canada before returning to Indiana. Then last winter, she rented a place in Arizona for three months. In all, she toured 12 states and Canada.

“I really didn’t have a home; I was totally living on the road,” Madison says.

Away from home, she mainly stays in her living-quarters trailer, or in spare guest rooms of gracious clinic hosts. The road presents unique challenges, when you’re traveling with up to five mustangs and two zebras. While it’s an adventure seeing new locations all the time, Madison says just actually loading the horses can take 45 minutes.

“Living with horses on the road, there’s a lot of planning to keep track of, and it’s hard to have any kind of relationship—whether it’s romantic or just friendships,” Madison says. “You’re never home, never in one area long enough. It’s harder than you might expect.”

As her tour schedule filled and logistics grew more complicated, Madison brought on a manager, and interns help share the workload. Today, she has five staff members.

“It really takes a team of people working together to put a vision like this into practice,” Madison says.

Longtime friend Allison Young has collaborated with Madison for several years and went with her on portions of her tour.

“She always tries to change things up or try something new, and she always talks me into trying new things,” Allison says. “I think it’s really exciting to be around her.”

Becoming a Role Model

Claire Walsh began following Madison’s work in 2015, attending one of her clinics in the fall of 2016. Last summer, Claire interned with Madison, and she counts the time as a huge opportunity for learning.

“It was a really great experience for me as a young person, just trying to learn about working with horses, discovering yourself, and exploring your boundaries,” the Texas A&M biomedical sciences sophomore says. “She was a great mentor—still is—and I really admire her.”

The young buckaroo with blue eyes and blonde hair has carved a place in the clinician world beside men who are decades older than her. Her sensitivity toward horses and her savvy toward human interaction have set her apart from her peers in a unique way. Her calm, confident manner as she strives to understand the horse resonates with her audience.

“There’s a lot of young women who come up to my booth at horse fairs and tell their stories about how they were inspired by the work I’m doing with mustangs and how it gives them courage to see another girl they can relate to, out here doing this,” Madison says. “I’m very passionate about inspiring and empowering other women. It’s a really neat opportunity and a very large responsibility, and I hope to build programs to help them.”

Throughout her clinics, like one held in Midlothian, Texas, last fall, Madison not only demonstrates her communication with the horses themselves, but while teaching, keeps up an easy dialogue with the horse handlers as she guides them through working with their own horses. She’s approachable and positive, and attendees respond positively to her tutelage.

“Madison’s just really honest, and she always goes out of her way to help people and help horses,” Claire says. “She’s the same positive person to be around all the time. No matter what’s going on, she has a good outlook on things, and she’s always looking at the other side of things, not focusing on the negative. She’s not going to be beat down by something.”

When asked for advice on following her footsteps, Madison extols the value of hands-on experience, selecting good clients—and most of all—maintaining a curiosity for education.

Madison recognizes that training mustangs poses a bigger challenge than working with domestic breeds might, but she welcomes the lessons she’s learned from them. “I love their raw, untamed spirit,” she says. “And you have to have so much more sensitivity to the animal.” 

Madison recognizes that training mustangs poses a bigger challenge than working with domestic breeds might, but she welcomes the lessons she’s learned from them. “I love their raw, untamed spirit,” she says. “And you have to have so much more sensitivity to the animal.” 

“Develop a beginner’s mindset—never stop learning,” Madison says. “Try to learn from every horse, and always seek out learning opportunities from other successful trainers, whether it be a training book/video/course or an internship program.”

Both women said Madison follows her own advice and she spends a great deal of time listening to audiobooks and podcasts related to communication, learning styles, horses, business, and current events, particularly while driving down the road or while doing chores.

Allison turned to Madison for advice on both horse training and business, and eventually started her own equine boutique. She says Madison gave her the push to pursue her dream, and seeing how Madison handled mishaps on the road—like nearly running out of fuel in Montana or unbalanced air pressure in the trailer—encourages her to keep going when obstacles are thrown her way.

“Even if you’ve everything going for you, at the end of the day, it’s really about how hard you have worked,” Allison says. “And even if you work really hard, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. You can’t give up on everything you’re doing because you run into something bad that happens to you.”

The Next Step

Earlier this spring, Madison landed in Ridgway, 40 minutes from where her parents live. She plans to stay put for a little while, so she can focus on developing online programs around her training theories. Her hope is to make her training easy-to-follow, in step-by-step format, and available to everyone.

Though she’s glad to be home, Madison’s eyes are on the horizon. In the future, she hopes to return to touring more of the East Coast. But for now, she’s eyeing her next training projects, planning content for her membership group, and expanding her knowledge whenever she can.

“It’s now a team effort, and we’ll continue to evolve and develop,” Madison says. “I’ve heard a quote that goes like this: ‘If your dream is too big for you to accomplish alone, that’s when you know you’re on to something.’ So teamwork is the next big thing for me—to be open to and accepting of support.”

Follow ‘Mustang Maddy’! Learn more about Madison and connect with her community at mustangmaddy.com. There you can join her secret Facebook group and get exclusive access to training videos, materials, and support. You can also find her on Instagram, @mustangmaddy.

Related