Horse trainer wins state competition after taming wild mustang

From out of the wild came a champion

Sharla Wilson and River Dance, a wild mustang that Wilson trained in 100 days to win Extreme Mustang Makeover-Arizona, share a tender moment. Wilson received $7,000 in prize money and half of River Dance’s adoption price of $3,000. A new owner, who lives in New York, is paying Wilson to keep the horse for a year and continue to train him. JC AMBERLYN/Miner

Sharla Wilson and River Dance, a wild mustang that Wilson trained in 100 days to win Extreme Mustang Makeover-Arizona, share a tender moment. Wilson received $7,000 in prize money and half of River Dance’s adoption price of $3,000. A new owner, who lives in New York, is paying Wilson to keep the horse for a year and continue to train him. JC AMBERLYN/Miner

KINGMAN - When Sharla Wilson picked up the mustang horse in January that she would spend the next 100 days training, she wasn't sure what she'd gotten herself into.

Wilson, 35, had applied to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest where trainers are given a mustang to gentle and ride. Wilson, a Kingman resident, received River Dance, a brown, 4-year-old gelding sent from Desatoya, Nev., to Queen Creek where she hauled a horse trailer to round up her new charge.

The horse, which stands 14.5 hands, or 58 inches, tall at the withers, or bottom of the mane, was wild and wouldn't let her touch him at first. He was the fourth mustang she had applied for and received - two she sold, and the other she gave to a friend after keeping them all the required year.

But this horse was different. Not only was he afraid of people, River Dance would spend just 100 days with Wilson before being adopted out to a new owner. Wilson, who has worked with horses in 4-H and rodeos since she was 12, could see that her work was cut out for her.

"When I got him, he was skinny and he peed all the time," said Wilson. "The vet found out that he had a urinary tract infection. And River Dance didn't want to move, because his hooves had been trimmed too short and they hurt. So I had shoes put on him. I didn't actually start riding him until late February to give him a chance to heal."

Fast-forward to April 24-25, when Wilson rode River Dance in Extreme Mustang Makeover - Arizona, in Horseshoe Park and Equestrian Center in Queen Creek. The pair won first place in the statewide competition, with Wilson bringing home $7,000 in winnings and half of River Dance's $3,000 adoption fee.

The new owner also said she would pay Wilson to keep River Dance for a year and continue training him until he moves to New York. For Wilson, who had grown fond of the equine, that was the icing on the cake.

In the 100 days she trained him, River Dance had matured from a horse that kicked Wilson in the chest the first time she tried to pet him on the shoulder to a docile animal that responded to her every command and came to her when she whistled. He also had gained 200 pounds under her care.

"He's so friendly and the easiest to train with the least amount of riding," said Wilson, who already owns three horses that are stabled at her parents' house in Kingman. "He has a great attitude and wants to do what you ask of him. He's just a lot of fun."

River Dance's training began with lunchtime visits from Wilson, who works at the Mohave County Treasurers Office. She would tie him out while she ate lunch, and spend time saddling and unsaddling him.

After work, she would tie him out again while she brushed him, held his hooves and picked out the mud, placed and removed his halter and generally got River Dance used to being touched and moved. Finally, she began to ride him.

That routine included 10 minutes of trotting the horse, 10 minutes of loping him and another period of walking him. They also worked on body control, such as turn-arounds, slide stops and basic changes in direction.

Wilson said she taught River Dance how to back up, as well as walk up to a gate, wait while she opens it, walk through it, and turn around so she can close it. The horse is so sensitive to unspoken commands that Wilson only has to shift her weight in the saddle to get River Dance to turn.

The weekend of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, which takes place in various states, she trailered the horse to Queen Creek for the competition. The event was presented by the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program as a way to adopt out wild horses and burros.

She and River Dance participated in three sessions, beginning with basic maneuvering. There, they trotted, loped and changed directions. The next session was conditioning and handling, which involved brushing the horse, picking up his feet, calling him to her and loading him in a trailer.

The last session was trail class, where River Dance walked around objects, dragged a log and opened and closed a gate. When it was over, Wilson's name was called as the second out of the top 10, which advanced her to the finals.

The previous scores were cleared and the competition began. This time, Wilson and River Dance came in first, with a score of 150.5 points. The second-place winner racked up 137 points.

"It's like a miracle," said Wilson. "I know I worked so hard with River Dance, but it's still hard to believe that I won. We were the second of the 10 to compete, and I was so nervous that I couldn't watch the others after me. But he really was so good and I was so proud."

Wilson said the transformation and amount of growth River Dance has gone through since she got him is incredible. And she reached her own personal goals, said Wilson, which is important to someone like her who thrives on living a goal-oriented life.

"All my dreams came true in one weekend and I conquered my goals," said Wilson. "We won the competition, I got a financial bonus and I get to ride him for a year. I'll miss him when he goes, but my ultimate goal is for him to have a good home and an owner who treats him great."