WHEELOCK — Thanks to the care and perseverance of his teen trainer, Flannel is getting an Extreme Mustang Makeover.
The wild, nearly 2-year-old colt had little human contact before he met Wisteria Franklin, a 15-year-old Wheelock resident and St. Johnsbury Academy freshman. They first met in mid-March and Flannel was skittish, avoiding contact with Franklin. Today, he walks in step with her and gently nuzzles against her.
The duo is preparing to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, scheduled for June 25-27. Franklin and the other competitors have been given 100 days to get their horses from wild to mild. In a conversation with Franklin and her family outside their home near the townline with Lyndon Friday morning, they were anticipating the trip to the big competition stage at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. By Friday afternoon, plans had changed.
“The Extreme Mustang Makeover Kentucky slated for June 25-27 will now be a virtual event,” states the event’s web page. “The Mustang Heritage Foundation made the difficult decision to move from an in-person to virtual event in order to ensure the health and safety of trainers, owners and fans, and remain in compliance with COVID-19 reopening plans determined by the state of Kentucky.”
The news is a disappointment to Franklin, but she said she will continue with the plan to put Flannel’s transformation on display in a virtual space. “We’re going to do what they say, but it’s really a bummer,” she said.
Taking possession of a wild mustang is the fulfillment of a desire Franklin uttered to her mother as a 4-year-old in China. The family spent three years there as her parents, Chris and MidiAna Bilik-Franklin, served as English teachers ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The only thing Franklin remembers about the Olympics is a portion of the Opening Ceremony, but she does remember seeing a horse competition on TV that started her on the path that brought her to the role of wild mustang trainer.
Bilik-Franklin, her mom, said she didn’t have to worry too much at the time about her daughter training a wild horse since a child must be 8 years old to enter the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition. But when Franklin reached the age she could compete and she still had the desire, her mom identified a new way to at least delay the pairing of mustang and daughter. She told Franklin that if she could raise the money to buy the panels needed to ensure a wild mustang can’t jump the fence, then she could apply for the Mustang Makeover challenge. Franklin raised the money, the panels were purchased and mom agreed.
“You just have to support your kids and their dreams,” said Bilik-Franklin.
Still the family isn’t taking any chances with this particular dream fulfillment. Franklin’s sister, Indigo Griffith, said Franklin can’t work with the horse unless she’s wearing a helmet.
“He started off insanely wild, rearing and kicking,” said Franklin.”I’ve had some scary moments.”
Franklin said she’s spent a lot of time working with Flannel, a name she chose while in an Amish shop along the trip to Ohio to meet her mustang and complete registration. She also got assistance from a veteran mustang trainer in Rhode Island the family met through social media. That help was a significant break-through, said Griffith.
“He went from being afraid to letting Wisteria brush him in three days,” she said. “It went from nothing to everything in three days.”
Now the training is more focused on tasks Franklin and Flannel need to show during the challenge. There will be a handling & conditioning class, a pattern class, a combined trail class and freestyle class. For the freestyle, Wisteria is working Flannel in a routine to the theme song from the movie Ghostbusters.
The winner of the competition gets $3,000, but Franklin isn’t setting her sights that high. “It’s my first challenge,” she said. “I want to be top 10. It’s either go big or go home and at the moment it’s kind of go big at home.”
According to information from Extreme Mustang Makeover 2020, the purpose of the competition is to showcase the beauty, versatility and trainability of wild horses. Mustangs roam freely on public lands throughout the West, where they are protected by the Bureau of Land Management under federal law. The BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program periodically removes excess animals from the range to ensure herd health and protect rangeland resources. Thousands of the removed animals are then made available each year to the public for adoption or purchase. Over 13,000 mustangs have been placed into private care through Mustang Heritage Foundation events and programs since 2007.
Flannel was gathered in August 2018 from the Nevada Wild Horse Range.
Bilik-Franklin said she appreciates the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s efforts with the wild mustangs and the competition that includes youth trainers.
“Even a teenager can take a wild horse and gentle it and make it a useful horse to be loved by somebody,” she said.
Franklin said she doesn’t know how long Flannel will be hers. It’s possible that the competition could lead to interest in someone looking to buy him. As she continues to develop a bond with flannel, Franklin said he may be hard to part with if a buyer shows interest.
“I might be a little attached,” she said.
For more information about the Mustang Heritage Foundation visit online at mustangheritagefoundation.org.