The graduates

(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Trainer Robert Begay of Window Rock, executes a trick with mustang, Rocky, to lie down during the compulsory maneuvers competition at the Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Dine College rodeo grounds on Saturday in Tsaile, Ariz.

Made-over mustangs strut their stuff in Tsaile

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TSAILE, Ariz., Aug. 18, 2011

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Trainer Carlos Chee, of Tsaile, Ariz., maneuvers a bow with mustang, The Gambler, in the Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Dine College rodeo grounds. Chee placed 5th among the 22 trainers who competed in the three-day event.

Just three short months ago, they were wild stallions roaming the BLM range. They had never tasted hay nor felt the touch of a human hand.

Top 10 trainers at Mustang Makeover

Here are the trainers who placed in the top 10 at last weekend's Extreme Mustang Makeover held in Tsaile, Ariz.:

1st - 94 points - Jed Austin Mayfield of Tucson, on EZ

2nd - 88.5 points - Frank DeSpain of Cedar Mountain, Utah, on Clyde

3rd - 88 points - Jennifer Earnest of Silt, Colo., on Claude

4th - 84 points - Bonnie Tyree of Skull Valley, Ariz., on Topcat's Treasure

5th - 77 points - Carlos Chee of Lukachukai, Ariz., on The Gambler

6th - 72.5 points - Gene Shepherd of Chambers, Ariz., on Taxi

7th - 72 points - Boyd Brodie of Pinedale, N.M. on Midnight

8th - 66.5 points - Wesley Coates of Gunnison, Utah, on 44 Magnum

9th - 58.5 points - Charles R. Chee of Lukachukai, on Butterfly

10th - 50 points - Gabrielle Garagozzo of Peoria, Ariz., on My Little Buddy

Also competing were Marshall Allen of Prewitt, N.M.; Robin Bailey of Las Vegas, Nev.; Robert Begay of Window Rock; Ross Begay of Navajo, N.M.; Gilbert Chee of Tsaile; Joe Kee of Navajo; Coni Lehr of Minden, Nev.; and Aaron Smith-Tayson of Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif.

Smith-Tayson was awarded a Pendleton shawl by the Navajo Nation for having come the farthest for the competition.

Last Saturday, there they were in the Diné College rodeo arena, lying down and rolling over like trained dogs, letting their trainers stand on their backs to shoot a gun or crack a bullwhip.

And yet, once in a while, they let the wild shine through. Trainer Gilbert Chee sported a huge shiner, courtesy of his charge, Ruby Red Starlight. And Gabrielle Garagozzo's project, My Little Buddy, decided he had had enough and wasn't having any part of the beautiful patriotic routine Garagozzo had choreographed for him. Garagozzo was forced to do something very unpatriotic and drop the huge American flag she was carrying in the dirt so she could focus on controlling her mount.

This event has all the thrill of dressage combined with the gritty drama of reality TV. Welcome to the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Navajo style.

For the first time ever, the Mustang Heritage Foundation's semi-annual horse training competition was held on Indian land Aug. 12-14.

It wasn't a moneymaker for the mustang rescue nonprofit, but it did spread awareness and allowed some excellent Diné trainers to strut their stuff.

"We'll find a way to come back," promised the foundation's executive director, Patti Colbert.

In spite of the disappointing turnout - only 17 of the original 26 trainers showed up, and on-and-off thunderstorms made for a sparse crowd - she pronounced the event "fabulous."

"We got all 17 horses wonderful homes, and we got a home, too," declared the feisty grey-haired Texan, who won the hearts of the Navajo trainers by returning their good-humored teasing.

The trained mustangs were auctioned off Sunday in an event almost as dramatic as the competition. Some tough old cowboys broke down as they put their pet projects on the auction block.

Even Robert Begay, who confessed his horse Rocky "didn't like me at all" when they first met, had a hard time letting him go.

Most of the horses fetched a lot less than the $700 reimbursement the foundation had paid the trainers - indeed, several of the trainers used their reimbursement to bid on their mounts and ended up taking them home.

But the audience learned what three months of intensive training can do for a horse, and several vowed to go home and work harder with their own steeds.

Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim encouraged the crowd in Navajo.

"We have a lot of horses running around not being used," he said. "You need to ride and take care of your horses."

With contestants coming from as far away as California, the eight Diné trainers were great ambassadors for the Navajo Nation.

"We've been kind of overwhelmed by the hospitality," said the foundation's marketing director, Jennifer Hancock. "The Navajo people have been more than welcoming, and so gracious."

In return, the Nation got some good exposure. Several of the foundation employees took time to visit Canyon de Chelly, and posted pictures on the event's Facebook page.

"We have 17,000 Facebook fans, so you got lots of good publicity," Hancock said.

After competing in handling, an obstacle course, trail riding and "freestyle," in which the trainer could show off any extra tricks he had taught his horse, four Navajos placed in the top 10, including Charles R. Chee, the Tsaile rancher and trainer who had convinced Colbert to bring the event to the Navajo Nation.

Chee placed 9th in the event, four places behind his son, Carlos, but he didn't seem too fazed by it.

"I didn't even expect to make it to the top 10," he said. "I was just having fun. I'm glad Carlos did so well. I'm proud of him."

Even when it wasn't between family members, the competition was surprisingly friendly. When Garagozzo's horse balked at the gate, her competitors herded him into the arena.

"It could have happened to any of us," shrugged Charles Chee. "These horses are that way."

Observed Hancock, "I've been involved in horse events all my life, and they can get pretty cutthroat. I've never seen one like this. The trainers share tips and even equipment. It's all about the horses, and our trainers are so on board with that."

While training tips were exchanged all around, the non-Navajo participants also learned a bit about Diné culture. Begay described how, when his horse wouldn't have anything to do with him, he sent his wife into the pasture.

Rocky finally turned the corner when the missus performed a little ceremony on him.

"She inhaled some mountain tobacco and blew it into his nostrils," recalled Begay. "She told him, 'You're going to be somebody's good, good horse.'"

That was probably a new one on the Extreme Mustang folks.

If you didn't get enough of watching finely trained horses this past weekend, be sure to check out the Chees' Cowboy Ranch Horse Competition on Aug. 28 (call Charles Chee at 505 612-8679 for information) or the Ultimate Ranch Cowboy Horse Competition on Sept. 4 in Crystal, N.M. (505-777-2009).

Or, make your way down to Fort Worth, Texas, for the next Makeover event Sept. 15, 16 and 17. Colbert promised every attendee at the Tsaile event a free ticket.


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