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Hallwood teens tame wild horses
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Five months ago, the Sawaya sisters' horses were galloping across the open plains of Nevada, running wild with their herd and untouched by humans.
Next week, the Hallwood teens hope to dazzle crowds in Fort Worth, Texas, as Shasta sits her equine frame into a chair and Amira passively allows herself to be pulled around by her tail at the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Sierra Sawaya, 18, and Mikaela Sawaya, 17, have worked diligently for the last four months to transform the horses "from wild to willing," putting in five hours a day to turn the yearlings into well-behaved and well-adjusted horses for the national competition.
"We were always horse-crazy girls," Mikaela said. "They are 1,000-pound animals with a mind of their own. I love it." They also knew this challenge would push them to use the most rudimentary of training skills.
"Horses that people raise, there is a huge difference ... They are spoiled brats and it's hard to turn them around," Sierra said. "A wild horse is perfect because they know how to be a horse, so you just have to train them to respect you. I would take a wild horse over one that someone raised any day."
The sisters brought the mustangs home to Yuba County on May 17 and began with the basics.
"The first thing was earning their trust," Mikaela said. "With the babies, they are looking for a leader."
She and Sierra rewarded the yearlings for just paying attention, and then for allowing themselves to be touched. Next came wearing a halter, and then to walk, trot and lope on a lead — all qualities that will be tested in the first round of competition.
The sisters also must perform a pattern of generic horsemanship maneuvers and everyday tasks, such as walking over logs and picking up all four feet. The top 20 competitors will move on to the freestyle competition, where they have 31⁄2 minutes to do whatever they want to music.
"The arena is yours," Sierra said. "You get to show off all the cool moves you have learned."
The Sawaya sisters have fun tricks to flaunt.
Sierra is planning a spoof on the Budweiser Clydesdales, having Shasta drive around the arena to the beer company theme song before stepping all four hooves into a miniature wooden wagon. The cream and tan mustang will also "march" and sit her wide rump onto a chair.
"I just like teaching them something fun and crazy other people don't usually teach their horses," she said as Shasta relaxed Tuesday, her rear hooves dangling off the cushions.
Mikaela planned her freestyle debut to the song "Wildflower," with Amira's chestnut frame draped in flowers. The mustang will then lie on the ground as her trainer stands at her rear, letting out noisy cracks with a whip as the horse does not even flinch.
The Bureau of Land Management and the Mustang Heritage Foundation hold the competition every year to showcase the beauty and trainability of the rugged horses. During the adult competition, trainers have less than 100 days to gentle, halter break and saddle train 3-year-old mustangs, but this is the first year it offered a youth category.
It was Sierra's and Mikaela's mother who gave them the confidence to enter the contest. As the home-school teacher of the sisters and their 10 siblings, Jackie Sawaya said she is a big proponent of hands-on learning.
She was nervous about bringing home wild horses, but Shasta and Amira got quickly acclimated to the slamming doors of a busy household, loud trucks streaming past on Highway 20, and a border collie herding them around the yard.
"They became part of the family," Jackie Sawaya said.
The sisters and their mustangs leave Friday on a solo road trip to Texas, where their mother will fly to meet them. Mikaela and Sierra paid for all expenses on their own, using funds they've raised from training other people's problem horses and bake sales they hosted last week to fund fuel costs.
The grand prize winner will take home $15,000, and the fan favorite wins $4,000. But whether Sierra, Mikaela and their mustangs come home with a prize, the lesson has been invaluable, they said.
With Amira, whose name is Arabic for princess, Mikaela said she had to practice her patience because the yearling is so lazy compared to her speedy other mare.
"She's just bettering who I am," Mikaela said. "It was a lot of hard work but it was definitely worth it."
"A horse can only be as good as you are. If you better yourself it makes it so much easier on the horse," she said. "It's gonna be a lot of fun figuring out how good we did."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.