Mustang Makeover and Bluegrass in Japan

By Leslie Potter | 4/28/19 9:00 AM

People throughout the nation are training thousands of wild mustangs and showing off their skills to help find homes for these beautiful horses; and take a trip to Tokyo to meet with some of bluegrass music’s biggest fans.


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Extreme Mustang Makeover
The Bureau of Land Management is tasked with managing the population of wild horses and burros living on public lands. Approximately 40,000 equines that have been rounded up by the BLM are kept in holding corrals.

“The focus and the mission of the Mustang Heritage Foundation has been to increase the adoption and awareness of wild horses and burros being held in BLM off-range corrals,” says Kali Sublett, executive director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation. “The idea of some sort of training program to get these wild horses trained before adoption – it would be a little easier to get them into a home, assimilate into their barn and be usable. That’s really where Extreme Mustang Makeover came from.”

Competitors in the Extreme Mustang Makeover are paired randomly with a wild horse from a BLM holding area. These horses have never had any training or handling before their trainers bring them home, at which point those trainers have 100 days to teach their mustang what it needs to know.

Even for experienced equestrians, taking on the challenge of a wild horse can be a bit intimidating. For competitor Eva Crossman, a University of Kentucky student, getting started with her Mustang Makeover horse, Rebel, took some time.

“They’re wild horses, and they’ve been through so much that they’re going to be afraid,” she says. “That’s just who they are. But he was very, very insecure. His natural response to me coming near him was to just shake, and so I’m coming into it a little insecure. I’m not that confident. Meanwhile, he’s not at all confident that I should be doing what I’m doing!”

Crossman says that she spent a long time doing ground work with Rebel before attempting to put a saddle on his back for the first time.

“You just sort of take him where he is and go from there and that’s the only fair thing,” she says. “If they’re not ready for you to get on them, it doesn’t matter that everybody else’s [mustang] is. I think that patience felt like failure and it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all. And it’s what ended up making us successful in the end. But it was a hard two weeks.”

For competitor Colton Woods, starting his mustang, Caroline, was a process full of ups and downs.

“She progressed relatively quickly,” says Woods. “We had two rides on her in the first week. When we got in about the second week is when it got kind of tough because she started asking some questions. She started telling me she wasn’t quite okay with what everything was happening, so I spent probably the second week and part of the third week doing everything I did the first week over and over again trying to help her understand. We’ve had to have some conversations between each other about how domesticated life is going to be.

“She’s super smart,” he adds. “We’ve had some really good rides together.”

Trainer Kim Hornsby was also impressed by the mind of her mustang, Shiloh.

“It took him a little while to warm up to us,” she remembers. “We got a first touch on him on the Sunday after we brought him back and got him haltered, and he just really started coming along pretty quick after that. These horses are the most intelligent horses that I’ve ever worked with. It’s amazing how quick that they come along once you start speaking their language.”

Hornsby explains that she lets her horse’s needs dictate where her training will go.

“You read the horse and do what the horse needs,” she says. “That’s a big issue. A lot of people want to follow a program, or they want to follow a step-by-step method, and it just doesn’t work that way with these horses.”

“A lot of people were telling me that mustangs are different than a normal horse,” says competitor Josh Knight. “I didn’t really find that. I just found that they’re a bit more nervous and scared and once you got past that, they’re just like another horse.”

Still, he had to deal with some early challenges with his mustang, Bindi, who was very reactive to certain parts of her training, like feeling weight on the saddle.

“It took her a long time to pick things up,” Knight says. “But once she did, she was really good after that. It just took her time for me to keep going, ‘This is what we need to do.’”

After the 100-day training period is up, contestants arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington to show off what their formerly wild horses can do. Each contestant competes in three classes:

  • Handling and Conditioning, in which the judges watched the contestants catch, lead, groom, and load their horse into a trailer.
  • Maneuvers, where the horses are judged on how well they respond to their riders’ cues.
  • Trail, in which the horses are ridden over and through obstacles similar to what they might encounter on a trail ride.

From there, the top ten go on to the freestyle competition in which the trainers showcase their specialized skills, which can include jumping, cattle work, or trick training, among others.

In the end, it was Josh Knight and Bindi who took the overall championship after their creative and crowd-pleasing freestyle, which was a tribute to Steve Irwin, the late Crocodile Hunter.

The purpose of the Extreme Mustang Makeover is to help get more mustangs out of holding and into loving homes, and so all of the equine competitors are auctioned off at the end of the competition. Some trainers, including Crossman and Hornsby, successfully bid on their own mounts so they can continue their journey together. Other mustangs found new admirers in the Makeover audience. All will go on to become ambassadors for their breed and hopefully encourage more equestrians to consider adopting a mustang of their own.

“There is a lot of satisfaction in getting [Bindi] out of the holding pen and getting the word out that mustangs are actually a good horse to have,” says Knight.

Bluegrass in Japan
Bluegrass music has traveled far from its homeland in Appalachia and its founder, Kentuckian Bill Monroe. It has found footholds of enthusiastic fans around the globe, including in Japan.

“In 1961 when I was in first [year] of university, I heard the FEN – Far East Network – an American Army program on the radio,” says Michio Higashi, a Japanese bluegrass musician. “Me and my friend heard the country music hour ever day, and then we’d pick up one or two bluegrass tunes.”

Higashi says he’d record the songs and then listen to them over and over, learning how to play the tunes by ear.

Saburo Inoue of the Japanese bluegrass band, Bluegrass 45, started learning that style of music as a teenager.

“When I was 14, my brother pushed me to play guitar,” Inoue remembers. “I heard that [bluegrass] sound…I thought, this kind of music really touched the heart of the people. I didn’t know those words in English but I still felt the connection of mountain music and my banjo and bluegrass.”

American bluegrass acts found an appreciative audience when they toured in Japan.

“We went to Japan in 1975,” says musician J.D. Crowe. “We were over there 10 days and I think we played eight concerts. Every one of them was sold out. It was just encore after encore. They wouldn’t let us quit. We had to come back three or four times. That was a great feeling. I really didn’t want to come back to the U.S. after playing in Japan!”

While the roots of bluegrass music in Japan can be found in the 1960s and 70s, there are younger musicians, like Takumi Kodera, who are finding their niche in bluegrass.

“Early on, I was influenced by Earl Scruggs and started playing banjo bluegrass all the time,” says Kodera. “Later I encountered Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, and people like them influenced me. People like me, while still following the authentic bluegrass traditions, feel like we’d like to create something new.”

“I wish Bill Monroe could still be alive to see how what he started back in the 1940s has become this large, international music form,” says John Lawless, editor of Bluegrass Today. “And he did live long enough to see that start. And he saw Japanese musicians. He toured in Japan and in Europe, but I’m sure even though he might say he knew it all along, he couldn’t imagine that [it was] going to be everywhere.”