It was just a children's blue wading pool, barely bigger than a bathtub, but Cliff Schadt Jr.'s mustang planted his feet wide, balking at moving forward.
His mount feared the pool, objecting to Schadt's attempt to expose him to things human, and when the mustang kicked dirt on it, the "plop" against plastic made him bolt.
Schadt chuckled because he's used to horses' quirks -- breaking them is in his DNA.
"If there was ever a call in my life, it was the call of the horse," said Schadt, 35.
The Mattituck native, who worked as a cowboy in Montana, Wyoming and several other Western states, has taken on the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a challenge to turn a wild mustang into a trained, human-friendly horse in less than 100 days. The program was started in 2007 by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit, to find homes for some of the tens of thousands of mustangs rounded up in the federal government's ongoing effort to balance horses' needs with other uses for public land, including space for cattle to graze.
The makeover highlights the modern saga of what some call an American legend. Most captured mustangs aren't adopted because they don't have much training and contact with people. They live in short-term facilities or long-term pastures in several states outside the Northeast, including Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Mississippi, overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which conducts the roundups.
Schadt saw all this firsthand as a cowboy for 16 years and empathized with the mustangs. He knew other cowboys who had competed in the makeover and took the challenge after finding sponsors this year.
"My best teachers in life have been horses," said Schadt, who also is a riding instructor. "They've taught me the value of hard work. I really feel I owe it to these horses . . . to help these mustangs, give them the best shot they can have."
Ready for the competition
As part of the makeover challenge, Schadt and his mustang, Lost Cowboy, plan to strut their stuff Friday and Saturday in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, at one of several contests the Mustang Heritage Foundation organizes each year. The duo will compete for up to $10,000 against other regional trainers. At the end of the competition, each mustang will be auctioned off.
The run-up to the showdown has been like a bit of the West playing out at Diamond Hedge Farm, a Holtsville stable where Schadt is the trainer and Lost Cowboy is kept.
It's been a culture shock for the mustang that once roamed the mountainous area straddling California and Nevada before he was taken in a roundup Aug. 13, 2010.
Schadt's wild one arrived in Holtsville on May 16, after a two-day road journey from an Illinois holding facility. Dusty and sweaty, and big for a mustang, he kicked his trailer one last time, then bounded out into the corral.
Lost Cowboy sniffed the Eastern soil and stared at nearby horses. The left side of his neck displays silvery symbols -- a cold-freeze, government brand to indicate his age, the state where he was captured and other data.
"We're all witnessing a real piece of history, a real piece of the American West," Schadt told an assemblage that included the sponsors who pay for the mustang's keep, care and training.
On hand were Dawn Orlando, the stable owner, and Scott Pavick and Kevin Harney, construction firm executives who launched a clothing line this year called Lost Cowboy.
Schadt started his training regimen by using a flag, a long flexible wire topped by a bit of fabric, as a long arm to move the horse and desensitize him to touch.
He is a disciple of the "natural horsemanship" method, also known as "horse whispering." Trainers try to be the "herd leader" and build a rapport with techniques based on horses' instincts, their need to be with other horses and how they establish hierarchy in the herd. Pressure-and-release tactics are used; for example, a trainer pumps his legs against the horse's sides to get it moving, then stops once the horse follows through.
And when Lost Cowboy tried to turn left away from the wading pool, Schadt pulled the reins to the right. His hands were busy in a tug-of-war, relaxing the reins when the horse stopped trying to move from the pool or ventured a sniff.
Schadt had to control the mustang's feet if he wanted to be the top horse.
"When you look at two stallions fighting, when you look at a mare and a group of horses, whoever makes the other move their feet, either move away or speed up or slow down the feet, that's the boss," Schadt said.
The day Lost Cowboy came, Schadt got him trotting around the corral by stroking his legs with the flag.
Within three hours of the mustang's arrival, Schadt had passed a milestone by riding him bareback.
At one point, he lightly rubbed Lost Cowboy's forehead, then moved his hand smoothly across his neck to snip a tag from the bridle. It said "1771," a government ID number.
"That was the horse's name up until 15 minutes ago," Schadt said.
Before he was 1771, Lost Cowboy was in the Twin Peaks herd, which had access to 800,000 acres of public land near Susanville, a former mining and logging town in northeast California.
The last roundup there was in 2010, when 1,639 horses and 160 burros were taken in daily operations from Aug. 11 to Sept. 20, federal officials said.
On the third morning, the horse that would be named Lost Cowboy was "gathered" with 85 other animals, the bureau said. Such roundups, with helicopters overhead, have been controversial.
Some in the West consider the mustangs pests and competitors for grazing land. Horses have been hurt in vehicle accidents and starved when the herd grew too big for the land to support.
Critics say contraception is a better option than striking fear in horses and breaking up herds. Horses are social animals.
Starting this month, "American Mustang," a docudrama that is critical of the roundup process, can be seen at a limited number of theaters. The footage shows some close-ups of horses panicking and dying of injuries.
Life on the range
As of July 30, about 41,000 wild horses roamed free in 10 Western states, including Arizona, Wyoming and Oregon, but more than 46,000 were in captivity, the bureau said. The mustang is no longer a novelty in the West, so the federal agency is trying to stage more auctions and adoption events outside the region.
"We're not able to get the interest that we get on the East Coast," said bureau spokesman Tom Gorey.
Over the months, Lost Cowboy has been exposed to all sorts of objects -- from a white pole to a large exercise ball -- and experiences, including dental work and treatment for allergies. He has traveled as the demonstration horse in riding classes Schadt teaches and has helped rope cattle.
He knows his name, loves carrots and learns to look for treats in the mornings from Orlando, the stable owner.
"It's like going to another planet," Schadt said of Lost Cowboy.
Like the mustang, Schadt has had his own grueling journey.
At 16, he took a 50-hour bus trip to Missouri after his carpenter father and horse-trainer mother reluctantly gave their blessings.
"I think they saw unless I channeled what my passion was, if I just sat around Mattituck, I probably would have gotten in trouble," Schadt said.
What he wanted was a gypsy life on the range, working at each ranch for six months or so before moving on.
"I absorbed what they had to teach me, then I was ready to go and see new country and new places and new horses," Schadt said. "That was my plan, to learn and put my leg across the backs of as many horses as possible.
"I roamed far and wide, but I was never lost. I didn't necessarily know where I was going next, but I always knew where I wanted to be."
Beyond moving masses of cattle to fresh pastures -- up to 15 hours a day for $100 -- he specialized in starting the training of a horse, the first rough 30 days or so.
But the demand for cowboys and trainers there was not what it once was, so in 2012, Schadt left Montana and returned to Long Island, where jobs have been easier to find.
Getting to know you
Lately, after a full day's work, there's been no dinner and a movie but class with Lost Cowboy, a horse he'll remember fondly for a "quirk" that tested his patience.
For example, the mustang took to the saddle on his third day but had a change of mind weeks later, Schadt said.
"Something he saw day in and day out for weeks, he would all of a sudden decide, 'Gee, I don't like that anymore,' " he said. "To be totally comfortable with something, then come out the next day and be snorting and act like it was a bogey monster that was going to kill him, that's pretty quirky."
But Lost Cowboy taught him that some horses can handle a lot of stress in training without mentally breaking down, Schadt said.
If another wild one came along, he said, he'd do the makeover challenge again.
Lost Cowboy respects him, Schadt said, while domesticated horses tend to regard humans as servants who clean stables, bring water and hand out goodies: "They see you as treat dispensers," he said.
The two cowboys, man and horse, have led Schadt and a friend to pen a song called "Lost Cowboy," one that might be sung live by his friend as Schadt and Lost Cowboy compete in Pennsylvania.
"It's about a cowboy just living out his dream, going down the road, chasing what he loves," Schadt said.
TAKE A MUSTANG HOME
Mustangs, including some already trained, can be adopted online or in person at holding facilities, auctions or traveling adoption events.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees wild mustangs, plans to set up more auction and adoption events outside the West, while the nonprofit Mustang Heritage Foundation wants to hold more mustang showcases on the East Coast.
The average adoption fee is $125, and potential owners must meet certain conditions, including requirements on shelters and transport trailers.
The bureau retains ownership of the adopted horse in the first year. During this time, the adopter may not sell the mustang and should expect a federal official or a local expert, such as a veterinarian or a humane official, to make a checkup visit.
If all goes well after a year, the bureau sends the adopter a title application on the horse.