AZLE — Reed Ludwig knew right away the animal he wanted as he surveyed the milling herd of 60 wild mustangs.The smallest yearling caught the boy’s eye.This untamed black horse was a sad sight, so malnourished that its spine and ribs were visible. Its hip bones stood out, sharp as corners of a tabletop.But the 11-year-old liked the unusual white marking on the animal’s face — a jagged streak that reminded him of an electrical bolt stitching a night sky.“Lightning,” Reed said, naming the horse even before the bidding again.In April Richard and Kim Ludwig brought Reed and daughter, Morgan, 15, to Fort Worth for the Million Mustang adoption/auction. With their parents’ consent, each child wanted to adopt an “untouched” mustang. Their hope was to find two wild horses, property of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to call their own.The kids had made a pledge to their parents. They promised to devote the summer — 120 days to be exact — to the daunting task of gentling and training the animals in preparation for the Mustang Million, a prestigious national competition developed by the Mustang Heritage Foundation.The Mustang Million, which offers $1 million in cash and prizes, will be staged at Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth on Sept. 16-21.Youths, ages 8-17, compete with their yearlings, with $10,000 awarded the overall champion.‘It’s a good thing we got him’The Ludwigs weren’t prepared to invest a fortune in this educational enterprise.They knew the bidding for some mustangs can get as wild as the horses themselves, with the price galloping into the thousands.Bidding started at $200. Lightning sold for $225.“It’s a good thing we got him,” Kim Ludwig said, recalling the day this adventure began. “He [Reed] would have been heart-broke.”Like her brother, Morgan also got the horse she carefully picked out, and wanted most, for about the same price.She called the pretty bay Miss Priss.Satisfied, smiling with shared anticipation, this close-knit family loaded up the skittish animals which had been running with other wild horses in Oklahoma since they were babies. Truck and trailer headed west, toward home just outside of Azle. They reached the welcoming sight of a 20-acre fenced pasture where the Ludwigs tend to nine other horses, one named Mustang Sally.‘Each one is different’The Bureau of Land Management estimates that about 31,500 wild horses and 5,800 burros are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states. They have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double every four years. So the agency must remove thousands each year to control herd sizes. More than 41,000 mustangs that have been rescued are currently being cared for at BLM corrals and pastures and are awaiting adoption, according to the Mustang Million website.This year, because of budget cuts brought on by the federal government’s sequestration, an increase in hay prices and the ongoing drought, the Mustang Heritage Foundation canceled similar events in Oregon and Georgia and encouraged trainers who were going to compete there to come to Fort Worth.Wild mustangs possess a strong sense of self preservation. They are blank slates as far as experience with humans go.“Each one is different,” Kim Ludwig reminded her children. “Some are shy. Some are curious. Some are friendly. Some aren’t. You work with what you’ve got.”‘They’re training our heritage’Lightning and Miss Priss slowly grew accustomed to each trainer’s voice and touch. As days and weeks passed the animals became desensitized to foreign sounds their handlers introduced, like the honk of a bicycle horn and the startling noise of a popping balloon.Lightning was shy, and not as eager to learn as Morgan’s horse. Reed couldn’t persuade his animal to step across a small bridge. Morgan had trouble teaching Miss Priss to trot alongside her on cue.Even so, the boy and girl faithfully appeared at the pasture every morning and afternoon, rain or shine.They fed. Groomed. Trained. They rewarded their four-legged companions with treats and soft words of encouragement.The goals of training mustangs for competition include halter breaking, trailer loading, picking up feet and leading through obstacles and maneuvers.“We told Reed and Morgan that if they do this they had to be committed,” Kim Ludwig said. “It proves to me that they’ll follow through. They’re not sitting at home playing Nintendo games and watching TV. They’re out here working their horses. Doing what they should be doing. Doing what most grownups wouldn’t do. They’re training our heritage. Our country was built on the backs of the ancestors of these horses. And that’s important to us.”Treated like familyLightning has gained 250 pounds — 200 the first month — and now stands a hand taller than he was on the fateful day a young stranger, no taller than the tiny horse, spotted him, and a bond was formed.One recent afternoon, under a pitiless sun, two proud parents watched as their son, dressed in jeans, boots and a black cowboy hat, playfully braided and unbraided Lightning’s tail. Reed walked from one side of the horse to the other by ducking beneath the mustang’s belly. He gently slapped Lightning across his back with a halter rope. His animal remained quiet, calm and accommodating, as still as statuary.“We could take ’em to Six Flags,” Kim Ludwig said of the two horses, “and they’d stand there in line.”Reed kissed Lightning’s nose. Then closing his eyes, he blissfully rested his cheek against the horse’s face, as it it were a pillow.“Reed would sleep with him if we let him,” his mom said.Morgan agreed, offering a sisterly observation.“Yeah,” she said, “he brushes [Lightning’s] hair more than he does his own.”In truth Morgan is no less in love with Miss Priss. If her horse wins some Mustang Million prize money Morgan plans to spend it all — on her deserving yearling.“She did it, not me,” the teen said, and ticked off her purchases. Food. A blanket. A saddle. “Nail polish,” she said with a grin.The real payoff from the experience for these children, and this family, is priceless.Rescued from an uncertain future, Lightning and Miss Priss have taught two kids the meaning of responsibility. The virtue of patience. The priceless joy of a job well done.“These horses teach us more than we teach them,” Richard Lugwig said.
If you go
• The Mustang Million competition is Sept. 16-21 at Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth.
• Most shows are free, but the Youth Top 10 Finals on Sept. 20 and the Legends Top 20 Finals on Sept. 21 require tickets ($10 for youth show, $15 for legends show).