Doctors told Ginger Duke she’d never ride again.
Duke, a trick rider and horse trainer from Springtown, spent weeks in a hospital getting her insides put back together after a horse kicked her last February.
But five months after the accident — four days after the last post-surgery tube was removed from her abdomen — Duke was riding her favorite kind of horse: mustangs.
Duke is one of a select group of trainers who share a love for the wild breed, and compete with one another for bragging rights in challenges like this weekend’s Mustang Magic at the Fort Worth Stock Show.
The event is one of several conducted across America to find homes for wild horses that are captured on public lands and are lucky enough to be picked for a program called Extreme Mustang Makeovers. The trainers get 100 days to gentle an animal and train it well enough to be adopted.
“I love horses, and this was just the next step,” said Duke as she led her latest project, a 5-year-old mare named Dodie. The horse is named after a San Antonio nurse who Duke credits with getting her back in the saddle.
“After an ICU doctor said I’d never ride again, Dodie Hall convinced me that I am the only one who knows what I’m capable of,” Duke said. “After that, I was determined to prove the doctors wrong.”
Stock Show guests will see the proof at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, and 6 p.m. Saturday.
“Mustang events were supposed to be for up-and-coming trainers,” Duke said. “I got hooked on the challenge.”
The horse that injured Duke was a domestic breed, she said. Wild horses aren’t necessarily less likely to kick, bite or otherwise hurt a rider, but fellow trainer Jeff Cook of Tucson, Ariz., said mustangs are his favorite breed because of the bond that’s built between horse and trainer.
“The wild horses understand a herd mentality,” Cook said. “They’ll always look for a leader. Once you establish yourself as the leader, they’ll do anything for you.”
In the Friday events, the mustangs will perform in Trail, Pattern and In-Hand (halter led) classes, said Stormy Mullins, event director for Mustang Heritage Foundation. Saturday’s show — sold out for the fourth year in a row — is a freestyle performance followed by an auction that determines who goes home with which horse.
“So far, in the 11 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had more than 7,000 horses go through Mustang Makeover, and every horse has gotten a home,” Mullins said. “This is important, because there are between 60,000 and 80,000 wild horses on public lands that already can’t support their numbers. To keep them from starving to death, the government captures some and moves them. But there are about 50,000 mustangs being kept in long-term holding with taxpayers footing the feed bill.”
The greatest value in Mustang Magic is showcasing the versatility of American mustangs, Mullins said. “They can be trained to do anything.”
While most of the mustangs are adopted by folks who attend the shows, the trainers often get first dibs, said Cook, who, if he could, would take every one he trains. When a horse like Bonny Sioux — a gelding he bought in September during a Players Choice competition — comes along, he can’t let go.
“He’s very gentle,” Cook said. “I put him to work every day, letting kids ride him or helping me gentle other wild ones. The biggest thing about these horses is that they need our help.”
Cook has confidence that someone will see the beauty and innate grace of Eddie, the mare he’s showing this weekend.
Trainer Diana Shipley said it’s uncanny how good some mustangs are. Her Cindy Lou Who — so named for the Grinch-shaped blaze on her face — “loves children so much that her ears flip forward every time she sees one.”
And, while Dodie hasn’t really had enough training to be a rodeo-quality ride, Duke said she likely will do some trick riding during Dodie’s freestyle performance Saturday night.
Prices paid for horses in the auction that follows Saturday’s show will average $1,500, Mullins speculated.
“I’ve seen one go for $400 and others $20,000,” he said. “I’ve seen some go for $800 that were better than the $20,000 horse.”