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Charles Wilhelm leads Willow Bay around his ranch in Castro Valley. Willow Bay is a wild mustang that Charles is attempting to train for the Western States Mustang Challenge. (Mike Lucia/Daily Review)
When Diamond first arrived in Livermore, she was clearly in the rough, "frightened out of her mind and body," said horse trainer Beverly Vreeland.

The wild mustang bolted out of its trailer and raced along the corral rail. Straight out of a 115,000-acre preserve in northern Nevada, she was untouchable and filthy, dreadlocks in her mane and tail, with a liberal coating of dirt everywhere.

"It took 48 hours for her to calm down to the point where she was approachable," Vreeland said. "Another day to touch her. She was so gross, I thought I wouldn't get my hands clean ever again."

Twelve days after that, Vreeland, 52, rode Diamond for the first time.

That's a very impressive feat, said organizers of the Mustang Challenge, a program sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management that puts wild horses in the hands of trainers up for a tough task.

Thirty-two western state trainers are taking the challenge, and competing for a $2,500 top prize. They have 90 days to refine a wild, rough horse and make it fit for show at the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento in June.

"A lot of people really enjoy the challenge," said Randi Blasien of the foundation. "Working with something that has never had any experience with a human can be very rewarding."

The program isn't just for fun. It also saves horses.

Mustangs are an invasive species. While prehistoric horses once roamed North America, they vanished about 12,000 years ago. Today's feral herds are descendants of horses brought by Spaniards.

With natural predators limited to the mountain lion, the herds multiply quickly. The BLM keeps the population at a sustainable level, adopting out horses to private parties.

The Mustang Challenge is part of that program. It started last year in Texas, and was so popular that several more events have been scheduled. This is the third.

Vreeland is one of two local trainers in the competition. The other is Charles Wilhelm, a well-known figure in the horse training business.

He has been training horses for most of his 63 years. He specializes in "problem horses" and has authored books and starred in videos on the subject. He hosts clinics at equestrian functions and runs a 60-acre facility in Castro Valley.

He's tough competition.

"A lot of people think mustangs are a lot different than other horses, but they're not," Wilhelm said. "It always comes down to its personality and flight instinct."

While this is the first wild horse he has taken in, he is working on it the same way he would any other charge.

"I treat all horses like an unbroken horse," he said. "Each one is different, just like people. Some will learn fast, some take longer. I've had domestic horses take three months to tame."

His mustang, Willow Bay, was a jumper when he first got her. But this week, he was trotting her in circles from the center of the corral, concentrating on having the horse read the pressure he kept on her via a swishing horseman's stick.

At his command, the horse stamped on a crinkled plastic tarp, which was then attached to the lead so that as the horse ran, it flapped madly at its side.

He "sacked her out," moving around Willow with a cane, sometimes rubbing, sometimes purposely bumping the horse. He gently whapped her with a towel.

"At first, the horse will be really freaked out about being touched," he said. "I'm getting her used to contact. If people are real careful with their horse, it won't be used to different kinds of contact and later they'll do something out of the ordinary and spook it."

Wilhelm said one thing that concerns him is the fact that Willow hasn't yet bucked.

"That makes me nervous -- there's always a buck in there somewhere," he said.

While he hadn't ridden the horse as of Thursday, he is confident.

"There's no right or wrong way, and it's not about who is a better trainer," he said. "What matters is being able to read the horse. ... When I do step in the stirrup, this horse won't be goosey or jumpy."

While Wilhelm is businesslike about his new project, Vreeland has made a more emotional connection.

Wild horses couldn't drag her away from the feral mare -- she spends two to six hours training each day, six days a week.

"I am just so impressed with this mare, and this breed," she said. "She has learned so much in such a short time. It goes to show what kind of mind they have."

It's demanding work, a slow process of building trust and communication between trainer and animal.

And wild horses will try to bite and kick, although neither horse has succeeded.

"We're still wary of each other," Vreeland said. "We trust each other about the same amount. It's not 100 percent."

There's also that spook factor.

On Wednesday, Vreeland was maneuvering the horse between a line of posts in the center of the corral.

"She was doing so well, I decided to lope her," she said. "I had to take my hat off so it wouldn't fly off -- I thought that since I always wear the hat, it wouldn't scare her."

Vreeland was wrong -- the mare spied the white cowboy hat fluttering in her trainer's hand and not on her head and that was just too much.

"She looked at it and thought 'That does not belong there!'" Vreeland said.

The horse got skittish.

"I had the reins out too long and threw the hat down and Diamond made a sudden right turn, leaving a seven-foot skid," Vreeland said. "I went over the other side."

Immediately, hat and horse were reintroduced, and neither is worse for wear. Vreeland herself got no more than a few bruises.

"I think it was a good thing," she said. "We got that out of the way, and it made her want to listen. I got back on and she gave me the best circles she's done."

Such rewards have already made the experience more than worthwhile, she said.

"She nickered at me for the first time the other day," she said. Vreeland imitated the sound -- a soft, under-the-breath neigh. "It means, 'I'm so glad to see you!' When a horse is comfortable with you, they will nicker."

Vreeland played music during the corral work to start getting Diamond ready for a choreographed routine at the Expo. The Troggs' hit "Wild Thing" rang out and the consensus among spectators was that it would be an ideal song for the routine.

Not so, said Vreeland. "Not anymore, anyway."

But as the chorus ended, she couldn't help singing along, to her horse.

"'Wild Thing, I think I love you,'" she said. "And how could anyone not?"

The nicker, it seems, is mutual.

ON THE WEB

  • For more about the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Mustang Challenge, visit http://www.mustangheritagefoundation.org/

    Reach Eric Kurhi at ekurhi@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-847-2184.