SUNOL -- Syringa was named after the state flower of Idaho, where she roamed free among thousands of other wild mustangs for the first four years of her life.

Now she temporarily lives on a ranch in Sunol and is training every day with Justin Mott, 22, who hopes she will be adopted in May at the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition in Norco, near Riverside.

"Getting a wild horse trained in 90 days is a grueling process," said Mott. "It's just a lot of hard work to get the job done."

In the allotted time before the competition starts on May 18, trainers get reimbursed about $700 for feed, shoeing and other expenses. The trainers also can earn a 20 percent commission on whatever the horse sells for at auction. A prize of $12,500 will be awarded to the trainer whose horse scores the highest in the following five categories: handling and condition, pattern class, combined leading and obstacle course, rural trail challenge and urban trail challenge.

"The goal is really to get the horse adopted. Whether or not the horse wins is not really the goal," said Mott, who runs JM Performance Horses at his grandparents' ranch where he grew up. Mott said he began riding horses at 3 and training them at 11.


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"Back then, my only goal was just to hang on."

He says over the years he has developed his technique of horse training by combining methods used by famous horse trainers to his own ideas. JM Performance, his company, breeds horses, trains them and offers lessons, camps and trail rides.

Training Syringa, though, is very different from the domestic horses he mostly deals with. He thinks dealing with mustangs often involves first understanding the wild environment from which they come.

The ancestors of mustangs are European horses that were originally brought over by Spanish explorers. Some escaped or were freed into the wild, and with no natural predators and vast areas for grazing, the feral horses soon numbered in the millions and became an icon of the American West.

They come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They are considered hardy, with a tough hide and acute instincts. But now the available public lands are unable to sustain the existing herds. Mustangs now only exist in 10 states, including far northeastern California.

In the public lands they roam, they compete with other wild animals and cattle ranchers for grazing land and can disturb the ecological balance. If the herds become too large, the horses can starve to death.

The government has tried various ways of limiting the herds, now about 29,500 mustangs total, an estimated 5,700 more than the available lands can sustain, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Before Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act in 1971, management methods included using planes to round up the horses and then sending them to slaughter. Now, the herds are protected and managed by the BLM.

Since the herds can double in size about every four years, the BLM must take thousands of horses out of the wild every year. The horses that are rounded up are put up for adoption, but about 30,000 wild horses are fed and cared for in holding facilities.

"There's still people that don't like to see these horses captured out of the wild," said Mott. "But everyone's doing the best they can to be as humane as possible to try and get these animals adopted so they can have lives and still keep the herds under control."

All the horses taken from the herds are available for adoption, but not every horse owner is up to the challenge of training the wild horses. The Extreme Mustang Makeover competition is one way that the Mustang Heritage Foundation has devised to get trained horses up for adoption.

Trainers are selected nationwide after a background and reference check. Their horse is chosen by a random drawing, and then the trainer picks it up from the holding facility. Mott had to pick up Syringa from a facility in Susanville called the Litchfield Corral.

Mott said there have already been competitors who have dropped out of the contest for various reasons. "It could be due to an injury to a horse, an injury to a person or even finding a horse untrainable," he said.

Syringa, Mott said, has proved responsive to Mott's training as long as he remains patient with her. "I consider every horse trainable but not always necessarily within a certain deadline," he said.

Unlike in western movies where cowboys break wild horses and get bucked off and kicked, Mott thinks most trainers aren't in much danger.

"It can be possibly more dangerous for the horse than for you because ... the horse is not necessarily unwilling to hurt itself to get away from you."

Mott now can only prepare Syringa for the competition and hope she, too, will land in a good home.

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