Imagine you’re looking for your next horse, but this is no ordinary shopping experience. You aren’t visiting luxe barns and swinging your leg over multiple talented sport horses to find your dream ride. Instead, you’re sifting through grainy, 10-second video clips of wild horses roaming free in the desolate mountains of Nevada. You can forget about staged conformation photos or a thorough vet check, but you still have to choose one out of the group of 200 that has the most potential to be transformed into a “normal” riding horse. Good luck!
A two-time winner and five-time top five finalist of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, Marsha Hartford-Sapp knows what it takes to transform a wild animal into a domesticated and well-behaved horse. While watching those short clips of untouched mustangs, Marsha saw something in one in particular. He had uphill conformation and a beautiful crested neck. He had class. He had presence. And even though he’d been passed over multiple times by other adoptees, Marsha knew he was special. She took him home and named him Cobra. They had a rocky start, but Marsha persisted and Cobra ultimately softened to her, returning Marsha's gesture of love and shelter in spades.
“When the Bureau of Land Management has a horse that they consider a three-strikes horse, they deem the horse un-adoptable. The horses are given a second brand on their left hip... Cobra has one of those brands.”
After the 2010 Makeover, Marsha threw Cobra out to pasture to relax following his intensive training. He took a temporary backseat to Marsha’s other horses but was soon given an opportunity to help Marsha achieve a long held dream.
“In 2013 I wanted to get my bronze medal for USDF and that requires showing at the third level and the horses have to do flying changes. As a young horse starter I had a lot of green horses that I was training but not a whole lot of finished horses,” Marsha explains. “What did I have on my property that could do half-pass, shoulder-in, and changes? I had this mustang. So I pulled Cobra out and I showed him in his first recognized shows in 2013.”
Less than six months after Cobra starting competing, Marsha earned enough scores to receive a bronze medal – pretty impressive for a horse that was running free in the wild three years prior. During Cobra’s tenure in the English and Western dressage rings, he won top prizes including Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Third Level Champion, Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Prix St George Champion, National Champion for Western Dressage, and World Champion for Western Dressage. A clear fan favorite with an incredible story, Cobra was immortalized as a Breyer model and in 2018 was named the USEF National Horse of the Year.
From galloping free in the wild to traveling straight down the centerline, here’s how Marsha turned a once unwanted mustang into a decorated celebrity.
1. Don’t Let Fear Get in the Way
When Cobra was delivered to Marsha’s barn all those years ago, “he came flying off the trailer. Of course we don’t lead them off, they’re still not wearing halters at this point.
“The very first day I started moving him around the round pen. He started circling closer and closer to me and his ears went back on his head, his tail started to ring in circles, and the first 10 minutes of knowing this horse he charged straight at me. I ran over the round pen wall and had to get away from him. I think that was the first time I had to exit the round pen in such a hurry. But it was a wild horse, he was six years old, and they have a fight or flight mechanism, which we know is the deal with horses, and I took away his ability to flee.”
Photo by Kim Chason.
2. Take Time to Establish a Bond
Marsha was not swayed by her first encounter with Cobra and took time to develop a trusting bond. Starting off slowly, Marsha spent a few hours a day with the young mustang to build confidence and patience. Within 60 days of being rounded up from the wild, Cobra was under saddle and doing flying lead changes.
“I just kept working with him. I spent a couple of hours working with him every day utilizing join up, doing a lot of groundwork, I did a lot of long lining before I rode him – the same things I do with any other domestic horse. He’s so smart and was so quick to pick up on things. It was no big deal for him to get started under saddle in a few weeks.”
3. Enjoy the Process
Marsha embarked on the journey of Cobra’s makeover with no expectations. But as she spent more and more time with him, she saw something truly special in the 15.2-hand gelding.
“I love doing the [Extreme Mustang Makeover]. I learn so much as a trainer doing it. Not only am I educating myself by training a wild horse, but I’m getting better at what I do and also providing a set of skills to a horse that will later on be adopted by someone who will love it. So the program is definitely a win/win for me. I’m getting something out of it and I’m helping one horse, and that’s my calling.”
4. Respect Your Roots
Although Cobra is now a bonafide dressage superstar, he will always be in touch with his wild Nevada roots. He carries a reminder of his origins in the four-digit brand that flanks his left hip.
“People would stop and ask about the brands on his neck and knew he was a mustang. But a lot of people would stop and ask about the large four-digit brand on his hip – 4057,” Marsha explains. “When the Bureau of Land Management has a horse that they consider a three-strikes horse, which means they’ve been offered for adoption three times or more or they’ve aged out of the time that people would be likely to adopt them, they deem the horse un-adoptable. The horses are given a second brand on their left hip which signifies they’re a three-strike horse. So Cobra has one of those brands.”
5. Be Proud
“[Winning the USEF National Horse of the Year] was such an honor for me. For me, the message about this horse has been the message of horsemanship and the message of working with what you have. This is what I had... For me to win that award was just wonderful that I got to share that message with so many more people. It was really the most amazing way to end his most amazing career.
“[Cobra] is retired from competition. I don’t know if this horse has anything else to prove. We’re not going to compete him anymore but we will bring him out for demonstrations and events from time to time to help share the message,” Marsha says. “I’m hoping to do an official grand retirement ceremony at BreyerFest this year in Lexington. He cantered his last centerline at the end of November 2018 and he doesn’t need to show anymore, but he will have a lifelong home at my barn.”
Feature photo by Harry Furey.