Wild at Heart

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Unbridled in her belief in a more compassionate horsemanship, Mustang Maddy is blazing new trails in horse training.

Written by Jenn Thornton

“There is a stigma around wild horses,” says Madison Shambaugh. “They’re too wild, too difficult to train.” Few have done more than to buck this idea more than the Ridgway, Colorado-based cowgirl better known as “Mustang Maddy,” the game-changing horse trainer whose work in an overwhelmingly traditional arena is upending misconceptions about the American mustang—namely that the horse is “untrainable.”

Not unlike Maddy herself once was, back when the native Midwesterner ran her own way, not much interested in anything other than riding horses. Problem was, she just couldn’t stay in the saddle. Her earliest encounters with horses proved a rough go. Her first horse, the ironically named Sugar, bucked her off repeatedly. A second horse did too. She was charged, kicked, and bitten. While these horses had issues, Maddy came to realize that she was the “common factor” in every bruising scenario. “There has to be a better way to do this,” she recalls thinking. “I pretty much dove into learning everything I could about horses.” The lessons, though, which called for using more pressure and bigger bits, to exert more dominance—all tentpoles of traditional negative reinforcement training—didn’t sit well with Maddy. Her instinct was to do the opposite in order to encourage confidence in the horse and build trust.

“With the mustang, I try to not make them something that they aren’t, but more of what they are,” explains Maddy. Such was the case with the gangly Terk. “When I brought him home from holding, out jumped this scrawny, leggy, big-headed horse that looked two years old,” Maddy remembers. “I just thought, ‘What am I gonna do with this horse?” Plenty, as it turns out. “He completely change my life,” she adds. In Terk, Maddy saw  a horse that didn’t really fit anywhere, and in that way, a little bit of herself too. “Many people relate to that feeling,” she says, “so really bringing out the potential of these horses and showing the world what they can be serves as a strong message for all of us.”

“Bringing out the potential of these horses and showing the world what they can be serves as a strong message for all of us.”

— Mustang Maddy

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It was a message Maddy communicated at her liberty shows, which featured her mustangs performing without any ropes; two-day clinics; and later, longer and more intensive workshops. Her recent project, the Horse-Human Connection Academy (HCA), is a culmination of her work not just to train horses but to understand them. “Trust and communication is important when working with horses, but it all starts from a place of empathy,” Maddy says. “It’s about helping a horse navigate its emotions. The more you try to control a horse, the more it will react.” Her goal is for the horse to respond.

Comparisons to the horse whisperer are commonplace for Maddy, but the term, she says, can be misleading, a bit “more magical than it is.” As it is used in the industry today, a horse whisperer is someone who uses natural horsemanship techniques. Her approach—positive reinforcement training—is less common but no less effective. “By really idolizing the horse whisperer idea, we might close our minds off to other ways a horse relationship might look and grow,” Maddy says. “I’m always trying to figure out how to do different things.”

Which makes Maddy, like her mustangs, a bit of a classic American underdog. “We all see a part of ourselves in the wild horses,” she says. “For everyone told they can’t, the mustang tells them that they can.”

“We all see a part of ourselves in the wild horses. For everyone told they can’t, the mustang tells them that they can.”

— Maddy

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Photos courtesy of Impulse Photography