From Wild to Willing 
Extreme Mustang Makeover with Toby Gibbon

article & photos by Alexa Easton & Hannah Rosenberg
(first appeared in the August 2014 issue of
The Equiery)




The countdown started in May as Maryland trainer Tony Gibbon began the 100-day challenge to take two four-year-old Mustangs from the roundup pen to the show ring. Gibbon was selected by the Mustang Heritage Foundation to compete in both the Shartletsville, Pennsylvania and Fort Worth, Texas Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions. Through the competition, the organization aims to promote the trainability and usefulness of the Mustang. At the conclusion of the event, the horses will be available for adoption with all proceeds benefitting the Foundation.

Captain McCoy, a dark bay originally from a range in Oregon, was Gibbon’s assigned project for the PA show to be held August 22-23. Gibbon first saw McCoy on May 14 at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) facility in Elgin, Illinois. Virtually untouched, the gelding had only been handled during annual vaccinations and hoof trimmings. Before the horse was run onto the trailer, Gibbon took the opportunity to watch how McCoy interacted with the other horses in the pen. Where the horse is in the herd and how he interacts with the other horses clues Gibbon in on how McCoy might interact with people. This was the first time the second-generation horseman had worked with a horse that hadn’t been handled since birth.

“My expectation going in was that it was going to take everything I knew about horses to get this done. I wasn’t sure how quickly it would happen,” Gibbon says.



With his assignment for the September 18-20 competition in TX, he found that building trust could happen pretty quickly. The bright bay gelding Gibbon named Rio took quickly to human contact. In the few days after Gibbon picked him up in Jackson, Mississippi on May 30, Rio was already allowing people to touch him.

“ They say all horses are looking for a leader. With [Mustangs] especially, you see that,” Gibbon believes. “Hand-raised horses don’t appreciate the attention as much as these guys do.”

Gibbon should know. He broke his first horse when he was a young teen on his family’s farm in Silver Spring. Now located in Lisbon, the trainer has worked in every discipline from hunters to team roping. Toby’s wife Bobbie Gibbon was named to the Maryland Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame in 1987, in addition to winning a U.S. Equestrian Federation Pegasus Medal of Honor in 2003. Several of her horses have been started by Gibbon. Whether it’s a show horse or a wild Mustang, his approach stays consistent. It is all about trust.

" When I first got the horses, I was worried I wouldn’t have all the answers they needed. When I wasn’t sure, I’d take the night to think about it and the answers would come to me,” Gibbon admits. “Horses in general are very good at trusting. I just had to make sure I was giving them the time to build that trust.”

Several hours a day are dedicated to prepping McCoy and Rio for the challenges they will face on show day. Entrants compete in both a Pattern Class and a Trail Class in the preliminary round of the challenge. In the Pattern Class, they are asked to complete a series of basic maneuvers. This can include walk, trot, lope/canter, changes of direction, pivots, lead changes and backing up. The Trail Class asks the horse to maneuver through and over obstacles that could be encountered on a trail ride.

To prepare for these questions, Gibbon keeps the horses’ routines fairly consistent, only expanding and pushing when he feels the horse is ready. The horses are exposed to raincoats, flags, tarps and other obstacles they will need to conquer the preliminary rounds. Both horses have reached a point in their training where they have been saddled and ridden through their paces, but each day, Gibbon always starts with ground work. Gibbon is patient and consistent in everything he asks the horses to do, from lowering their heads to be bridled, to standing stock-still when he mounts.

“ I just have to keep showing them the right thing. It’s not about discipline, it’s about consistency. As far as when they do something wrong, I just take them back to something they’re already successful in,” says Gibbon.

In Rio’s case, this was especially important. “When I first asked him to canter he got spooked so bad he took off, tearing around the ring. He just didn’t understand, so we went back to the trot until he got to the point where he was really comfortable doing that, then I asked again.”

If either horse makes the Top 10 in the preliminary rounds, he will move on to the finale. There, horse and rider are given four minutes to show what they’ve got. The routines get pretty flashy, with props and tricks. Gibbon is working with McCoy on some jumping...and the horse just might ride a skateboard.

" I think [Captain McCoy] has a real good chance. Any mistakes he makes are going to be mine, not his. If we have a problem, it’s because I failed to teach him something,” Gibbon maintains. “It’d be fun to win, but just the process of picking [a Mustang] up and getting trusted by him has really been a fun experience.”

Gibbon is already planning to try for the competition again next year, which will prevent him from being able to adopt either of the horses. Both Rio and Captain McCoy will be available at the conclusion of the 100 days. For details on how to watch them in action and how to adopt, visit the Extreme Mustang Makeover’s website.

©TheEquiery2014