Magical Mustangs: Catching Up with Elisa Wallace

Photo courtesy of Elisa Wallace.

What began as a bucket list tick evolved into a full-fledged adventure for Elisa Wallace. It was a friend, fellow mustang trainer and eventer Rebecca Brown, who first encouraged Elisa to sign up for the annual Mustang Magic competition. For Elisa, it was an opportunity for a new challenge: if she could train a mustang, surely it would solidify her prowess as a horse trainer and perhaps give her the opportunity to become an ambassador for the once-wild horse.

Fast forward to today, over a decade later, and now about 10 mustangs are in residence at Elisa’s Ocala, FL base. She’s taken multiple mustangs out eventing, including the famous Fledge and Rune as well as the gray mare Hwin. Elisa gains much fulfillment from promoting the mustang as an excellent horse for any discipline, and now spends some of her time (when she isn’t also producing and competing event horses) training and re-homing mustangs to other riders.

“In training them you just get addicted,” Elisa explained. “Each one kind of teaches you something new, and you just want to keep doing it. I think they’re great horses for people to have, too. They can fit that little niche, so that’s my goal. I train one and try to fulfill that with someone.”

Elisa Wallace and Fledge. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Elisa’s latest mustang project was a return to the Mustang Magic competition. This competition, held in Texas, during the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, gives approximately 25 trainers the opportunity to bond with a train a mustang over the course of a 100 days. The event then culminates with a Trainer’s Challenge consisting of a handling and conditioning class, a maneuvers class, a trail class, and a freestyle for finalists. The prize pot of $50,000 sweetens the deal, and the mustangs are then auctioned to the public following the competition.

Initially, Mustang Magic was not in Elisa’s plans for the year. She laughed when I asked what changed her mind. “You’re going to laugh at me, but,” she began. “I had a dream. [Four-time Mustang Makeover champion and respected horseman] Bobby Kerr was in it. In this dream I was a working student for Bobby. He asked me if I was going to do the Magic and I said ‘no’ and he goes ‘well you should’. And so I woke up and said ‘well I guess I’m going to do Magic this year!’ So that was my reasoning for it.”

Dior’s glow-up. Photo courtesy of Elisa Wallace.

In September, Elisa traveled to Texas to make her selection from a group of recently rounded-up mustangs. The 26 trainers drew numbers to make their selections; naturally, having an early pick is beneficial, but you must be prepared with a list of alternates. Elisa, luckily, had a few on her list as she drew #20.

“It was tough because you’re going through strategy-wise of who to pick,” Elisa said. “I analyzed for hours and when it came down to it, I had Dior on my list. She was the boss mare of her pen, I just went ‘screw it Elisa, go for color!’ She was already on the list, but it was just one of those things.”

“Dior”, as she came to be known, is a beautiful palomino color. Elisa, for this competition, knew she would be giving the horse up for auction/adoption following the competition, so she was looking for a horse that would be a suitable all-arounder, perhaps one that could also do some Western riding. The mare seemed to tick the right boxes.

“I tell you – that mare cracks me up,” she laughed. “She was like ‘finally!’ [upon getting into the barn]. The first night mustangs are in a stall they normally don’t sleep. That mare slept — she was covered head to toe in shavings. The name Dior kind of fit. She’s kind of ‘bougie’ and Dior also means ‘gold’.”

Elisa chronicled her training process with Dior in a full playlist of videos on YouTube — I’ll drop the playlist below for you to watch at leisure:

“She was a very fun mare to train,” Elisa said. “She was very confident in some ways and I’m still super busy because I also had a three-day in November, so I was glad that she was special. It takes a special horse for the makeover. I didn’t have any of the flashy tricks on her, but she was very good about very practical things, which I thought was very handy. I was able to go and work her on cows and I took a roping lesson off of her. One thing I really love about doing the mustang stuff is it kind of pushed out of my comfort zone. I get to learn so much more, I feel like, and break things up. She did a little starter event at [Florida Horse Park] and it was basically underwater; her first time in a dressage ring and she scored a 34. Won her little starter division. She loved going out on cross country. She was just a little star.”

The competition yielded a strong result for Elisa, who made the finals and finished in sixth overall, out of the 26 original trainers. Elisa was impressed with how Dior handled the intense atmosphere, even staying calm when a prop got stuck in her girth during their final freestyle performance.

The bittersweet part came at the end, when Dior would be auctioned and meet her new owner.

Dior meets her new owner, Sierra Gowen. Photo courtesy of Elisa Wallace.

“Dior was one of the last to go and the girl that ended up getting her wants to do eventing,” Elisa said. “Her name is Sierra and she’s also a bodyworker and Dior is going to be her first mustang. And it just so happens she lives back where I used to live in Canton [Georgia], so she has a lot of connections to a lot of my old students who are her trainers. So it worked out. I was happy with the outcome with it and I think Dior is where she needs to be. I was happy and pleased with myself that I produced a good horse. I cried, I had poor Sierra crying, but that’s just so I can train another one. I try to train one and just do the same thing.”

Elisa always emphasizes that each horse teaches her something new. I asked what she had learned during her time with Dior. “Really utilizing the horse’s strengths,” she said, after a moment of thought. “Try not to focus too much on their weaknesses; it’s more minimizing their weaknesses and maximizing their strengths. When I ignored some of the weaker things that I didn’t necessarily like, that would just kind of go away if I just focused on the more positive things. And really the lesson for me, which oftentimes can get lost, is that horses are supposed to be fun and we’re supposed to enjoy our time with our horses. The training process gets frustrating, we all get frustrated, but you want to have fun and that’s kind of what we lose.”

Photo courtesy of Elisa Wallace.

Here, she compares the level of trust and bond that’s required to compete in an event like Mustang Magic to that required to go out on cross country with an event horse.

“These horses that are previously wild, because of the bond you’ve built, they trust you. It’s what we want to attain with any of our horses. The mustangs and Thoroughbred stuff — it’s why I like to do it. Your event horses aren’t going to push for you if they don’t trust you. It’s the same thing when you get the trust of the mustang. Those horses try for you and at the end of the day, that is all you can ask for.”

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