Cowboy skills win the Mustang Million
November 4, 2013
Winning the Mustang Million isn't something that happens by chance; it's a feat that takes skill, patience, dedication, and creativity. In the spring of 2013, one thousand mustangs gathered from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands were auctioned off at scheduled locations where horse trainers from around the country attended with hopes of selecting the mustang that would lead them to victory later that fall. Tom Hagwood, of Torrington, Wyo., was one such horse trainer who attended the Oregon sale in April. That day he selected a sorrel gelding based upon confirmation and overall appearance that became the mustang worth a million dollars.
Tom didn't always ride mustangs. He grew up in Nevada where he worked on a lot of big ranches and showed in stock horse events. He also rode rough stock before finally giving up rodeo when he sold his bronc saddle for travel money to return home. He temporarily settled down in Fallon, Nev., where he met his wife, Arianne. After some time, Tom and his wife moved to Idaho and began training horses full time; but when the economy turned south in 2008, riding horses became a hard way to make a living. He picked up day work on local ranches, but without horses to ride, Tom was "completely afoot." To solve his dilemma, Tom adopted an Oregon mustang for a little over $100. He began riding the mustang in Idaho's backcountry and cowboyed on him every day – without shoes – and the hardy horse performed better than he or anyone else could believe. This sparked an idea for a friend of Tom's who introduced him to the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover.
In 2010, Tom adopted two mustangs and took one he named "Smarty" to Fort Worth. That year he came home with $10,000 which earned Smarty the family reputation of "The mustang who saved Christmas." That was all it took for Tom to get hooked. The 2013 Mustang Million (formerly Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover) was Tom's fourth year competing; and as soon as he brought his sorrel mustang "Merv" home to his ranch in Torrington, Wyo., he knew he had a winner.
"I put the first halter on him on April 29th and he just progressed right along," said Tom. He added, "He never had a bad day. He might have had a bad moment or two, but never a bad day." Tom used Merv for everything from branding calves to moving irrigation pipe saying, "I practically lived with him." By the time of the show, 140 days later, he was riding Merv in a two rein (one of the last transitions to a formal bridle horse).
For the 2013 competition, Tom had a good idea of what he was up against in Fort Worth and started working on a plan. The Mustang Million draws horse trainers from around the world. Noteworthy trainers such as Dan James, Craig Johnson, and Pete Kyle were all regular competitors. The 2012 winner, Bobby Kerr, had raised the bar with his performance of sitting his mustang down in a car and driving around the arena. Knowing he was not able to travel with a lot of props or put on a big show, Tom decided to focus on horsemanship.
"There's still room for horsemanship to win this thing. The tricks and all the stunts – that's great – but there are only so many … before it becomes just that: tricks and stunts. And people do want to see a broke horse," Tom said.
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The 2013 Mustang Million held three divisions: legends, youth and specialty. Tom entered the Legends Division which started with three preliminary classes (horsemanship, pattern, and trail riding), all of which Tom placed reserve or above. This placed him in the finals round which consisted of the top twenty mustangs who all started with a clean slate. Final legends contestants were required to do a compulsory pattern (comparable to a reining pattern) which must be completed in 90 seconds.
"No one ever wins a mustang makeover without doing really well in the compulsory," said Tom. His horsemanship paid off in that part of the competition. Merv gave him a smooth run which gained him a 23.5 point lead. Tom explained that he needed that lead. "I knew Bobby would be bringing it. He's a heck of a horseman and a heck of an entertainer."
During the freestyle finals (a 3.5 minute performance where props and musical scores are encouraged), Bobby Kerr gained 10 points where he rode his mustang around and on top of a small western town prop. For Tom's freestyle performance his goal was, "to show a horse that was gentle and a horse that was dang-sure broke and a cowpony." Tom and Merv rode into the arena with the loud speakers playing Alabama's "Fiddle in the Band" while dragging a see-saw platform, shaking a tarp, and performing rope tricks. Tom showed Merv sidestep, perform flying lead changes, and spin without the use of a rein. Next, Merv worked a steer, which many people warned Tom not to do.
"When you throw a cow in the mix, you've got not just two minds, you've got three different minds, and things can go wrong. But I stuck to it," said Tom, adding, "My horse ran up there and rated real well."
Tom Hagwood won the Overall Legends Division with a score of 561 points. During the final freestyle division, the arena was standing room only; and after Tom's performance the crowd cheered so loudly, Tom compared the noise to a rock concert. He knew the cheers weren't just for him, though, saying, "Merv is an exceptionally cute little mustang."
In the end, "straight up horsemanship and cowboy skills" won the Mustang Million. Tom stated, "The competition is getting stiffer. These trainers are really bringing it. They use NRHA and AQHA judges and one of the judges said to someone, 'There were a couple of NRHA runs in there.'" There is something to be said for 'sticking to the basics.' How else could a person take a horse from the wild and in less than six months, using "cowboy skills," transform that animal into a reining, gentle, cow horse? The answer is horsemanship. But in Tom's words, "I think everyone was glad to see just a cowboy win it this year."