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Wheelock Teen to Compete at the Extreme Mustang Makeover in Oklahoma City

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Wisteria Franklin and Swiss Mister - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Wisteria Franklin and Swiss Mister

Wisteria Franklin was 4 years old when she watched Wild Horse, Wild Ride, a movie about taming wild horses and people who attempt to give the animals a "mustang makeover." She thought that was "really cool," she recalled, and decided that's what she was going to do.

"I wanted the crazy kind [of horse]," she said. "The wild kind."

At the time, Franklin was living in Harbin, China, where her American parents taught English to Chinese students. The fact that she was half a world away from the western United States, where mustangs roam, didn't deter her. She watched the movie again and again, and she scoured the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website for information on the horses.

The federal agency "has placed more than 240,000 wild horses and burros into private care since 1971," according to its website. "Many of those animals have become excellent pleasure, show, or work horses."

Franklin, now 16, moved with her family five years ago to the Northeast Kingdom, where they live on a farm in Wheelock. This month, the teen with blond braids and a ready smile will start her junior year at St. Johnsbury Academy. She plans to study biomedical engineering as an undergraduate, hopefully at Dartmouth College.

But first, true to her pronouncement a dozen years ago, she will soon compete with her mustang yearling, Swiss Mister, in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, August 12 through 14, in Oklahoma City. Franklin is one of 31 competitors in the youth division, an event for 8- to 18-year-olds.

She'll wear the neon-stitched, skull-embossed cowboy boots she bought on eBay for $119 and lead Swiss Mister — a gentle beauty she purchased for $25 — in a series of routines and a freestyle event.

Competitors are judged on the degree to which they've tamed and trained their horses in a span of 100 to 120 days. (There's leeway on the time frame due to the logistics of picking up and transporting the mustangs, according to event organizers.)

Franklin named her horse Swiss Mister, her gender tweak on Swiss Miss cocoa mix, because "he looks like a cup of hot chocolate." But the name also fits his temperament. Swiss Mister is a sweet, 14-hand horse who likes to nuzzle people with his nose — after he lifts up his head from chomping on summer grass.

Franklin picked him up in April in Pikeville, Tenn., at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility. He was born in captivity to a mare from the Desatoya Mountains in Nevada. Franklin trucked him home to Vermont with her trainer, Brittany Mayer, and her mother, Midi Ana Bilik-Franklin, who signed the official papers because Franklin is under 18.

At a stop at Mayer's horse farm in Cumberland, R.I., Franklin and Swiss Mister were together in a little pen, she recalled. After 15 minutes, the teen touched his nose. When Swiss Mister accepted her touch, Franklin moved her hand down his body.

"You work your way down their sides," she explained at her farm in late July, the day before leaving for the Mustang Makeover. "I was able to hug him the first day. He let me love all over him. I was so happy!"

Swiss Mister is the second mustang Franklin has trained. It was 49 days before she was able to touch her first one, Flannel. She was 15 when she got him and has since sold him to a woman in Burke, Franklin said.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit based in Granger, Texas, organizes the Extreme Mustang Makeover. The group's mission is to move wild horses and burros from federal land and holding corrals to responsible homes and private care. Roughly 98,000 mustangs live free in the West without adequate resources, including food and water, according to Ann Souders, the foundation's community engagement organizer. The nonprofit hopes to place 4,000 horses this year.

"Many people think mustangs are just a feral horse, not a big-name horse," Souders said. "By us doing the extreme makeover, it shows what somebody can do with grit and compassion and a lot of love in 100 days."

Franklin worked with Swiss Mister for about two hours a day when school was in session — and more during her summer break. In the corral by the barn, she set up various training activities. She can hold him by his lead while she jumps on a little trampoline. And she can crouch on a pair of plastic barrels and straddle the horse as he sticks his head between her legs. As a yearling, Swiss Mister is too young to ride.

Mayer, 30, said that Franklin and Swiss Mister are wonderful together. "I think that they're a fantastic match," she said. "This horse is letting Wisteria step out and see what she can do."

Wisteria Franklin and Swiss Mister - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Wisteria Franklin and Swiss Mister

Franklin has been learning about and riding horses for years. At age 6, she started riding lessons on Lummi Island, Wash., where her family moved after leaving China. At 7, she got a pony she named Buddy. She has attended desensitization clinics led by a mounted police officer, who taught people how to handle situations that scare or unnerve their horses.

Franklin has also worked with various trainers who focused on handling horses in real-life scenarios — "applied-horse stuff," she called it.

These days, Franklin is working on setting clearer boundaries and being more intentional with Swiss Mister, she explained.

"I spend too much time thinking instead of doing," Franklin said. "I take too long to reflect."

Franklin's mother was 40 when she got her first horse, a Belgian. She advised her daughter that, if she was brave enough to tame a wild horse, she should "go for it."

"I'm amazed," said Bilik-Franklin, 50, who teaches English online. "I would've never had the gall to do it myself. My horses intimidate me — and mine have been trained."

Working with mustangs has built her daughter's confidence, Bilik-Franklin said. "It's opened her up as a human," she said. "She had a dream at 4 and went for it at 15."

In the freestyle competition in Oklahoma City, Franklin plans to perform a Mardi Gras-inspired voodoo routine, aiming to show off Swiss Mister's versatility and trainability, she said.

En route to the Mustang Makeover, Franklin stopped at Mayer's farm to work primarily on her showmanship. Though she said Swiss Mister has been "pretty chill" as the competition approaches, his owner has had a case of the nerves.

"He's really good. He's doing super well," Franklin said. "I'm really nervous, but I'm really excited."

In Oklahoma City, she has two objectives: She'd like to win, and she wants to sell Swiss Mister for $3,000, though she loves him. "He's so cool," she said. "He's the bomb."

Franklin wants to rescue another mustang, train the horse and find a home for it. By this method, more mustangs will have suitable places to live, she reasoned.

Souders said it's common for people to want to keep helping mustangs.

"Once you get around these mustangs, they are highly contagious and you're going to want more," she said. "It changes people's lives when they tame a wild animal and earn their trust."

Patting Swiss Mister at the farm in Wheelock, Franklin anticipated saying goodbye to him. "Handing off the lead rope is a sad feeling," she said. "But it's also a satisfying feeling, because I did something good."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mustang Love"