When Alexia Hulen and Blitz enter the showmanship ring this winter, few are likely to suspect that just a year earlier the bay gelding had never known a human's touch.
"He's a total pocket-pony," says Hulen, a 16-year-old junior at St. Mary's School in Medford.
Blitz's trusting, affectionate demeanor is evidence of how far the mustang has traveled from his wild origins in Eastern Oregon. Rounded up in November, gelded in January and transferred to Hulen's care in May, Blitz has walked on a lead rope for only the past two months. Last week in Yamhill, Blitz and Hulen placed third in a field of 21 teams at the Teens and Oregon Mustangs Youth and Yearling Challenge.
"This means more to me than any blue ribbon or anything I've ever done," says Hulen.
The Talent resident is the only Southern Oregon teen to participate in this year's Teens and Oregon Mustangs program, cosponsored by the nonprofit Mustang Heritage Foundation and Bureau of Land Management, which oversees herds of approximately 38,000 wild horses and burros in 10 Western states. Blitz hails from the South Steens herd, which roams the BLM's Burns District, home to seven other herd-management areas.
"I could start by making a difference with just one," says Hulen, who can count the project as community-service credit required of St. Mary's students.
Riding since age 7 and working as a stable hand for the past three years, Hulen gravitated toward mustangs after watching the annual Extreme Mustang Makeover in Albany and visiting the BLM Wild Horse Corrals in Hines. By random draw, Blitz was given over to Hulen until he could be officially adopted.
"They're just babies," says Hulen of the yearling who stands approximately 12 hands. "He still has his baby teeth and everything."
Worm-ridden, his mane and tail matted, Blitz left the pens in Hines amid unseasonal snow. Unfazed by inclement road conditions, the bay munched hay for most of the ride with Hulen's aunt, 57-year-old Hilary Hulen. When he reached the family's 2.5-acre property — already home to mare Keeper and geldings Squeek and Foxy — Blitz "just calmly walked out" of the trailer into the round pen, says Alexia Hulen.
But Blitz didn't prove so compliant over the next month, which Hulen spent trying to reel in his 6-foot lead rope, affixed by the BLM, and prodding him with a 6-foot pole to simulate touch.
"He was always just out of reach," says Hulen. "I wasn't afraid; I just didn't know what to do."
Once Blitz recognized Hulen as a source of snacks and the scratching he so craved, he started to approach her. Soon he was trailer-loading for lessons with trainer John Keener at Eagle Point's Reese Creek Ranch. Keener, who recommended Hulen to Teens and Oregon Mustangs, instructed her in showmanship maneuvers and aspects of socializing Blitz for future owners.
"I don't think I would have done anything different," says Keener of Hulen's efforts.
That effort paid off last week when Blitz took second place in the Yearling Challenge's in-hand trail event. On a course that Hulen describes as more difficult than many designed for adult competition, Blitz traversed a teeter-totter and negotiated a swath of dangling objects, known as a "car-wash" while dodging flocks of ducks and chickens and a "scary mannequin." The duo's freestyle sequence scored a perfect 10 despite windy conditions that worried Hulen — but not Blitz.
"The tarp blew off him, and he didn't care," she says. "I think he would make a really good trail horse — he's really brave."
No longer able to deny her attachment to the horse she planned to relinquish at the event, Hulen appealed to the crowd of prospective buyers while her aunt stood ready to bid on Blitz. In the end, Hulen only had to pay $25, a nonrefundable fee to the BLM, to adopt Blitz herself. The first-place horse, a chestnut filly, sold for $800, while others went for about $200, says Hulen. She was among eight teens in the program who chose to keep their charges.
"I couldn't imagine driving home with an empty horse trailer," says Hulen.
Hulen says she feared Blitz's adoptive home would be too far to visit and hopes neighbors will want to purchase him. In the meantime, she'll groom Blitz for competition with her school's equestrian team and plans to apply next year for a new mustang, who would have an ideal role model in Blitz.
"He picks up on stuff really fast," says Hulen. "Mustangs can be just as good as any other horse."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.