GARWOOD, N.J. - Many teenage boys of driving age dream of owning a mustang but for James Duffey, of Garwood, N.J., it wasn't the car he was after but its namesake, a wild horse from the American West.
James, 17, honed his equestrian skills at Watchung Stable where he won the title of Watchung Troop Show Senior Champion in 2015. He was the first young man, in a group that is ninety percent girls, to win that title and earn his ranking as First Class Trooper in over a decade.
James took part in the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover Youth Challenge where he placed seventh overall. This, the second event in the Makeover series, was held June 15th to 17th in West Springfield, Mass. The series finale in Texas, with a top adult prize of $50,000 will be held September 14th to 16th and will be streamed live.
The Extreme Mustang Makeover is a horse training competition which gives competitors an untouched American mustang and just 100 days to train the horse before competing. The Youth Challenge in Massachusetts contest included 16 competitors ranging in age from 8 to 17.
The horses for the 2017 youth event were all fillies less a year old. James' randomly assigned horse, #4046, is a flaxen chestnut he named "Guinevere's Thestral," a.k.a. “Gwen.” He had 14 weeks to prepare for the three-part contest.
He said, "Looking back on it, it is hard to believe that it took me a week just to be able to touch Gwen and a few more days to be able to get a halter on her. I remember feeling like I was falling behind really fast. Now, she comes to me when I call her and wants to be right by my side."
The competition is a combination of three classes, Handling and Conditioning, Trail Obstacles, and Freestyle. James said, "In the Handling class we had to release our horse in a round pen and un-halter her, exit, wait a few seconds, then re-enter and halter our horse. Many of the yearlings kind of stood there or walked back to the gate waiting to leave. Then there were some, like mine, who wanted play time and started running around. When I re-entered to get her, I snapped my fingers, she tossed her head a bit and then came straight to me. The judge liked that. Then we did some walking and trotting between cones, a pivot, and brush both sides.
“The horses are also judged on their physical condition. That's a little hard. The more I fed Gwen the taller she got, which also made her get thinner. We tied for sixth place and the judge used Conditioning for the tie breaker, so we got seventh place."
The trail obstacle class was composed of 11 obstacles, including walking over a bridge, picking up feet in a box, trotting through cones, putting a saddle pad on and off, side passing, and backing up. Each obstacle was worth a possible 4 points, with the lowest scored obstacle being eliminated. James said, "We did pretty well in the trail class. I was really proud of how much more relaxed she was. She was a little too relaxed in the box and tried to wander off when I picked up her feet. I taught her to follow me when we do ground obstacles, so she walked right over the bridge no problem when I went first, but she wouldn't walk over it next to me, which would have given us a slightly higher score. She also side passes nicely when I push on her ribs.
“One of the girls taught her filly to side pass when she stands next to the horse and crosses her own feet, with no pressure on the horse at all. I thought that was really cool. It definitely got her a higher score. I made some good friends during the weekend. I was so proud of one of them, her horse learned to trot in hand during the practice time between the first two classes and they did so much better in the trails because of it. And one of the girls was helping some of the other kids teach their horses to lay down during our break time. They were a great group to work with." James placed fifth in the trail obstacle class, putting him in sixth overall going into the Saturday finale, the freestyle class.
"Saturday was a lot more nerve racking. The freestyle is the hardest class with the most preparation and the most risk. It is like an ice skating or dance routine. I designed my program around Disney's movie Tangled. Gwen is the only blonde and I like the music, so it was easy to see her as Rapunzel.”
“We are not allowed to ride or even saddle our horses, because it could injure them for life since they are so young. Everything has to be done from a lead rope, lunge line, or at liberty. My freestyle included blindfold work, pivots, a tarp tunnel, laying down, cantering figure eights with flying lead changes, jumping, archery, bowing, and a starter pistol. It didn't all go as planned. The DJ played some really loud drum beat intermission music when we were standing there waiting to enter. I had the blindfold on already and the boom spooked her, so I had to eliminate it from our program.
“Gwen got caught on the tunnel and it started to fall, but she only backed up a few steps. She wouldn't lay down. Actually, none of the yearlings would lie down during the freestyle programs. Which is really funny, because we have a picture from Friday with most of us in the practice ring and nearly all of them lying down at the same time.
“She didn't go over the jump, even though I did. She wandered off during archery. But she did bow on the second cue. Honestly, from the spooking before we walked in, through the whole event it felt like a disaster. I couldn't stop laughing the entire time. It was the most fun disaster I've ever had. We got ninth place in the freestyle," said James smiling.
"The youth challenge competitors are very tough. Some of them have parents who were in the top 10 finale in the adult division of the Makeover. Some have done this competition a couple of times before or their siblings have. Most of them live on a farm and get to their horses by walking out their back door. I finished seventh place overall against very talented and experienced kids. At 17, it will take some ego out of you to be beat fair and square by an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old who really know what they are doing. Especially when they are such nice, hard working boys.
“As a novice rookie, I'm happy with the result. The judge was very positive about our performance and encouraged me to keep working on it until we get it right. I'm even happier that I get to keep Guinevere. I'm so attached to her. After 100 days and over 500 hours of training, I can't imagine selling her at auction, the way the adults do at the end of their awards."
James was sponsored for the Extreme Mustang Makeover by Legacy Riding Stables in Sayreville, N.J. Legacy currently has several mustangs among their horses. Brittani Bojum, owner of Legacy, said "I may have been his sponsor for the Makeover, but he did all of the work. I was surprised at how little help he asked for with Gwen. Her results are a reflection of her trainer and no one else. James and others like him are the kind of young horse enthusiast that I want see as the leaders of the next generation of the horse industry. This business is full of money and passing fancy. Not James; he has the commitment, which he clearly demonstrated with 100 consecutive days of training.
“He has the talent. All of the kids who beat him in Massachusetts were repeat competitors or their parents were. That's saying something for a rookie. I'm looking forward to seeing him compete as an adult next season, when we host him again. He'll be able to ride add his riding ability into his training with his next Makeover mustang."
"I had one of the biggest fan clubs in the stands at the event. I can't thank my parents and church family and friends enough for their support during this adventure. Their interest, time, effort, financial support, and prayers got me through the 100 days and the contest. I couldn't have done it without them," James said.
Visitors to Legacy Riding Stables can meet Guinevere and take a trail ride through Sayreville Township's 500-acre Capik Nature Preserve on one of their capable horses, including domesticated mustangs like Cambria and Pumpkin. Legacy recently completed construction on a new riding ring and plan to open a non-profit therapeutic riding program in the Spring of 2018, with James as one of the instructors.
As part of Legacy's Halloween weekend fun, their three year old black mustang, Charlie, with James as rider and team coach, will showcase the new ring on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. for the free Halloween performance of the newly formed Legacy Drill Team.
Legacy Riding Stables is at 3333 Bordentown Ave., Sayreville, N.J. 08872 Call 732-727-3838 or see LegacyRidingStables.com for more information.
See ExtremeMustangMakeover.com for more information about the Extreme Mustang Makeover or follow on Facebook facebook.com/extrememustangmakeover/ . The year-end finale is being held in Texas, Sept. 14 to 16.