Wilson Sisters Tame Wild Horses
Thousands tuned in to watch the Wilson sisters tame wild horses. Their next adventure was a walk in the ... prairie writes Dionne Christian
They brought the plight of New Zealand's wild horses to national attention in the TV show Keeping Up with the Kaimanawas, but if that looked like the adventure of a lifetime, wait till you read about what the Wilson sisters did next.
As an estimated 450,000 viewers tuned into each episode - winning sisters Vicki, Amanda and Kelly fans outside the equestrian circles in which they're well known - the trio was in the United States living a dream.
They turned their attention to wild mustangs and the challenge of taming horses in time for the invitation-only Extreme Mustang Makeover in the United States. But it almost proved too straightforward for the sisters, who are used to working with multiple horses simultaneously, so they decided to head off on a "road trip" with a difference: 5000km across Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada on horseback.
They were joined by friends Alexa Dodson and Kirsty Wagstaff and set out to see as much as the truly Wild West as they could. Now their journey, and what they learned about mustangs, is shared in Kelly's latest book, Mustang Ride which is released on Monday.
"It was the best four months of my life," Amanda says wistfully, sitting in the living room of her family farmhouse in Hukerenui, Northland.
She couldn't resist bringing a living and breathing reminder of the trip back home so now Bragg - believed to be the first mustang brought to New Zealand - has joined the 35 or so horses on their property.
Taken to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, mustangs are regarded as "a living symbol of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" but, like New Zealand's Kaimanawa horses, need to be managed. It means the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) frequently rounds up feral mustangs, housing them in giant holding paddocks for years as there is a "no slaughter" policy.
"Horse prisons," says Kelly, an award-winning photographer who wrote the bestselling books For the Love of Horses and Stallion Challenges about her family's life with horses and work with the Kaimanawas.
As the sisters discovered, the mustangs have quite a reputation. "We went to a stables where there were some English riders and when they heard we had a trailer with mustangs in it, they backed right away," Kelly recalls.
She says any negative stereotype is undeserved. Because they have been penned in for so long, they were keen for stimulation and something to do and, says Vicki, in many respects were easier to train than Kaimanawas. "With mustangs you're taking them out of a prison and offering them freedom; with Kaimanawas you're taking them out of the wild and are yarding them."
Because of this, as Vicki goes on to explain, it's a totally different psychological approach to training the two wild breeds. Four days after arriving at the BLM yards, the girls loaded five mares on to a seven-horse trailer and headed to Wyoming, where they were to be based. Working with just one horse each, progress was quick so, within a couple of weeks, the decision was made to set out and see the sights.
They rode across deserts and prairies, through grasslands and forests; alongside herds of wild horses and within sight of moose, elk, grizzly bears, squirrels and a variety of birds. They passed through ghost towns and long-abandoned corrals; they slept under the stars or accepted hospitality from strangers cabout these Kiwis and how they could tame wild mustangs.
"That's a man's job," at least one old cowboy told them more than once.
However, before Amanda and Vicki could prove them wrong, there was unexpected news: both their horses were deemed unsuitable for the competition. It left Kelly to fly the flag for the Wilson sisters and fly it she did, coming sixth out of 38 riders.
"The people we met were just lovely, so hospitable," says Amanda. "We've honestly made some of the best friends we've ever had there and found homes for a number of mustangs."
But, it isn't enough to find homes for mustered horses just anywhere. A big part of what the Wilson sisters do is to ensure horses - be they mustangs in the US or Kaimanawas in New Zealand - go to homes with owners who can provide the sort of environment they need to thrive. "Otherwise what sort of a life is it?" Vicki asks.
Although the title of their TV series may have been inspired with by certain US "celebrity family", unlike the Kardashian clan, the sisters don't have a lot of time for taking selfies or parties. They run Showtym Horses, with training clinics, holiday programmes and coaching for young riders as well as competing on the show jumping circuit.
Amanda also makes documentaries about their exploits while Kelly writes. A fortnight after Mustang Ride is released, Kelly's first picture book Ranger the Kaimanawa Stallion, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, will also appear in bookstores. They tell of the type of adventures she, Vicki and Amanda would like more youngsters to have. Kelly says that every year, they see kids becoming more self-conscious, more hung up on what they look like and what their friends may think of them, more worried about checking their phones.
"And I get more and more concerned. If we can inspire kids to get outdoors, dream big and and live life to the fullest then I feel like we will have succeeded in life."
Article originally published in The New Zealand Herald.