Local teen has a heart for wild mustangs

By KATE LUDLOW

Morgan Moreno gets a hug from her horse, Charlie Brown, an American Mustang. (Photo by Kate Ludlow)

Liberty Hill teen Morgan Moreno recently competed in the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, an event that works to educate horse enthusiasts to the talent and trainability of feral American Mustangs.

She placed 6th overall out of 66 youth contestants, and she and her horse, Charlie Brown, were picked as Fan Favorites for their Olympic-themed show routine. Those prizes brought Morgan over $6,000 in prize money, as well as a belt buckle, the official gold medal of Texans.

“When Charlie’s first owner got him, he had never been touched by humans,” said Morgan. “The original adopter got him in mid-May. She did some work with him, so he was a little bit ready.”

Sadly, the original adopter suffered a major blow dealing with a death in her immediate family and had to give up Charlie.

“She hadn’t had the time to do a lot with him. She had put him in a halter, and had done some work in the round pen. She knew that I had been interested in mustang training, so she called and got him to me,” Morgan said.

“When I got him, it was hard. I couldn’t touch him, couldn’t put my hands past his face. I couldn’t pick up his feet. I couldn’t tie him anywhere. It was really tough to get started,” she said.

But a quick start was what they needed. Most mustang adopters got their horses 130 days before the competition. Morgan was starting with just 45 days before she would have to take Charlie to Fort Worth and show off whatever skills he could learn.

“You have to be approved as an adopter, basically just show where you keep the horse, they review your schedule and make sure you have time for a horse,” said Morgan.

Her mother, Shelly Moreno, also noted that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the governing body for mustang adoption, also had to see a layout of her land including its fencing. They were approved, and the family took in the yearling.

“I was very against this in the beginning,” said Mrs. Moreno. “We have smaller children, and I was nervous about having a wild mustang out here. But Charlie has transformed. He loves affection now. He used to be so scared.”

With no formal training, Morgan had to figure out where to start. At 17, she had raised eight horses and drew on that experience when working with Charlie.

“Every horse I had before got me where I was,” says Morgan. “But Charlie was so willing to work for a trainer, he really wants to learn and work hard. Most of the kids have parents who were trainers, or they were able to spend the summer with a trainer,” said Morgan. “I had to teach myself most of this.

“When we started off he was scared, of fly spray, of plastic bags. To get him used to the plastic bags, I tied some to the fence for a few days. When he got used to it, he was just trying to eat it,” says Morgan.

During the summer, Megan worked with Charlie for a few hours each morning and evening. When school began, Morgan was lucky that it only overlapped with training by two weeks. She worked with Charlie in the morning, after school, and again in the evening.

“Charlie is really a great horse for this. He’s interested and willing to learn. It’s hard when you don’t have a horse that’s willing,” says Morgan. “At first, we just did routine training, but the first step was to get him comfortable with me and learn that I was a safe place. Then I stared standing close to him, and touching him more and more. I started to teach him that I could touch him, but he doesn’t need to invade my space. That’s a big safety concern with wild animals.

“There were days when I was in tears, when he was tired, and I couldn’t get through to him that we just couldn’t stop. The worst days were when he ran away from me in the arena. During the day, I would leave the radio on really loud to get him used to noise. During the show, he was going to be up against crowds, noise, everything. It’s funny, now I see how other horses get scared, and he just stands there,” she said.

With Morgan working so closely with her horse, it’s hard for her not to know his personality better than anyone.

“He’s really nosy. He gets into stuff. But he’s a good horse for treat trainging. Like, right now, I have a treat in my pocket, and he’s trying to figure out how to get to it.

“We had to work on good showmanship, walking, stopping on command, leading trail, pivoting. We had to work until he could do all the things he might be asked to do in a normal day,” says Morgan.

Though they were competitors, Morgan’s says everybody was working together, and helping each other out.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I got up at 4:30 a.m., and went to the barn. Someone had left apples and a note in front of each stall, saying ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ The environment was so friendly,” she said.

While there, she got to meet a legend, Mark Lyons.

“He had helped get 19 horses there. They came in a semi-truck. He was working with a girl I had made friends with. He was very supportive. You would think he wouldn’t want to help the competition, but he was helping me,” she said.

Morgan and Charlie’s routine was based on the Olympics, and was set to a medley of the Olympics opening theme, “Get Ready for This” by European dance group 2 Unlimited, and the National Anthem. Morgan wore a red, white, and blue workout uniform, while Charlie wore sweatbands and a gold medal. Morgan expertly guided Charlie through s series of moves, where he put a ball in a basket, walked backwards on a tarp painted to look like a lane swimming pool, gave high-fives from a pedestal, and ended with Charlie bowing to the flag for the National Anthem.

“That was the crowd favorite,” says Morgan. The freestyle routine was picked as Fan Favorite.

“We took glittered cups and used them to make the Olympic rings on his rear. They liked that. He was one of the best looking horses out there.”

In the end, Morgan scored well in all three of her classes, placing 8th in Trail, 7th in Compulsory, and 21st in Pattern. From those scores, she made it into the Top 20. Out of the Top 20, Morgan ended up in 6th place.

Morgan and her family previously lived in Round Rock, where at the age of six, Morgan developed a little girl’s obsession with horses. She started taking English riding lessons.

“We lived in the suburbs, and my family did not have a horse background. My dad had ridden before, but he had never owned a horse,” says Morgan. “We moved to get a horse of our own. It was cheaper to move than to board a horse.

“I would never want someone else to go check on my horses. When they’re at home, they’re right there, and you’re the one doing the work,” says Morgan.

Over time, Morgan started barrel racing and speed racing, but an injury slowed her down.

“I hurt my back in seventh grade athletics, and I was able to race. But that allowed me to focus on judged events, and I was able to use the riding skills I had learned instead of just trying to have the fastest horse,” she said.

When not competing, Morgan, who is a senior at Liberty Hill High School, is also President of the National Honor Society. She is in the top 10 percent of her class. She is also President of the Liberty Hill Future Farmers of America, and President of the Williamson County Rowels Club, a local horse riding club. She wants to go to college to study either psychology or equine therapy.

As for Charlie, she is required to keep him for at least a year, and Morgan is finished working with him.

“I’m hoping to break him, and get him ridden when he’s a bit older. I’m going to have to sell him, so I’m hoping to find a good home for him,” she said.

The BLM estimates that 29,500 wild horses are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states.

“The majority of those are in Nevada, Oregon, California or Wyoming. We think Charlie is from Nevada, due to his traits,” says Morgan.

Charlie, like most wild mustangs, is smaller in stature, but has the trademark “jug head” that defines mustangs. His legs are thicker than a domesticated horse.

Next year, Morgan hopes to compete in the Extreme Mustang Makeover again, but with her 18th birthday coming up, this time she’ll be in the Legends Division where the horses are three years old and up. She’ll have some tough competition as well.

“I’ll be competing with Mark Lyons and Mary Miller Jordan,” says Morgan of the competition that will put her up against the people that she has admired for years.

Morgan is putting away most of her prize money for college, but does plan to blow a little, perhaps on a new saddle. But for now, she’s just processing her win.

“I couldn’t believe I was there. I still can’t believe it happened,” she said.