Nineteen-year-old McKinley Winburn has been a horse lover for as long as she can remember. After begging to be introduced to horses as a little girl, she finally went to her first horse camp as an eight-year-old, and according to McKinley, that’s when her “horse addiction” began.
About the same time she began riding, she stumbled upon a documentary featuring wild horses and the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition. “I started watching all the videos of trainers working with wild Mustangs and aspired to do it one day, no matter how long it took me to get there,” Mckinley states.
McKinley became a horse owner at thirteen years old. The horse, Ruger, was an untrained rescue who would show her what it would be like working with a horse “from the bottom up,” as McKinley puts it. Sadly, he passed away in 2019 after contracting botulism.
Rightfully so, McKinley says her biggest challenge in her equestrian life so far has been overcoming Ruger’s death. She explains, “It is hard to pick yourself back up and keep moving forward after it feels like your world shattered before you. I planned my entire future with this horse. All these Hunter Jumper and Germantown Charity Horse Shows that we could attend, all these places we could travel, but it all slipped out of my fingers in an instant, and before I knew it he was gone. I remember lots of prayer and crying out to God. He was the only thing that was able to pick me up out of the darkness and push me forward to continue to put one foot in front of the other.”
And from that darkness, the tragedy served as a catalyst to create a very positive aspect of McKinley’s life: the beginning of her dream of working with Mustangs. After Ruger’s passing, McKinley decided it would be worth a shot to apply for the Mustang Makeover. The likelihood of being accepted was low due to her never having prior experience or working under a Mustang trainer, but “I had nothing to lose, so I applied,” says McKinley. A couple weeks later she received the announcement of her acceptance into the Mustang Makeover. “This was the beginning of my childhood dream becoming reality,” McKinley emphasizes.
Fast forward a few years, and McKinley has now competed in four Mustang Makeovers, 3 TIP (Training Incentive Program) challenges, and 1 Extreme Mustang Makeover. Each challenge has a set time of 100 days to pick up a wild Mustang from holding and train it. At the end of the 100 days, all the trainers travel to compete against each other and win prizes.
With her first Mustang, McKinley had the opportunity to select her horse based on pictures before picking it up. A little, skinny sorrel caught her eye. “For some reason, my heart was drawn to this sorrel, so I chose him and picked him up the next day,” she says.
McKinley explains, “Gaining his trust was a long process involving just studying his body language, his movements and behaviors, what scared him, and what spooked him. I just sat in the pen with him for hours on end- just to be in each other’s presence. A week of consistency and perseverance passed, and I was able to pet him, halter him, and take him out of the pen for the first time after halter breaking him. It did not take long for this horse to sneak his way into my heart and become my best friend. Four years later, my first little Mustang, Magnum, has grown up and is still my best friend. At the 100 day competition, we placed 1st in our handling class, 1st in a hunt pace, and competed in several different events over the states.”
Magnum is now 6 years old, and McKinley
has owned him for 4 years. He has transformed from a little 12 hand pony who had never been in contact with a person before to an impeccably trained equine partner. “Throughout the years, I broke him under saddle, and now he has been ridden cross country, western pleasure, hunter jumper, hunter, and even run barrels. He loves to do liberty work and tricks, such as liberty circles, laying down, sitting, side passing, playing tag, and more. Although I have taught him a lot of things, he also has taught me more than I could put into words. I wouldn’t be the person I am without him,” McKinley explains.
McKinley credits Mustang trainer, Bobby Kerr, as being very influential in her advancement as a Mustang trainer. “Watching how he worked with his horses on deeper levels than just getting the job done was beautiful to me, and I knew that it was something I had to do. There have been so many people along the way who have encouraged me, pointed me in the right direction, and taught me various things to get to where I am. I am so thankful for the riding instructors who taught me how to ride and for my parents, Jennifer and Michael, who blessed me with the opportunity to chase my dreams,” McKinley says.
With all of her achievements as a young Mustang trainer, one may guess McKinley considers her equestrian career as her biggest accomplishment thus far. However, she actually has something even bigger to be most proud of: “My biggest accomplishment would be getting accepted into my dream school, Mississippi State University, and having the opportunity to bring my dream horse with me. I am pursuing a career in Veterinary Medicine, and I am filled with joy that I get to do that all alongside the horse that got me here, Magnum. I am now a sophomore at State majoring in Animal Dairy Science to achieve my Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. I have worked in a small animal clinic throughout high school and love working with all animals, big and small. I’m not sure which direction I am headed yet specifically within the veterinary medical field, but I cannot wait for what the future holds, and I’m so glad that animals will always be a part of it.”