Photo: Maria Marriott Photography
In 2021, I had the pleasure to meet Sam Van Fleet of Van Fleet Mustangs at a liberty clinic she was giving in California at Sweetbeau Horses. Upon talking to her, I was immediately impressed by what she has accomplished in her then 22 years - especially related to her work gentling and training mustangs.
Traveling the country in her truck, pulling a horse trailer, she manages to compete, write, give clinics, and maintain a strong social media presence while being an ambassador for the American Mustang. She has been a top competitor in the Youth Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions for almost 10 years, and has become a strong practitioner and trainer of liberty work.
Sam, thank you for taking the time today out of what is undoubtedly a hectic schedule to talk about my favorite topic of mustangs. I’m not sure where you find the time in the day to do everything you do, but your story is fascinating and I’d like for my readers to hear about the incredible work you are doing with mustangs.
Maria: Let’s start with a little background. At what age did you start riding? What inspired you to specialize in gentling and training wild horses, and how did you get started in this field?
Sam: I began volunteering with horses when I was 12. First I learned general horse care from the draft horse rescue I was at, then I learned how to drive a horse. I didn’t get too serious about riding until I was 14 or 15. Right after I turned 15, I competed in my first Youth Extreme Mustang Makeover. Truly, I had no idea what I was getting into. Someone shared a flyer to adopt a mustang to my Facebook wall. I filled out the application, was accepted to compete, found a barn to stay at and trailer ride on Craigslist… I thought I was golden and good to go!
Know When To Raise The Expectations...
The day before mustang pick up, I looked up what a mustang was. And I realized I was totally unqualified to be working with a mustang! Still I picked up and that was my first mustang, "Brazil."
Maria: Could you share some of the most important skills or techniques you use when working with young mustangs? How do you ensure their safety and build trust with them?
Sam: Patience and adjustability are the most important things when working with any wild horse. Taking the time to read their body language and giving them time to process is so vital in building trust. So is knowing when to raise the expectations, and when to keep the consistency. I’ve found, especially with the mustangs, that short, frequent sessions will help them understand the best.
There’s one other thing I find a lot of trainers struggle with, which is asking for help. Having a set of outside eyes from someone who is experienced is sometimes the key to increasing your training toolbox and helping the horse get to a more comfortable stage of domesticated life.
Maria: What has been your experience competing in the Youth Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions? How has this influenced your approach to training and working with mustangs?
Sam: The youth competitions are a great way for a young teen to work on their patience, and understand how to slow down. I feel that the connection with a mustang is really special and I wish that every kid would get an opportunity to experience that. If it wasn’t for the youth competition, I probably wouldn’t be working with mustangs as an adult.
"I needed to be more consistent and reliable
- like a member of her herd - until that trust was established."
Maria: Can you tell us about a particularly challenging mustang you have worked with, and how you overcame any difficulties in the training process?
Sam: My 2019 FL Extreme Mustang Makeover draw, "Boo", from Salt Wells Creek Wyoming, was probably my most flighty mustang.
It took me 14 days to take her tag off. She required consistency, patience, and a lot of brainstorming.
Truly, the brainstorming was for me to slow down and think even simpler. My mare was just acting on her instincts and what she knew, and I needed to be more consistent and reliable - like a member of her herd - until that trust was established.
This experience helped me with my show nerves as well, because if I got slightly out of tune, I knew that was going to throw her off as well. I had no choice but to stay calm, competition aside, so I could keep her comfortable.
Maria: What do you think are the most common misconceptions people have about mustangs, and how do you work to dispel those myths?
Sam: Often times people think that mustangs are not able to do a variety of disciplines. But they are just like any other breed of horse. Each individual horse will be good at certain things, and some will be good at other things. I try my best to show mustangs in a large variety of disciplines.
I also think some people are too heavy handed, and some people are too light handed. It’s about finding what works for each individual horse. Based on how a person normally handles a horse, they may label a mustang in certain ways.
“They’re super flighty”, maybe the handler hasn’t been consistent long enough with them before moving along. Or, “They are wicked dull”, might mean the human wasn’t sequencing their cues, which works with the horse’s natural quiet abilities and responses.
I love to share about mustangs through YouTube and liberty clinics. That’s the best thing I can do to help change people’s minds. Mustangs are just as valuable as any other breed.
Maria: The clinic you gave last year on liberty techniques really made an impression on me. Can you talk a little about working with formerly wild mustangs without having any equipment to control them?
Sam: Liberty work really helps working with mustangs, especially in the gentling stages. So much of the training is body language, reading what they are telling you, and adjusting. It brings me back to sequencing your cues… Which is always starting with the lightest ask possible, and continuing along in a specific sequence of increasing pressure… the same sequence that you use every time.
Eventually, it will tie in to paying attention to your energy. It takes some time to learn how to direct your energy, have resting energy, or change how you’re presenting it. Everything leads to slowing down, and tuning in.
Of course, having so many different horses to work with really helps with this! It requires a lot of time to practice.
Photo: Maria Marriott Photography
Maria: You also are quite impressive as a trick trainer. Could you share your favorite trick training routine, and what goes into developing and preparing to perform?
Sam: As far as trick training goes, I really enjoy teaching my horses how to lay down. Of course, there will be some horses that are not comfortable laying down - either because they were trained and disciplined for that in the past, or because they have some physical limitations.
But I think it is one of the best ways to work on trust. It’s asking your horse to go into the most vulnerable position, and then being safe with them in that position. It’s so rewarding to know that a horse feels safe enough to lay down next to you.
If I’m preparing my horse to do this in a high energy environment, it’s just a lot of practice and repetition. They need to trust that I will keep them safe and decide the best thing for them in that moment. The other obvious tip for preparing is to work on a trick or liberty/trick routine in as many locations as possible.
"Don’t bring that energy to a mustang until you feel like you are ready to always have the horse’s best interest in mind."
Maria: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in getting started in gentling and training mustangs? What are some key things to keep in mind when working with these horses?
Sam: If you are scared of change (of your methods and what you think is “right”), timid, and aren’t interested in every getting help, a mustang is not for you. You need to be honest, true and raw with yourself. Nothing is wrong with you if you are scared of change, but don’t bring that energy to a mustang until you feel like you are ready to always have the horse’s best interest in mind.
You need to be adjustable, and you need to be ready to ask for help. In order to not get in over your head, maybe have some people with mustang experience lined up to help if you are determined to do this on your own. Or see if you can audit and listen to mustang trainers for awhile first.
Usually, a mustang shows you what work YOU need for yourself. There’s a big possibility it will end up being more working on you, rather than working on the mustang.
Maria: I’m really looking forward to the next time you are in California doing a clinic. Please let me know when you will be here. And I appreciate your time today sharing some of your insights and experience with my readers.
You can read more about Sam and her story at vanfleetmustangs.com and make sure to check out her training and mustang gentling videos on YouTube (Sam VanFleet). Contact her via email, email@example.com, or through her Facebook page, Sam VanFleet’s Mustangs.
A Wild Horse Photographer’s Journey
An equestrian for most of her life, award winning equine photographer Maria Marriott combines her passion for horses with her wild horse art and the desire to bring public awareness to the American mustangs and the healing power of horses. She is proud to have her equine fine art in collectors’ homes and offices throughout the world.