METHUEN, Mass. — For three months, three women from the Merrimack Valley and New Hampshire have been working to train wild mustangs given to them as a part of a nationwide program.

The women, all experienced horse trainers, were given 100 days, beginning in April, to train their horses for the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a competition in which mustangs are judged in several categories, including facing several predetermined obstacles.

This year, the competition comes to Massachusetts for the first time, as 33 trainers from across the Northeast will gather Friday and Saturday at the Topsfield Fairgrounds. Following the competition, each horse will be put up for adoption, going to homes after living most of their lives in the wild.

In May, The Eagle-Tribune chronicled the women’s first days with their new horses. With the competition just a couple of weeks away, the newspaper recently visited each woman and her horse again to see how the training is going.


When Stephanie Marcelonis walked away from her mustang, Shakira, for just a few seconds, the palomino began digging her hooves into the ground and shaking her head back and forth nervously.

“She’s definitely a one-person horse,” Marcelonis said as she returned to Shakira’s side at CPM Stables. “Normally, it’s not a big deal for horses; to them, their riders are pretty interchangeable. Not this one. If I leave, she gets worried.”

It’s not surprising Shakira has become so attached to her trainer. According to Marcelonis, the duo have worked together nearly every day at Marcelonis’ CPM Stables in Newton, N.H., to prepare for the competition. Marcelonis has brought Shakira to several horse shows to prepare for this week’s competition; Shakira has placed near the top of the judges’ rankings at each show.

Marcelonis said training Shakira has been a “different type of training,” as she has had to teach Shakira lessons foals learn in a controlled environment.

“It hasn’t been hard, just different. She’s been really good,” Marcelonis said. “She likes to work. She gets bored.”

Shakira has gained more than 200 pounds since April, according to Marcelonis. With Marcelonis riding her, Shakira jogged in circles in the indoor training area at CPM. Shakira also jumped over several long poles lying along the ground, an obstacle she’ll likely have to face during the competition.

After the training session, Marcelonis brought Shakira out front and sprayed her gently with a hose. The mustang enjoyed every second of her “shower,” even putting her face in front of the hose and guzzling the water.

While some of the horses in the Extreme Mustang Makeover will leave their trainers for new homes after the competition, Marcelonis has no plans to let Shakira go.

“She’s a super sweet horse. I’m totally going to adopt her,” Marcelonis said.


Stella, the dapple gray mustang trained by Lisa Pappalardo, stood patiently as Pappalardo patted her neck.

She seemed healthy at a standstill, but as Pappalardo guided her inside the barn at Golden Shoe Stable in Methuen, the mustang trotted gingerly in circles, slightly limping as she tried to follow her trainer’s commands. A hip ailment is to blame, Pappalardo said.

“It took everything we did with her to figure it out,” Pappalardo said. “Anything more than a walk is tough for her. It’s a shame, because she has such a sweet, gentle personality. I feel awful.”

Stella’s injury will keep her out of this weekend’s competition. She’s been the only one to pull out due to injury, Pappalardo said.

During Stella’s first month of training, she would barely listen to Pappalardo, refusing to participate in any of the obstacles and even throwing Pappalardo off her back when the trainer attempted to ride her.

At first, Pappalardo thought the horse was being lazy. But soon she noticed a difference between her two hips, with her right appearing slightly disfigured. After some consideration, she called her veterinarian, who gave the unfortunate diagnosis.

Stella has been unable to train for over a month, but she’ll still attend the competition. Despite her injury, she has maintained her friendly personality. Pappalardo laughed as Stella rolled in the dirt inside the barn. The two shared several tender moments as well, as Stella wrapped her whole head around Pappalardo’s hands in a touching embrace.

“We’re just hugs and kisses now,” Pappalardo said, giving Stella a kiss on the nose.

Pappalardo wishes she and Stella could have participated in the competition. “I really thought we had a good chance at it,” she said.

Her new focus has become helping find Stella a permanent home. Any new owner would not be able to ride Stella because of the injury, but she would be a “phenomenal nanny” for young horses, or even just a companion for older horses or humans, Pappalardo said.

One thing Pappalardo would not want to see would be for Stella to return to the holding facility she came from before arriving in Methuen. There, Pappalardo said, she would only be fed, not cared for and loved by human owners.

“Right now, I’m just trying to get her used to other people. It’s all I can do,” Pappalardo said. “She’s an easy keeper and loves attention. She’d be a great horse for anybody.”


Kaitlyne Wadman rode her gray mustang, Sassy, in a corral on a sunny afternoon at the Milestone Equestrian Centre in Haverhill. On her trainer’s command, Sassy picked up speed and slowed down, a sign of the progress Wadman has made over the last three months.

“(The training) has been going really well,” Wadman said. “We absolutely adore her.”

Wadman has been working with Sassy nonstop, pushing her through obstacles and exercises at Milestone and going on several walks with her along private nature trails in the area. Sassy has also accompanied Wadman and her other horses to shows around New England, giving her the show and travel experience she’ll need when she heads to Topsfield.

The overall experience has been positive, but Wadman, who has been working with horses since she was a child, admits the process started slowly.

“She definitely has little more of an attitude (than other horses),” Wadman said. “She knows what she can get away with. She only knows her way; babies don’t know that. So it’s been interesting for sure.”

According to Wadman, Sassy has learned how to pick items off barrels and open small gates. During the visit, Sassy also enjoyed kicking a giant rubber ball around the indoor arena, speeding up toward the ball and head-butting it. Afterward, she trotted over to Wadman for her favorite treat, carrots.

“She doesn’t like to play if the carrots aren’t sweet enough,” Wadman said.

Wadman said the hardest part for Sassy has been “standing still.” She doesn’t like to just walk around, according to Wadman, and she enjoys being active, even to the point of tuning Wadman out.

“My favorite thing about her is that I can do anything with her,” Wadman said. “I’ve taken her on private trails, walked over a bridge and gone on walks down the street. She likes all that stuff.”

In the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition, horses are judged on muscle tone and weight as well as performance. The beginning 33 will be winnowed down to 10, who will compete in the freestyle finals event, where trainers ride them in front of the crowd.

Those final 10 trainers will compete for a share of $20,000 in prizes, according to the event’s website. After the competition, spectators and trainers can bid on the horses.

The Extreme Mustang Makeover was started by the Mustang Heritage Foundation. Since 2007, more than 5,000 American mustangs have been adopted through the foundation.