Madison Shambaugh’s secret to success as both a nationally recognized liberty horse trainer and advocate for wild Mustangs comes down to one word: 

communication.

Specializing in working with Mustangs, “Mustang Maddy” is a featured presenter at the Washington State Horse Expo this year. She has made it her life's mission to communicate the plight of America’s wild horses and showcase the mustang as a talented breed that’s perfect for riders of all backgrounds.

 “There is nothing quite like the bond you can create between a once-wild horse and a human,” Madison said. “The patience and complete trust it takes to build that relationship is incredible.”

Oftentimes, the public perception of mustangs is negative — that they’re unusable, castaways or “range rats.” Madison is on a mission to showcase the unlimited talents these horses possess.

There are plenty of clinicians in the world. Madison excels in her clear and effective teaching style. Keenly aware of the need to communicate with humans in order to help train horses, Madison pursued a degree in general communications from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

What she discovered is the basic learning and behavioral theories she learned in school to use with humans also applies to horses. Applying these concepts to her training toolbox, Madison developed “Five Golden Rules” for training a horse. These five easy rules stress that successful training involves motivation and communication. Learn what is motivating the horse — in other words — what’s in it for them.

Then learn how to clearly communicate what you would like the horse to do.

At the Washington State Horse Expo be sure to ask Madison about how, in her quest to fully understand wild horse behavior, she added some stripes to her herd — Grant’s zebras Zena and Zeus.

Zebras are an undomesticated species that react dramatically different than wild or domesticated horses. Still, careful observation and application of her own Five Golden Rules helped her develop a bond with the zebras and create the first-ever equine liberty team that includes zebras.

Madison had to learn how to train horses through what often was a rough experience. Her first horse was green broke and she soon discovered why old time horse hands use the saying, “green on green equals black and blue.”

Madison eventually found the right horse. Jump forward a few years and the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition caught her eye and so began her love affair with mustangs. It took her a couple of tries to complete the competition — she suffered a broken leg one year (unrelated to the competition) and a neurological problem with her assigned mustang the next. 

Persistence paid off. On her third attempt at the competition, Madison and her mustang Terk, took home several titles from the 2015 Mustang Makeover Competition:

• 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover Young Guns (Youth) Champion

• 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover Rookie Champion

• 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover Fan Favorite; and

• 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover Freestyle Champion

All the mustangs in the competition are put up for auction to find them homes. Madison used her prize money to bid for Terk. The bidding came down to two people — Madison and another woman. The woman backed out of the bidding when she saw Madison was hanging onto Terk and crying.

In 2016, Madison won the Freestyle Championship on Takoda. Again, unable to say goodbye to a horse she bonded with, she purchased Takoda. It came of no surprise to anyone that she also purchased the Mustang mare, Amira, who she competed on in the 2017 competition.

For the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge Madison decided she wanted to challenge herself and work with a three-strike mustang mare. A three-strike mustang, meaning after three adoption events, Amira was available for purchase by meat buyers, because no one wanted her. In addition to working with a more difficult horse, Madison also wanted to see if she could start Amira without using any tack — on the ground and while riding. 

“My experiment yielded results beyond imagination. I am calling this method the ‘Liberty Start.’ Its purpose is not to avoid any type of guidance with halters, bridles, etc., but rather to smooth the transition horses go through in learning to live in the human world,” Madison said. 

Proof of her success was taking home the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover Freestyle Championship dressed as Cinderella riding with no tack.

“Two of the most memorable moments in my working with horses was my first ride on Amira without her ever having worn a halter and our ride at Mustang Magic,” Shambaugh said. “Completely life changing. That night I also realized what a big impact her story had on people. It took us two hours to get back to our stall because so many little girls wanted to come meet Cinderella and her amazing horse.”

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