The challenge wasn’t necessarily easy, but he certainly made it look that way. In less than one hundred days, 27-year-old Teryn Lee Muench took a bright bay wild mustang called Cheatgrass, tamed him and saddle broke him. The two met for the first time in May for the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, a competition that rewards the trainer who can best gentle a feral horse adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. Sterry Butcher followed Cheatgrass’s progress all summer. Here’s the story behind the story.
Are you a horse person? What got you interested in writing about mustangs?
I am horsey, and I always have been. I rode as a child and then set it aside for a couple decades. I got back into horses in my thirties. I shouldn’t have waited so long.
What led you to Teryn Lee?
I met Teryn Lee on a blustery day at the local 4-H horse practice. It was windy and bitingly cold. He was teaching about a dozen kids in an arena, giving them drills and individual feedback from the back of a roan stallion that only had seven rides on him. Teryn Lee was at ease and yet in control. His gift with young people and horses was immediately apparent.
Had you been to the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover prior to working on this story? How did you find out about the contest?
A few months after I met Teryn Lee, in 2009, I found out that he was doing a Makeover in Fort Worth, with a mustang called Rainmaker. I followed him that summer and wrote about it in the Big Bend Sentinel. He placed third. When Teryn Lee and his wife, Holly, decided to enter this year’s contest, it seemed natural to follow their adventure again.
How did you go about reporting the story? Many of the scenes described within the piece are detailed—how much time did you end up spending with Teryn Lee and Cheatgrass to get the imagery you needed?
Teryn Lee and Holly were amazingly accommodating and hospitable. The photographer, James Evans, camped at their ranch and lived with them for the first several days of Cheatgrass’s training. Teryn Lee was careful not to overload the horse; he worked with him no more than an hour at a time in those early days. James and I would perch at the edge of the action. It was spectacularly mesmerizing. I tried to write down everything I saw. After that first week, I went to the ranch every two or three weeks to see the mustang’s progress. Sometimes my husband and son would come along.
Walk us through a typical day of reporting for this story.
Head out of Marfa down Pinto Canyon Road and turn left onto an unpaved road for about twelve miles. It takes about an hour to get to their place. Teryn Lee is saddling the first horses he’ll work for the day; Holly is feeding. Kittens and a bulldog named Gertie wander around. Follow Teryn Lee to the arena and pepper him with questions as he teaches Cheatgrass to back softly, change leads or follow a calf. Write fast into a notebook. Walk back up to the barn. More horses are saddled, more are bathed, more are worked. Try to stay out of the way. Pepper Teryn Lee and Holly with more questions. Write fast. Eventually it’s lunch. That’s when I go home, but Teryn Lee and Holly do it all over again in the afternoon for the second set of horses.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
Many of the animals he had in training were “problem” horses Teryn Lee had been hired to fix, like a mustang that always ran away with his rider, or a cutting horse that was afraid of cattle, or an over-anxious performance horse that had been handled badly sometime in her past. Over the course of the summer, I got to see them relax, improve, grow happier. The light changed in their eyes. Patience, gentleness and consistency made that happen. It works with people, too.
What was Teryn Lee like? Do you think he’ll enter this contest again next year?
Well, he’s pretty great and so is Holly. Teryn Lee is unusually curious, and he’ll ask a million questions when he encounters someone who’s passionate about what they do, whether it’s a flint knapper selling stuff at a festival or a painter at an art opening. He tips his hat when he shakes a woman’s hand. He’s confident, ambitious and humble, which are qualities that don’t always coexist in the same person. Teryn Lee is head-over-heels in love with his wife. The two of them work seven days a week. Ten-hour work days are not uncommon.
Teryn Lee and Holly have moved from Presidio County to Marietta, Oklahoma, where they’re much, much closer to the cutting and reining competitions they enter. He’s training a BLM mustang right now for the Mustang Magic event in Fort Worth this January. I’m not sure if he’ll sign up for the Makeover next year. Maybe—it worked out well for him last time.
What will happen to Cheatgrass?
Cheatgrass has become quite a handy, gentle little guy, and Holly told me recently that they use him nearly every day. Teryn Lee thinks he’ll make a neat heeling horse for roping contests.
Was there anything you wanted to include in the story that you didn’t have room for?
I wish I could’ve conveyed more the invaluable role that Holly plays in their training operation. Teryn Lee could not do what he does without her.
Also, Teryn Lee’s father, Teryn, was originally competing in the Makeover with a blue roan mustang called Tocayo. Some unexpected and hair-raising events occurred one afternoon because of that horse, but that’s a different story.
What do you hope readers will take away from this piece?
I don’t have expectations for the reader; their reaction will be their own. For me, however, the center of the story is about purity of heart. Cheatgrass cannot lie. Teryn Lee will not lie to him. From that foundation, a partnership is born that makes each of them bigger than they were alone. I find it comforting that someone is out there with a job description so simple and profound.