Local horse trainer adopts wild mustang
Haymarket horse enthusiast and trainer Caroline Muller began a lifelong equestrian journey when she received her first pony at the age of 5, and then began competing in Horse Trials and Eventing at age 12. Throughout her high school years, she groomed for the gold medal team and individual rider for the North American Junior Young Rider Championships. During her senior year, Muller decided to research ponies for purchase online; on a whim, she typed “mustangs” in the search box and discovered the online adoption site for wild mustangs.
Little did she know, Muller was about to embark on an adventure that wouldn’t have been possible without the actions of a woman nicknamed Wild Horse Annie many years ago. The history books don’t always include the unsung heroes who took action when they saw something they felt was wrong — even if the results of these actions still have an effect today. In 1950, a woman named Velma Bronn Johnston became an animal welfare advocate after she witnessed a truck loaded with horses headed to slaughter. These horses had been taken from public lands in Nevada where they had been roaming free. Johnston led a campaign to stop this practice and played a crucial role in the passing of legislation in 1959 to prevent the inhumane capture and hunting of wild horses.
Johnston continued to campaign for protection of these animals. Another act was passed in 1971 that prohibited “capture, injury, or disturbance of free-roaming horses and burros.” But then another problem arose: the Bureau of Land Management, who maintained responsibility for the free-roaming herds, struggled to manage the growing number of animals. So they began a program to allow private owners to adopt these horses.
After looking at close to a hundred mustangs on the mustang adoption website, Muller was determined to adopt one. The next step was convincing her parents. Even though she had absolutely zero experience working with wild horses, her parents were amazingly supportive of the idea on one condition — she speak with an experienced mustang trainer first.
Horse 5658, a four year old from the Stone Cabin Herd Management Area (HMA) in Nevada, one of Wild Horse Annie’s most respected HMAs, was the one Muller’s heart chose. Each HMA is unique in its terrain, climate, and natural resources, and the animals also carry their own unique genetic heritage and history. And what was even more special was that Wild Horse Annie was actually in attendance when the first congressionally approved gathering of horses was conducted at this HMA after the 1971 act was passed.
Horse 5658 had been captured as a yearling and, at the time, was being held in California. Muller followed through with her promise to her parents and located an experienced wild mustang trainer who agreed to help her work with the horse for the first 30 days. This time would be spent “gentling” the horse, meaning working with the horse until it could be haltered and led, groomed, and loaded onto a trailer. Once the plan was set, Muller bid on the horse and won. The wait began for her new companion to be shipped to Lorton for pick up. Then the realization set in. “I like to tell people that adopting a mustang was the most thought out, spontaneous decision I’ve ever made,” she says.
Once the horse arrived to her new home, Muller realized what she had gotten herself into. The time and hard work that went into the training was grueling. But the horse kept her going. In Muller’s research into wild mustangs, she came across a woman named Belle Starr, a wild west character and notorious American outlaw best known for stealing horses and her sense of style. The name seemed perfect for this resilient horse who was making progress daily. “One day you couldn’t touch her, the next day you could. One day she couldn’t wear a halter, the next day she could,” says Muller. Witnessing Belle’s transformation, along with the support of her parents and trainer, was what made the difference in her journey to stay focused and not give up on the horse, no matter how difficult it was at times.
It took two weeks for Belle to be considered “gentled.” About 30 days into the training she had progressed to being able to be brushed, wear a halter and saddle pad, and be approached when she was out in the pasture. The slow process of gaining Belle’s trust took a lot of time and energy on Muller’s part; she worked with Belle twice a day every day for the first three months and then once a day for the rest of the first year of training. This time Muller and Belle spent together, and the fact that Muller was Belle’s only caretaker, allowed them to bond. Muller explains: “I taught her everything she knows about the domestic world, so her trust in me grew more and more as we continued our journey together.”
At about four months into training, Muller was able to ride Belle, which she says was “super easy” to teach the horse. Amazingly, Belle could stop and steer perfectly almost immediately. “To this day (knock on wood) I have yet to fall off of her,” says Muller. Then it came time to show Belle off in competition. In her first Horse Trials, Belle won, and then came in second in her most recent dressage test at Training Level. Muller has a goal of moving her up to First Level in dressage this winter and earn a USDF bronze medal.
Although Muller knows that Belle is a calm and easy horse, she does not feel she is ready to be a school pony just yet — but maybe in the future. This beautiful horse knows voice commands, all three gaits, can be ridden bareback in the fields, and will jump anything you put in front of her, Muller says. She is also the leader of the herd — the one who hogs all the hay — and is a little mischievous, sneaking into the treat bucket when no one is looking.
Belle will celebrate her seventh birthday this January, probably with some treats and a few hugs — another skill Muller taught Belle. When she wraps her arms around the horse, Belle wraps her neck around her in an embrace as loving as a horse can get. It is just another testament of the bond they share. And just maybe, one day soon, Muller will undertake this task again and adopt another wild mustang from a land far away and bring it to Haymarket for a new life.
Hidden Hills Farm
At Hidden Hills Farm in Haymarket, pony lessons are offered for kids ages four and over Tuesday through Sunday, after school during the week and midday on weekends. Muller also takes her horse to shows and teaches grooming and stable management lessons. To learn more about the farm, go to hiddenhillsfarmva.com or https://www.facebook.com/HiddenHillsFarmva. You may even get a look at Belle, the beautiful transformed wild mustang who came from far away and was offered a new life in the hills of Haymarket.