It’s hard to remain the “cool mom” long-term to your children, but Ann Hanlin has an ace card up her sleeve, at least when it comes to her two sons.
After all, anybody can be a soccer mom. But a real-life Mustang trainer? That’s ‘legit’ by just about any middle school standard.
These days, the Maryland-based, part-time trainer, stay-at-home mom, and founder of SBF Mustang Eventing spends her days gentling horses fresh off the range, having helped as many as 90 Mustangs to get out of holding. But it wasn’t something Hanlin might have envisioned for herself five years ago.
Growing up in a “horsey” family—her mom was a vet tech, her dad a farrier—Hanlin spent her days riding hunters, and eventually graduated to Pony Club, fox hunting, and eventing by age eight. She came up the ranks on her first wild horse: a pinto Chincoteague pony.
“I switched over to eventing because I loved the idea of having a start time, and not waiting around all day [at a show]. And [eventers], I guess, were less-judgey when came to horse color and movement and all that stuff. So, my little Chincoteague pony and I took right to that, and I’ve been eventing ever since.”
In 2018, Hanlin lost her “heart horse” of 20 years, another pinto. But when it came time to replace him, she found herself perusing online ads and, following a friend’s recommendation, eventually landed on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) adoption page. That’s where she first saw Woodrow.
The then-7-year-old black and white pinto band stallion had several babies on the ground and was well known on his home range in the Salt Wells Creek Herd Management Area (HMA). He was majestic. He was flashy. He was—despite Hanlin’s decades of riding and training experience—not the horse she should have gone for.
“I had no right getting a stallion, or a wild horse that had been a stallion for 7 to 8 years,” Hanlin reflects. “I really just didn’t. [But Woodrow] was definitely an exception. I connected with the photographers that had followed him out in the wild, and they were able to tell me that he was so kind, and [so good] with his mares and his foals. That kind of gave me the reassurance to be like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. It’s going to be okay.’”
Turns out, it was more than okay.
Now 12 years old and competing together at the novice level, Woodrow has become a kind of ambassador for Mustangs in eventing sport thanks to his magnetic good looks and striking coloring. In fact, his Facebook page boasts more than 3,800 followers, and Hanlin says she is constantly asked what kind of breed he is—a conversation starter that gives her the perfect chance to discuss the plight of the 58,427 Mustangs in holding across the U.S.
Hanlin is also determined to change that age-old stereotype of Mustangs as ‘the mutts of the horse-world,’ and is thrilled for every opportunity to explain what makes owning one so special.
“I love the versatility of Mustangs. They’re hearty, they’re sound, they’re athletic. You would look at Woodrow and never point him out as an eventer, because he’s a little thicker,” says Hanlin, “but they’re built to survive. They have the biggest heart that I’ve ever seen on a horse.”
Woodrow’s big heart was on display last year, when he and Hanlin qualified for the Waredaca Classic Three-Day Event in Laytonsville, Maryland in late October. In preparation for their biggest competition of the year, they decided to run one more local event in the lead-up to Waredaca in September of 2022—just as Hurricane Ian was blowing through Maryland.
“I had schooled in rain and slop, but I had never competed in it. I thought, ‘Well, if Waredaca is a wash out, I’ve paid a lot of money to be there, and we’re going to do it, so let’s see how we go,’” Ann recalls.
“Woodrow was amazing. The ring was literally underwater, and he just sloshed through it like it was no big deal. I was scared to death, because it was still raining. [The jumps] were bigger, and they had adjusted the time for the course, but not by much. I had already decided that it was okay if I had time penalties, I wasn’t going to push him. But he came in under time and it was easy for him. Woodrow is a beast out there.”
Hanlin has had similar success with three of Woodrow’s offspring, McCray, Boo, and Gigi, all of whom she tracked down from his former herd in Wyoming and trained herself.
“Woodrow’s son, McCray, is so versatile. He does English, he does western, he trail rides, he can teach beginner lessons, he can do western dressage, and English dressage,” Ann says. “I had actually taken McCray fox hunting [for the first time] and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is fine, I can handle this.’
“[All] the Thoroughbreds are slipping and falling down, and he didn’t take a bad step. He [actually] caught a loose horse his first time out!”
Like many eventers, Ann has spent a majority of her career training on Thoroughbreds. Today, her barn at SBF Mustang Eventing is made up almost entirely of Mustangs either rescued or owned; others are in for training, re-homing, or re-sale. Hanlin’s easy-going grey Mustang, Oakley, is currently training for the upcoming South Carolina TIP Challenge. Hanlin, herself, has hosted the Maryland TIP Challenge for the last three years.
“You learn as you go. I mean, that’s 24 horses that I’ve done [myself], and they’ve all been completely different. Once you think, ‘Oh, I got this, I can gentle any wild horse,’ one comes in, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work—that’s not working.’ You very quickly find out that you don’t know it all,” she says.
Although these days, you would be hard-pressed to find many differences between Hanlin’s “herd” of trained Mustangs and the domestic horses at your local school barn, the differences were very evident when the Mustangs first arrived from BLM holding.
“I think it is hard for some people to understand,” Hanlin says. “[They think], ‘I’ve done [off the track] Thoroughbreds,’ but that’s comparing apples to oranges. I did Thoroughbreds, too, and I thought that if I could handle a crazy Thoroughbred I [could handle anything]. But there’s no comparison.”
One big difference in the training process, she says, is the facilities required to be in place for Mustangs arriving from holding, something many boarding stables, especially on the East Coast, won’t do. According to BLM rules, horses must be shipped on a stock trailer, not a ramp load. Once they arrive, many new owners—including, once upon a time, Hanlin, herself—find themselves asking, now what? Mustangs don’t know how to lead, or unload, or wear a halter. Most come with a just rope halter and drag line—and that’s if you’re lucky.
Hanlin puts a point on it: “It took me eight days to touch Woodrow’s nose,” she says, adding that she recommends that most first-time Mustang owners look for horses that have at least been TIP trained (or gentled) by an approved Mustang Heritage Foundation trainer.
For her part, Hanlin still sends all her horses—Mustangs and otherwise—away to be backed. And she’s frank about the fact that there are some stages of wild horse gentling that are more fun than others.
“There are definitely parts when I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough,’ [like] when they’re pulling me around and I’m trying to teach them the lead; or the transition from getting them out of the pen and into a paddock, or something like that.
“But the very early, early stages of the gentling I really enjoy,” she adds. “I really love [those moments] of trying to earn their trust.”
It’s a joy she’s working to pass on to her two sons, who sometimes feature on Hanlin’s YouTube channel, petting a new Mustang on the nose, or learning to work a horse on the rope halter. And, when you get down to it, training wild horses does share some overlap with being the mom of young children—at least in the kind of patience it sometimes requires. But the drive to give back, and sometimes push back, when called upon, as a Mustang trainer is another matter.
Few would argue that sticking it out long-term in this industry takes grit.
“Having a Chincoteague pony growing up, I’ve always been kind of [the underdog],” Hanlin says. “The more people tell me I can’t, the more it pushes me to do it.
“[When I got Woodrow], a lot of people told me, ‘Don’t do it. You have young kids,’ because my son at the time hadn’t even turned a year old yet. All I can say is that I’m so glad I didn’t listen.”