The Mustang that Sparked a Mission: Ann Hanlin & Woodrow

“I don’t care if they’re put together with spare parts like people say they are. They have a heart of gold, and they will go to the ends of the earth for you.”

If you’re local to Maryland, you may recognize Ann Hanlin’s horse, Woodrow, thanks to his flashy black and white coat. But it’s not just his flashy colors that make this little horse special. Woodrow is a mustang, gathered at the age of eight years old, from the well-documented Salt Wells Creek HMA in Wyoming. Six years after being gathered as a wild stallion, Woodrow and Ann are competing at Novice level with plans to move up to Training in 2024.

Ann purchased Woodrow sight unseen, based solely on a few grainy photos, from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) internet auction in February 2018– a process that Ann describes as “just like getting on eBay.” “Bidding started at $125 so I thought ‘Oh, I have a $2500 budget, I should be good.’ Well now, come to find out in the next seven or eight days of the auction, that Woodrow was very popular.”

Photo by Tonya Triplett, provided by Ann Hanlin

As part of the well-documented Salt Wells Creek herd of mustangs, unbeknownst to Ann, Woodrow had developed a relatively large online following. His herd had been followed by a photographer, now a close friend of Ann’s, for almost three years. All of her photos had been posted to the Facebook group, which has almost 3,000 members.

Ann wound up blowing through her $2500 budget quite quickly and after a chaotic bidding process during which the site froze, there were lots of tears, and then moments of absolute joy, Ann purchased Woodrow for just under double that. “I hit refresh and it said ‘you are the highest bidder’ and then I screamed and cried. My mother in law was in tears and she’s not really an emotional person. So it was quite, quite chaotic in the kitchen for like five minutes, but I won. And then I had to figure out how to come up with almost $4000 dollars.”

“I just had my heart set on him. I truthfully had no clue what I was getting myself into,” Ann said. “So he was wild or unhandled– whatever term you want to use. I was new to this entire experience. I had obviously learned a lot between the end of February and April when I was able to pick him up, but there were so many little things, like being able to unload him directly into a pen, that you don’t think about when you’ve only been around domestics.”

While Woodrow was gathered in Wyoming, he was brought to Utah where he hung out in the government holding pens until Ann purchased him through the internet auction. From Utah, he was shipped to New Jersey with 37 other wild horses on a tractor trailer. His first act as Ann’s new horse was to double barrel the front of her friend’s trailer, causing half a grand worth of damages.

Photo by Tonya Triplett, courtesy of Ann Hanlin

“It took me eight days to touch his nose– his nose, not his face. Nothing but the tip of his nose. It took eight days of sitting for hours on end in the round pen. I’ve never wanted to touch a horse so badly in my life,” Ann said. “From there, I’ve done everything with him. I taught him the simple stuff that we take for granted with the domestics. Haltering, leading, they have no clue what any of that is. They don’t even know what grain is. It took him two weeks to eat grain. He only ate alfalfa before that.”

“He’s taught me a tremendous amount,” said Ann. “I will always be indebted to how much that horse has taught me about horses in general. I mean obviously about the wild ones, but he’s really changed the way I work with horses now, even with the domestics.”

After three months, Ann was on his back and riding him around. While he did buck her off twice during the process, Ann said both instances were entirely her fault. “He was bored. I wasn’t stimulating his brain enough.”

A lot has changed for Ann and Woodrow from those early months. “From there, he’s just grown. He’s evented through recognized Novice, we’ve done the classic three day event at Waredaca,” Ann said proudly. “He is definitely ready to go to training level, but his mother’s a big chicken now that she has two-legged children. That’s our goal for this year, to get to an unrecognized or maybe even a recognised Training level event. To get to Training with a Mustang that was a wild stallion until he was eight is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Photo by Kira Topeka for Erin Gilmore Photography.

To say that Woodrow has changed Ann’s life would be an understatement. Woodrow sparked a love of mustangs in her that completely altered her future. Since purchasing Woodrow, Ann has now started and rehomed 25 or 26 other mustangs. While she doesn’t start them under saddle herself anymore, since she’s had her kids she’s a little more cautious, she’s passionate about teaching them the basics of being a domesticated horse before passing them off to their new homes.

“The bond that you build with a Mustang is so different than it is with the domestics because you go through so much together, from the first touch to their first time building a bond with a human. And I think that’s true even if you get a horse that somebody else has worked with,” said Ann. “Mustangs are not going to open up and let you work with them unless they trust you. That’s the biggest difference, I would say, between Mustangs and the domestics. If you’re not committed and you’re not looking to build that relationship and take the time to build that trust and bond, then a Mustang is not for you. It’s truly about the partnership. And it doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Once you earn that trust with a Mustang, you really have to work towards keeping it. I could have gone recognized Training with Woodrow probably a year, a year and a half ago. Again, I’ve become a little bit of a chicken now that I’ve had my kid, but I’m in no rush. He’s my forever horse. I don’t have to, you know, accomplish anything with him, right? He’s got me back out into the eventing world and the show world. I don’t care how long it takes us. I don’t care if we don’t even get to Training,” Ann said. “But you risk losing that trust and it’s gone forever. And I have seen that happen with my own eyes. The domestics are more forgiving and don’t know any better whereas the Mustangs are like ‘You put me in that situation, I trusted you and this happened.’ Trust and having a good relationship is so important to them.”

If you’ve heard that Mustangs aren’t built for English disciplines, that Mustangs can’t jump, that Mustangs look like they’re built from a random assortment of spare parts, you’re not alone. Ann has heard every disparaging thing anyone can say about Mustangs. Now, she’s passionate about proving those naysayers (neigh-sayers?) wrong. “Since I’ve gotten Woodrow, my big goal has been to spread awareness. Growing up, I didn’t really know that there were still Mustangs running wild or as many Mustangs running wild as there are. The land is super overpopulated, the holding facilities are housing over 50,000 Mustangs right now,” said Ann. “I heard every negative thing when I said, ‘Oh, guess what, my next horse is going to be a wild Mustang and a former stallion that’s been in the wild for a long time.’ People would say that I would never be able to ride him English, let alone jump. But I very much have the personality of, you tell me I can’t and I’ll prove you wrong.”

Photo by Erin Gilmore Photography.

“Yes, you can say all those things about the Mustangs and I’m not saying that you’re 100 percent wrong, but let me prove to you that they can do it. Woodrow is by far the most versatile horse I’ve had and you know, I’m 36 and I grew up with horses.”

To help spread the word, Ann founded her nonprofit, the Maryland Mustang Mission, in 2023. The organization is run similarly to the well-known Extreme Mustang Makeover, which CCI5* eventer Elisa Wallace regularly competes in. Competitors adopt a mustang out of holding, which Ann can help facilitate, between January and June and have until the Extravaganza competition in August to have their mustangs gentled and under saddle. Ann’s goal is to use the Maryland Mustang Mission to spread awareness about the versatility of Mustangs and get as many of these horses out of holding as possible.

“I literally have had two or three Mustangs come to the open show and do all the classes. So they ran barrels, they ran poles, they jumped, they did dressage, they did the trail class. They go English, they go Western. They can do it all,” Ann said.

If you’re ever in Maryland and see a flashy black-and-white spotted coat flying over fences and strutting his stuff in the dressage ring, don’t hesitate to stop and say hello to Woodrow and Ann. After going from Mustang newbie to Mustang advocate in just six short years, Ann would love to tell you all about how this former wild stallion changed her life, and how a Mustang could change yours, too.

“I don’t care if they’re put together with spare parts like people say they are. They have a heart of gold, and they will go to the ends of the earth for you.”