JEROMESVILLE, Ohio — It was a rainy, 40 degree day when Kelsey Spencer brought her wild mustang home for the first time. She would spend the next 4 ½ hours in the pouring rain, trying to gain enough trust to lead the wild mustang to her stall.
“I was down there for about the first hour and I couldn’t even get near her, so I just came back up here (to the barn) and took a breather,” said Spencer. “I was thinking to myself, ‘God, how on earth am I going to get this mustang. How am I going to get her to let me touch her?’” Spencer reached for her cowboy hat, placed it on her head and walked back down to the round pen to give it another go.
“As soon as I put that hat on, I walked right up to her, she let me rub her everywhere and put a lead rope on her,” she said. Spencer thinks the hat reminded the mustang of the horse wranglers out West who rounded up all the mustangs. Getting the horse to her stall in the barn was another task.
“We had to get her back into the trailer and she would not go into the horse trailer without me in there.” Spencer said it was the only way they could get her to the barn since she wouldn’t walk there. “I walked her from the horse trailer to her stall and she would not go into the horse stall without me in there either,” she said. “So she immediately she relied on me to keep her safe and that’s when the trust started to form.”
Working and training horses has always been a passion, but Spencer never really considered mustangs until she watched the documentary Unbranded, which highlights the overpopulation of wild mustangs and those who try to tame them. After moving back to Ohio earlier in the year, Spencer looked into the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.
From wild to mild, trainers have 100 days to tame their mustang and compete in one of 10 competitions held across the U.S. Spencer competed in the Lexington, Virginia competition in late August. “I did not get my acceptance letter until the 12th of April and pickup day was the 15th,” said Spencer. She had to travel down to Knoxville, Tennessee, to pick up her mustang.
“When I got her, her name was 6727,” said Spencer. “She had a tag around her neck and dreadlocks in her hair,” which led to her name Raggedy Ann, or Annie for short. Spencer learned Annie had come from White Mountain, Wyoming.
A small brand on her neck in what looks like hieroglyphics indicates where she was first captured and serves as a tracking measure. Spencer can’t read the brand, but she was told that her mustang was captured when she was a year old, tested for diseases and then monitored in the wild. Annie is now six years old.
After getting her to her new home and gaining her trust, it was time to begin the training. “Starting off, it’s ground manners,” said Spencer. Trying to get the mustang to walk on a lead rope — which took the horse about a week — and then moving into lunging.
“I first started lunging her in the round pen and she would challenge me by squaring up and facing me directly and rearing up,” standing on her hind legs just a foot or two from Spencer’s body. “You have to show them that you are the dominant one and the biggest thing was getting her to realize that I wasn’t going to hurt her,” said Spencer.
By day five, Spencer was able to put a saddle on Annie and by day nine, Spencer was riding the mustang. “The first time I rode her, she walked and trotted and the next day we cantered no problem,” said Spencer.
Because mustangs are wild and can be easily spooked, Spencer spent a lot of time desensitizing Annie. “I put streamers on her stall so she would have to walk through it every time and I thought that would scare her and it didn’t,” she said. Spencer also said she played balloon volleyball on her back to which the mustang stood calmly. “She is one of the most calm horses I have ever worked with and definitely the most loving,” she said.
It’s almost as if the horse appreciates everything Spencer has done for her. “I don’t know if it’s every mustang, because this is the first one I have trained, but it’s like they imprint on you,” said Spencer. People who came to see Spencer work with Annie told her, “you’re her mom.”
“Now that I think about it, she does consider me as a mom because she’s always looking for me,” she said. “She relies on me to keep her safe, which I think is really cool,” said Spencer. But Spencer had found herself relying on Annie more than she realized.
Spencer had been competing in barrel races and even took up bull riding from the age of 19 to 22 before moving to Georgia. While in Georgia, she got back into barrel racing and rode in the southeastern rodeo circuit. “It wasn’t really a planned move back to Ohio,” she said. “I went through a really bad divorce …and I just needed a good summer thing.”
“I knew I wanted to do a project, I just didn’t know what.” So Spencer found the makeover contest. “It’s definitely got my mind back on track,” said Spencer. “And she has kind of saved me this year.”
The first stage in the competition is handling and conditioning. The judges give the horse a body conditioning score and then see how well the mustang listens and follows its trainer. The second class is a big trail class where the mustangs are tested on how well they can pull and carry heavy loads, side pass over obstacles, weave through a cone course and enter and exit a trailer. The final course is in maneuverability.
“If you make it into the top 10, then you make it into the freestyle performance, which is the finals,” said Spencer. As a rookie, Spencer is up for $25,000 cash prize.
Spencer and Annie did not qualify for the freestyle, performance, finishing 17th, however, Spencer was able to adopt her mustang after the competition.
You can see more of Kelsey and Annie’s adventures on her facebook page: The Annie Project.