Standing at just under 13 hands, Winnie is a little mustang with a big history and an even bigger heart.
“She seemed grateful,” Shelly Henss, a longtime friend, explained. “After all she’s been through, she really appreciated the attention.”
For almost 20 years now, I’ve enjoyed watching Shelly professionally groom, train, and show dogs. When I heard about her most recent four-legged project, I was curious to see what she’d done with a 4-year old wild horse from Utah.
“I just treated her like a dog,” Shelly said.
And it shows. When I first met Winnie at a small backyard boarding stable in Martinsville, Indiana, the portly bay pony with an unruly mane carefully poked at my pockets with her rigid muzzle. The government wild horse freeze mark on her neck was the only indication that I was feeding stale marshmallows to a mustang who had once freely roamed the mountains of Utah.
“Winnie’s been around,” Shelly said. “The guy who got her from a BLM adoption left with a trailer full of wild horses. He paid for a few but then stole the rest. He moved them to Texas and then someone in North Carolina bought three of the horses from him. That guy used the male but then turned the others loose and just left them.”
Eventually, the two female mustangs ended up on Craigslist.
“My friend Rob saw an opportunity for ‘free horses’ and decided to take them both. When they went to pick them up, it took them four hours to get Winnie in the trailer. She was kicking and thrashing about.”
They never got the other mare loaded and were forced to leave her behind.
Rob brought Winnie back to his farm. She hated being in a stall. She bit, turned her back to people, and kicked. No one could touch her - everyone was scared of her.
Eventually, Rob gave up on Winnie and decided to put her back on Craigslist.
“I told him he ought to give her one more chance,” Shelly explained. “He said that if I think I can break her I should go right ahead and do it. He said that if I did, I could have her.”
Shelly started the next day.
“I went out to the field and sat down and read a book out loud to her,” she said. “I kept my back to her for about 3 days so I wouldn’t intimidate her. She was really curious wondering what I was doing. I just sat there and read ‘Into the Wild’ and another book called ‘Animals in Translation’ to her.”
After about a week of reading, Shelly decided it was time to try to trap the mare in the barn. She lured her in with another horse.
“They put rope halters with long lines on the horses when they catch them in the wild,” she said. “Winnie dragged that rope around for two years because no one could get it off of her. No one dared to.”
When Shelly got her in the barn, she quickly snatched the lead.
“Winnie turned to get away but then dropped her head and snorted at me. I walked her to the other barn and took her right into a stall.”
Within a few days, Shelly was cross-tying Winnie and touching her entire body. She kept her in the stall for 5 days.
“It was our close time - lots of grooming, talking, touching. She let me pick up all four of her feet.”
Finally, Shelly decided to send her back out to pasture. She left the halter and long line on.
“That night when she let me walk right up and catch her, I cut that rope off. We didn’t need it anymore.”
Shelly continued to train Winnie like a dog. She took her on long walks.
“The first time I got on her she reared twice. She wasn’t trying to dump me – she was just feeling really good. The next day I took her on a 4-hour ride. We just went around looking at things, learning about trash bags and cars and stuff.”
Rob kept his part of the agreement, letting Shelly keep Winnie. Last winter, she called BLM to obtain the paperwork verifying that this once-wild mustang was now truly hers.
Shelly learned that the man who stole Winnie from the BLM in Utah now has a federal warrant out for his arrest.
“The adoption people liked hearing about Winnie,” Shelly added. “They were amazed by where she’s been and how far she’s come.”