Wild mustangs were adopted and trained to be companions for the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover event held at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe on Aug. 17-19.
Wild mustangs were adopted and trained to be companions for the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover event held at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe on Aug. 17-19.

Hannah Catalino had three months to tame a 3-year-old wild mustang she named Montana Breeze.

The 22-year-old said the horse earned its identity.

On her arrival in Whitehall, Montana, the wind was blowing fiercely. The next day it snowed — far from ideal conditions to start training in, Catalino said.

“She took it all in stride,” she said.

Catalino jokes she didn’t want to call the mustang Montana Whirlwind, in case the young horse decided to live up to the name. The San Antonio, Texas-native participated in her mustang makeover in 2012.

The competitions are held around the country, and some offer big prize money. The purses aren’t exactly why Catalino said she enters, but they can help. After all is said and done, the trainers are usually lucky to break even, she said.

“I do it because I like working with the wild horses, and I want to show how amazing they are,” she said. “That is the main goal.”

Catalino, who now lives full time in Montana, said she knew she was after horses at an early age. She was the one doodling the animals all through school.

“I was basically a horse-crazy little girl,” she said. “I didn’t have any horses growing up.”

Her parents bought Catalino an American Quarter Horse when she was 12. It didn’t take long for her to realize she didn’t like riding them much. She preferred the groundwork — to build a relationship with the animal, and let them participate when they wanted to.

Eventually, she started watching mustang makeover competitions online. The appeal began to grow. At 17, she entered her first event and placed in the top third bracket of about 300 entrants. 

After graduating high school, she left her hometown to study natural horsemanship at the University of Montana Western. She dropped out a year later. She had adopted three mustangs that were too tough to tame and was questioning whether she should continue to work with the animals.

Since then, she found two seasoned competitors, Marsha Hartford-Sapp and Madison Shambaugh, to intern under. The two women helped Catalino take what she had previously taught herself, and their skills to develop the technique she uses now.

In 2013, Catalino participated in the Mustang Million competition in Fort Worth, Texas. She won second place at the American Horsewoman’s Challenge in 2014 and took home the award for fan favorite. In 2016, she won third place at an Extreme Mustang Makeover event, and this year she took second at the Mustang Mania TIP Challenge.

“I never thought I would get to do it, let alone for years and years after the first time,” she said.

Catalino and Montana Breeze competed in the 2017 Extreme Mustang Makeover Aug. 17-19 at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds.

Catalino said she rarely uses force to teach her animals. She wants to make them curious and come to her first. She might start by holding a hand out to see if they are interested. Then she gives the horse a break and returns later that day for another short session. It is all about building faith in one another, she said.

“Once you have their trust, there is nothing they won’t do for you,” she said.

The wild mustangs are adopted from the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, according to the Mustang Heritage Foundation. The agencies are in charge of managing land that America’s mustangs are on. The animal is protected by the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act passed in 1971.  

Mustangs are descendants of wild horses introduced by 16th century Spanish missionaries and explorers, among other stock released or escaped from other settlers, according to the foundation. It is believed that as many as two million lived in the U.S. at one point.

The federal government has to ensure the herds won’t pose too much risk to an ecosystem, according to the foundation. About 47,000 are kept in long- and short-term BLM holding pens or pastures. Since the Extreme Mustang Makeover competitions began about 10 years ago, nearly 3,700 of those have been trained and subsequently adopted.

That is the purpose of the Extreme Mustang Makeover and other makeover competitions that run throughout the nation every year, said event director Stormy Mullins. The trainers enter to compete and show off the abilities of their mustangs. They hope to prove their animal can be a good companion, he said.

Mullins said the event is scheduled for new locations throughout the U.S. each year. The goal is usually to visit where a strong equestrian community has been established, which increases the likelihood that the horses will go to new homes. This year the competition was held in Monroe, as well as cities in Nevada, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Florida, he said.

Catalino said mustangs are still scared of humans when she first meets them. They haven’t had positive experiences yet. They have been rounded up, put in a shoot and branded, she said.

Letting the gentled horses go is the hardest part, Catalino said. They have learned to trust the trainer, and are then sent off to a different owner. Luckily, everyone who has adopted her mustangs has become extended family and left the door open so she can come visit any time.

“So that makes it worth it,” she said.

At one point she had six of her own personal mustangs, but got that number down to one in 2015. This year she trained five different horses; during an average year, she trains two at the most.

“It’s unexplainable, when you gentle them yourself,” she said.

Catalino and Montana Breeze finished fifth overall in the Monroe competition. She adopted the horse back, to find it the right home herself.

To adopt an animal, visit mustangheritagefoundation.org.