SOUTHINGTON — Nearing retirement age, Kelly Halleen found herself with time on her hands and an itch to own a horse again.
She missed riding and learned from her sister, a fellow equestrian, that mustangs would be arriving in northeast Ohio.
“For the first time, mustangs would be available to the eastern side of the country,” the Cambridge resident said. “I think every kid dreams of riding a wild mustang and forming a special bond with one. I grew up reading ‘The Black Stallion.’ My mind was filled with riding adventures.”
Upon receiving the news, Halleen made the roughly two-hour trip from her home to Southington to visit the Southington Mustang Academy, which opened in 2021 and trains mustangs and prepares them for their next home. From there, Halleen soon found her companion.
“What a brave, strong survivor my young horse was. From the desert of Nevada and a long trailer ride to Ohio,” Halleen said. “He was curious, kind and never reacted with anger.
“Now three years later, I can tell you he has never kicked, bit or bucked for me once. I have that special bond I was looking for. I have a strong, physically fit animal that has only the best genetics surviving in the wild can provide.”
The academy, owned and operated by Jenna Nelson and her husband, Chris McManus, brings mustangs from the West and is one of the only farms in the northeastern United States that has access to the wild horses.
“Prior to us opening, the closest facility to access mustangs was (Ewing), Illinois, which is 12 hours west of here,” Nelson said. “The mustangs are very hard to access in this part of the country.”
The academy is one of a handful of farms in the United States that is allowed to adopt out mustangs. Nelson said the farm has 30 horses, but over 400 mustangs have passed through their academy since it opened.
“We are very passionate about mustangs,” Nelson said. “We see them as diamonds in the rough. It has been a great joy for us to be able to bring them out East and show people how nice they can be.”
Before opening the academy in 2021, Nelson said she had trained mustangs since 2008. While she wasn’t raised around horses, being associated with them was in her blood.
She said her grandfather had a mustang named Buster. However, Nelson’s infatuation with the breed wasn’t always apparent.
She said before she began training them, she regarded mustangs as feral horses and did not have a lot of interest in them. But, she took part in a “mustang makeover” and had 100 days to take a mustang and train it to become gentle, ridden and shown.
“I was able to ride on my horse by Day 10,” she said. “By the end of the remaining 90 days, I could do advance maneuvers on her. I could jump her. I realized after this how trainable these horses are. I became impressed how great the mustangs are.”
Now, she gets to do it every day.
Nelson said mustangs historically have been seen in the horse community as castaways. The wild horses have few natural predators, and herds can double every three years. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management program herds the wild horses to keep them from becoming overpopulated.
“They are rounded up as part of population control because they can exhaust resources on the range to where they can get into very poor condition,” Nelson said.
That’s where the Southington Mustang Academy comes in.
Nelson and her husband have brought mustangs from Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado and Wyoming to northern Trumbull County.
Two of their recent mustangs are part of the New York Police Department’s mounted unit. Nelson said she believes that mustangs as a part of a police unit helps debunk the stigma that they are difficult to train.
Nelson said while some horses are ready and trained for their new home in two days, others can take up to a year.
“On average, within a month the mustangs can be gentle and become more like a domestic horse,” Nelson said. “I have found my gentled mustangs are more reliable than the domestic horses.”
ADOPTING A MUSTANG
As one of a few farms in the United States that is allowed to adopt out mustangs, the Southington Mustang Academy has had visitors from Maine, Canada, Indiana, Virginia, Michigan and South Carolina.
“I try to match the right temperament of horse to the right adopter, so the horses and adopters are successful together,” Nelson said.
For example, if an owner wants a horse that jumps, she will try to find a horse that has the necessary build and ability. If someone wants a horse for a child, Nelson will find a gentler horse. No matter what though, Nelson tries to prepare them for their next journey the best she can.
“I have worked with thousands of mustangs,” Nelson said. “We provide trained and gentled horses. The wild horses do domesticate down fairly well. I have some that will eat out of your hands.”
To this day, Nelson hears from owners that have adopted mustangs from her and sometimes they come back for more. One family had two young daughters, and they started with one horse. Then they came back and got two more.
The academy also hosts adoption days with pictures and information on its social media site.
Matching mustangs to new homes is one positive aspect of Nelson’s profession. She also gets to paint a new narrative for how mustangs are perceived.
“For me, with the mustangs, it is cool to see how much heart they have,” Nelson said. “I was blown away at how trainable and how much heart the mustangs have. For too long, they have been regarded as castaways. They are trainable, so it is important for me to champion the mustang and bring them into the light they deserve.”