FAQ Riding Tips

Feral to Finished: Training the Wild Mustang

pinto mustang
Written by Holly N.

Taming & Training the Magical Mustang—It CAN Be Done!

Training a Mustang that’s been raised around people is much like training any other horse. But a wild Mustang needs a slightly different approach. Wild horses see people as predators and flee from them just as they would a mountain lion. Before you start training, you must establish a relationship based on mutual trust.

Mustangs are intelligent animals that learn quickly, but as wild horses, they have a stronger sense of self-preservation, which can prove to be challenging. They may run away when you approach them, refuse to be touched, and even defend themselves against you.

Once you’ve gained a Mustang’s trust, however, they are capable of great loyalty and can excel in most disciplines.

buckskin mustang foal

Source: Canva

The Mustang Horse

The Mustang is a hardy, compact horse with a narrow chest and short back. They have tough, durable hooves that give them an advantage over challenging terrain. Plus, they have the athleticism needed to survive in the wild.

Mustangs are intelligent horses that learn quickly in a training environment and excel in endurance, trail riding, and various Western disciplines.

A Brief History Lesson

Mustangs evolved from the horses brought over by the Spanish in the 1500s.

These stocky, working horses gave the Spanish an advantage in battle, provided transport, and helped them work the land.

The Colonial Spanish horses, or Spanish Barbs, gave the Mustang many of their characteristics. Other breeds also contributed to their development, including the Andalusian the Arabian, They also may have infusions of Quarter horse, Thoroughbred, and Tennessee walking horse, as well.

Physical Characteristics

Mustangs are small horses that stand between 14 and 15 hh and weigh around 800 lbs. They have a similar build to the warmblood, with muscular bodies and smooth, ground-covering strides.

Mustangs have small, refined heads, short backs, deep girths, and long, sloping shoulders. The tail is set low on the croup, and the hooves are round and durable.

Mustangs come in a variety of colors and often have primitive markings on their legs and backs.

two horses grooming each other

Source: Canva


Mustangs are known to be intelligent, gentle creatures that respond well to training and learn quickly. Their personalities vary, however, both at the individual level and depending on the Herd Management Area where they originated.

For example, those from Oregon are known for being calmer and easier to train than some horses from Nevada, which tend to be more flighty.

In general, Mustangs are quick and eager to learn, observant, and highly alert.

Although they can be spirited and even a little stubborn, once Mustangs learn to trust you, they can become loyal, hard-working, and reliable companions.

Training a Mustang

Training a Mustang is just like training any other horse, except that you have a blank slate to work with.

A truly wild Mustang hasn’t been abused or mishandled by humans and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn associated bad behaviors. In other words, you’re getting a “pure horse” to mold into your perfect companion.

Before you can start riding your Mustang, you need to establish trust. Once that foundation is firmly in place, it’s time to start working on the basics, such as halter training, grooming, handling its hooves, and learning to stand tied.

Once you have an amenable, responsive horse on the ground, you can start preparing him for training under saddle.

Depending on your experience, you might want to get a qualified trainer to assist you with this process.

horse eye with purple halter

Source: Canva

Basic Horse Training Principles

A Mustang that’s grown up in a herd environment already has good manners, understands social cues, reads body language, and understands the concept of good leadership. As the trainer, you need to establish yourself as a passive leader—someone who remains calm and composed during times of trouble.

To achieve this goal, you must prioritize the following in your training and gentling sessions:

  • Patience
  • Consistency
  • Repetition

You can use various different approaches to build trust with a Mustang and initiate its first contact with humans. Natural horsemanship techniques work particularly well in these early stages of training, but time is equally critical.

The more time you spend with your horse, the quicker you’ll establish a bond, even if that time is spent quietly reading in a corner of his paddock.

Pressure and release training done at liberty can help the horse become accustomed to your presence and move in response to your body language, helping to establish you as the leader.

Other techniques you might find useful include clicker training and positive reinforcement, sometimes abbreviated (+)R.

horse eating carrot

Source: Canva

The Wild Element – First, Build Trust

Before you can even think about training any horse, you first need it to be relaxed around you and not view you as a threat. With a wild Mustang, this is critical.

A Mustang won’t do anything for a human it doesn’t trust, so building that foundation is key to your success. Skipping this phase will lead to more resistance further down the line and make achieving your goals extremely challenging.

Just like any other horse, a Mustang won’t respond to bullying. With its inherent sense of self-preservation, if a Mustang sees you as a threat, it will fight back rather than back down. A calm, gentle, and patient approach will get you much further.

Any wild horse needs to learn how to interact with humans safely, as their natural forms of communication, like biting and kicking, are too dangerous.

Trainer Incentive Program

The Mustang Heritage Foundation originally launched the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) “to bridge the gap between the public and excess wild horses held in off-range corrals.”

The program was designed to support horse trainers as they gentle and prepare wild horses for domesticated life. Once the horses are ready, the trainer finds them approved homes where they can start their new lives.

This program was very effective in helping set wild horses up for success in domesticated life.

Unfortunately, the TIP program was dissolved, effective October 1, 2023.

We’ll be sure to update this article (and provide more information) once more information becomes available.

horse longing with handler

Source: Canva

Mustang Trainers

There are many talented Mustang trainers around, many of whom work with tens of horses every year.

Few trainers do it for the money, with many, like Babbie Styslinger, saying there’s something special about the Mustang. According to her,

“The lure of the Mustang is that you really are kind of saving something, and also the connection and loyalty they have to their owners.”

Another trainer with years of experience under her belt, Annie MacDermaid, believes building a solid foundation is crucial. “If you take your time and build the foundation properly, the horse will have something to fall back on when faced with difficulty or uncertainty,” she says.

Other well-respected Mustang trainers include TJ Clibborn, who’s competed in 15 Extreme Mustang Makeover training challenges and trained numerous champions, and Wylene Wilson of Southwest City, Missouri, who treats all her horses “like they’re already champions because I know they can be.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are Mustang horses hard to train?

Mustangs are responsive, intelligent, and observant animals, which means they’re generally easy to train once you have established a relationship with them.

Despite that, a wild Mustang are generally not suitable mounts for a beginner because they need a experienced hand to guide them. Compared to a domesticated horse, Mustangs can be “challenging” to train and require a lot more time and energy.

Q: Can a Mustang horse be tamed?

With time, patience, and consistency, a Mustang horse can not only be tamed, but molded into a loyal, reliable companion.

Q: How long does it take to train a Mustang horse?

Some Mustangs respond quickly to their trainers and may complete their halter training within a couple of days. Others may prove more flighty, and it could be weeks before they even approach you, let alone let you touch them.

Every horse is different, and their training should be slow and steady, reflecting their willingness to learn and ability to cope with each phase of the training process.

Q: What qualifies a horse to be a Mustang?

The Mustang is a feral horse, which means it was once domesticated but reverted to living in the wild for generations. To qualify as a Mustang, a horse must have strong legs, good hooves, and a muscular body.

Q: What is so special about a Mustang horse?

Mustangs are strong, hardy, and capable of surviving in harsh conditions. They have more stamina than most domesticated breeds and can travel vast distances over difficult terrain.

Mustangs are viewed as a symbol of the American West and are protected under law.

Q: Are Mustang horses intelligent?

Mustang horses are extremely intelligent, alert, and highly observant. In the wild, only the fastest, strongest, most intelligent horses survive, giving the Mustangs an edge over their domesticated competitors.

Parting Thoughts

Mustangs are adaptable, friendly animals that learn quickly and respond well to training, provided it’s done slowly and calmly.

Mustangs make for loyal companions, if you lay the correct foundation and establish yourself as a trustworthy leader.

Aggressive training techniques don’t work on wild Mustangs any more than they do on any other horse, so your best approach is to be patient, calm, and consistent, especially in the beginning.

Although Mustangs are responsive animals, training one requires patience, consistency, and experience.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


TIP – Trainer Incentive Program – Mustang Heritage Foundation

Mustang Heritage Foundation | Bureau of Land Management

So You Want to Be a Mustang Trainer? Here’s What You Need to Know

Love it? Share it!

About the author


Holly N.

Holly started riding as a six years old in the UK and competed regularly in local events, including showjumping, cross country, showing, working hunter, and gymkhana. She now lives and rides in South Africa, working as a trail guide with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures. Her interests are primarily in the areas of DIY horse ownership, trail riding, barefoot horses, endurance, competitive trail riding, and South African breeds.