California Riding Magazine • May, 2012

Trust & Acceptance
Mustang Makeover veteran strives to make willing, happy partners.

story and photos by Cheryl McDonald

Roundup at the BLM.

Good fortune and an unexpected meeting have changed my life again. A few weeks ago, I met a horse whisperer named Sandi Anderson.

I met Sandi at the Ridgecrest Bureau of Land Management corrals in February 2012. She was there to pick up two horses for the next Mustang Makeover. She had 90 days to train both horses for the competition May 18-20 in Norco.

This is the story of how Sandi, a woman of small stature with a big heart, takes these wild horses and builds partnerships with them. Sandi does not break horses; she gentles them and creates trustworthy friendships that can last a lifetime.

Sophie gives Dean a kiss.

I saw a press release about the Mustang Makeovers and went out to the corrals that Saturday morning to learn about the process. I was introduced to Sandi just as she was introduced to the two 3-year old mares that were going to be her charges for the next 90 days. These two horses, a bay and a sorrel, were collected off the Granite Range outside of Reno, NV in January of 2010. Both in great health, a little on the heavy side from not enough exercise, but beautiful nonetheless.

Sandi told me that the most important part of the process was accomplished in the first few days and invited me to stay at her ranch so I could photograph the progress as it happened.

Getting used to the lariat.

I got to Lake Mathews just before Sandi let the girls out of the trailer, so I was able to capture their arrival and the transformation that occurred over the next three days. I have returned to the ranch twice to photograph them and will end this journal with photographs of the competition at the end of May.

First touch.

Sandi has taught me so much about horses. She has been training horses since she was 11 years old. She not only admires and respects the beauty and power of the animal, she sees and relates to their intelligence and strong intuition. Because Mustangs are wild, they have a strong sense of self-preservation, are acutely aware of their surroundings and therefore make great trail horses. They can often sense danger on the trail before their riders see it. A good pair of horse and rider learns to trust each other by working together to make a much safer ride.

The way Sandi and her team works with these horses builds on that trust and instinct. Getting the horses used to living in a world of humans requires a great deal of patience and understanding.

Sophie and Sandi walk.

Consistent Approach

Each new experience is introduced in the same way. Using each of their five senses, horses get accustomed to bridles, blankets, saddles, walking over bridges, even blowing canvas signs and beach balls, anything the team can think of that the horse might encounter in their lives with humans. Acceptance of human touch can take weeks to accomplish if the horse has had a bad experience in the past. Each new experience is introduced on both sides of the horse because they learn differently on the right and the left, and don't always transfer behavior from one side to the other automatically. Sometimes it takes renewed attempts, but patience and understanding their fears is how Sandi gains their trust. Daily contact with humans is important to re-enforce what is learned with rewards given for each positive response. Sandi uses love and praise as her main way of rewarding the horses, "Good horse, brave horse," with lots of scratches and pats.

Sandi Anderson.

With participation in five Mustang Makeovers under her belt, Sandi reminds me that training these horses is not a one-woman job. It takes a team of trainers, friends and family to bring each makeover to competition and to a healthy and successful adoption. She is not primarily interested in developing star trick ponies—although some of her horses do go on to have great careers—her goal is to train horses to make great friends to the people who adopt them after the competition. To Sandi, that's what it's really all about.

As for me, documenting this process has opened my eyes to the notion that working with animals is very much like working with people. The more we respect each other and accept each other the more we learn to live in harmony.

Sasha and the ball.

Sandi Anderson and her husband Rick live in Riverside County's Lake Mathews. Other members of the team include Dean Chabot and Dena Still.

To follow the progress of Sandi and her team please check out my blog at

Author Cheryl McDonald is a photographer, designer and illustrator. You can see more of her work at