Carley Wheelis

Carley Wheelis and one of her trained mustangs at the 2018 Extreme Mustang Makeover competition in Lexington, Kentucky.

When Carley Wheelis found out she had been nominated as the 2018 Greatmats National Horse Trainer of the Year, she thought it was a joke.

She first saw the news on Instagra and was then notified through email. There she saw it: CW Horsemanship had been nominated for the fourth annual national competition through Greatmats, a leading horse stall, stable and trailer flooring company in Milltown, Wisconsin.

This competition functions to recognize people that have “served as positive influences in their communities,” said Brett Hart, Greatmats Marketing Director. 

Trainers can be nominated by peers, students, or community members.

“They don’t necessarily have to be an industry leader to be nominated,” Hart said. “It’s based on [the nominators] interpretation of being a positive influence.”

This year, 20 trainers were nominated across 15 states. Nominated in October, and voted for at the beginning of November, the winner will be announced on Friday, Dec. 14. The winner will have the choice between $150 in cash or $250 worth of Greatmats horse stall equipment.

Though Wheelis is unsure of her nominator, it is clear why one would do so. Wheelis, who is from Hillsborough, trains, rescues, and re-homes abused and neglected equines by way of natural horsemanship. Earlier this year, she competed at Extreme Mustang Makeovers, a 100-day competition where trainers are paired with wild mustangs they must train to compete at a selected location in less than 4 months. Traveling to Lexington, Kentucky, Wheelis placed 6th overall out of 40 youth trainers nationwide. 

“After last year, when I did my first mustang, I was hooked,” she said. “That’s what I’ve really come to enjoy and that’s what I do most now.”

So far, she’s trained five mustangs and plans to compete in seven makeovers and other competitions in 2019 alone. In January, Wheelis will pick up her mustang to train for the May Extreme Mustang Makeover in Ocala, Florida.

Wheelis is only 16 years old, and she’s just getting started.

She’s already got five years of training experience under her belt, but her journey began by accident.

“I had no clue what I was getting into,” she said, incredulous. “I wanted a young show horse. I’d never trained a horse before. I was into fancy ponies and [this is] not what I was expecting.”

Wheelis has been riding and showing horses for a while and wanted a horse of her own. She selected a pony, who at the first meeting, seemed calm and well-behaved. 

“When I went to go see him, I thought that he was just a really chill guy, that he was a really nice two-year-old,” she said. “When I got him home a week later, he was a completely different horse than what he was when I first got to see him.”

The pony was severely underweight and had been drugged. Then, at just 11 years old, Wheelis was responsible for the care of an untrained, dangerous horse.

“At that point, I was kind of stuck with him, because my parents weren’t about to let me give up,” she said, “and I wasn’t going to give up on him because he already had such a hard time.”

Wheelis set her mind on taming this horse in a humane way. She took to Youtube, studying Pat Parelli Natural Horsemanship practices and the Clinton Anderson Method. 

Eventually, she was finally able to touch the pony.

Within the first year, she mostly playing with him on the ground. In the second year, she was able to ride the horse.

“He has come a long way,” she said. 

Since, Wheelis has trained many horses and currently has 13 horses, many of which will be adopted out like others she has rehabilitated before. She finds forever homes through a Facebook network of friends, some from Orange County, and many people on the North Carolina coast and in Virginia. She has continued studying natural horsemanship methods and practices through online videos and books.

Natural horsemanship does not use any force to train the horses. Training is done through body motions and a method of pressure and release, also called approach and retreat. Often the training is at liberty, without ropes attached to the horse.

While this method may take longer, it creates a bond between horse and trainer, with each learning how the other communicates through sound and body language.

When gentling mustangs, it would be dangerous to walk up and touch the horse. When walking closer to the horse, this applies pressure. As they get nervous, a trainer would back away when they realize the horse is near a breaking point, or release that pressure. Over time, this decreases fear and uncertainty in the mustang, and builds confidence and trust.

“I’ve found that mustangs are not as much afraid of the touch as is the anticipation of the touch,” Wheelis said. “It’s those moments leading up to the touch and once they pass the initial scare of it, they [realize I] didn’t hurt them, and they realize it’s not so bad.

“A lot of people think they can almost bully horses into doing something,” she continued. “I’ve just found that’s never the case. You can get the result quicker, but the horse is always going to fear something more than you.”

Right now, Wheelis is gentling a five-year-old mare and continues to share her message through demonstrations, clinics, training, and horsemanship lessons.

“My biggest goal is to show people that there are other ways than using the force methods. I want to show people you can use these gentle methods,” she said. “If someone is to go watch Extreme Mustang Makeovers, most of those horses can perform better than your domesticated horses from birth. The bond of trust is truly earn their trust rather than them being born into it.”

If Wheelis is selected as the winner, she said she would opt for the stall mats for wash shall draining or to provide the horses extra stall cushioning. 

Greatmats offers mats for a variety of fitness and training purposes and donates 5 percent of its annual profits to local nonprofit organizations. 

For more about CW Horsemanship, visit