A herd of wild mustangs gallops across the vast, grassy plain as the setting sun highlights an incoming thunderstorm, the sound of their hooves echoing against distant mesas and canyons, the wind whipping tails and manes.
This image is one which conjures the grandeur and freedom of the west's wide open spaces, evoking a romantic vision of America's "wild" western lands. But for the wild mustangs that roam America's hinterlands, that freedom has often meant starvation or worse. The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Adopt A Wild Horse or Burro program is designed to help prevent that.
The term "wild horses" may be a misnomer. These animals are actually feral - domesticated animals born and living wild. The horse, re-introduced to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadores, has prospered here. Small, sturdy horses which were bred for hardship and strength, the mustang adapted quickly to living off the land. Later, Jesuit missionaries introduced the burro, which was used extensively by miners and prospectors until less than a century ago. Over the years, animals were lost, traded, and stolen. In addition, the Spanish horse was inclined to wander off if not well-attended. Native Americans soon began to raid Spanish settlements to steal horses; wild mustang stallions also raided to "steal" mares. It is estimated that by the mid 1800's, up to three million wild horses lived and migrated over most of the American west, from Mexico to Canada, west of the Mississippi.
By the mid-twentieth century, most of the population of wild horses and burros were the descendants of those who escaped from or were abandoned by settlers, miners, Native American tribes or the U.S. Calvary during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
More settlers meant more demand for land to graze cattle and for farming. Perceived by many settlers and especially by ranchers as a nuisance and a pestilence, "mustangers" began to hunt these wild creatures for slaughter, to prevent their competition with cattle for grazing. With the advent of automobiles and aircraft, this hunting became easier and more profitable.
Then in 1952, a woman later dubbed "Wild Horse Annie", Velma Johnston and Edward "Tex" Gladding filed a protest in Nevada against a permit allowing mustangers to use airplanes to chase the wild horses. As a result of this and a continuing campaign on behalf of the wild horses, Nevada passed a law in 1959 prohibiting the use of vehicles and aircraft in the capture of wild horses on public land. Twelve years later, in December of 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, placing the animals under the protection of the Department of the Interior, administered by the BLM, and the Department of Agriculture, administered by the Forest Service.
Because of this protection, however, the wild horse population grew unchecked. When the wild horse adoption program began in 1976 under the BLM's administration, it was estimated that three were over 60,000 wild horses and burros. In competition with cattle for grazing land, many of the animals faced starvation. To prevent this, the Adopt A Wild Horse or Burro program, rounded up for adoption some 10,000 animals annually. Since its inception, the program has found homes for over 150,000 wild horses and burros.
Currently, approximately 44,000 wild horses and burros roam over public lands in ten states: Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, Montana, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. Each year, some 10,000 animals are offered for private adoption at auctions held throughout the country. Roundups occur when needed "to maintain an appropriate management level or AML," said Roy Lewis of the BLM. "We'll monitor the herds to maintain a thriving ecological balance - that is, a balance between the local wildlife, grazing cattle and the wild herds."
"Adopters receive a living symbol of the ?historic and pioneer spirit of the West,'" reads a page on the BLM website. Adopters must meet certain criteria and are allowed to adopt up to four animals per year. Once the adoption is complete, adopters take their animals home. Final title to the adopted horses or burros is not granted until one year after the adoption - a practice which enables the BLM to determine that the adopters can provide a proper environment and care.
Adopting a wild horse or burro has a romantic appeal, but don't be fooled - the successful adoption of one of these free-spirited animals requires dedication, patience and commitment. Many people who adopt these animals are first-time horse owners - and this can be a prescription for failure. Others think that they can "save" a mustang, and simply provide a pasture for them, but this shows a lack of understanding of the nature of feral horses.
Horses are natural herd animals - like dogs - and require companionship to maintain their health and well-being. Raised in total freedom, they migrate as a herd for many miles annually, in search of grazing land. Of necessity, they are sharp-witted, have highly developed senses and develop a strong sense of survival. They are easily frightened by new or unfamiliar situations and people. The process of the roundup and adoption can be psychologically stressful for the animals and it takes a gentle and understanding hand to help them forge new bonds with their human companions. The basic building block of creating this bond is trust.
According to Barbara Eustis-Cross and Nancy Bowker, authors of "The Wild Horse: An Adopter's Manual," a great deal of preparation is necessary if one is to be successful in adopting a wild horse. The adopter must be prepared to plan for a variety of conditions to ease the animal's transition from wild mustang to close companion. Dietary factors, overall health, size, weight and age of the animal must be taken into consideration and adapted for. Gentling and saddle-breaking a mustang may take a long time, and requires hours daily to establish the trust bond. It is recommended to potential adopters that they read this book before applying for adoption approval.
But in spite of the hard work and patience required, most owners of adopted horses feel the results are well worth the effort. "They're extremely intelligent, because they've had to learn to take care of themselves." said Johnnie Hinderliter, a woman from Buckeye, Arizona who has been involved with wild mustangs since 1985. "They haven't lost their spirit. They have personality."
Hinderliter is a volunteer inspector for the adoption program, visiting adopters and potential adopters to ensure that proper conditions are met and maintained. Hinderliter's first experience with a mustang began when she responded to an ad in the local paper offering orphaned foals for $95 each. The foals were the offspring of wild mares on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. " I went up there and got two," Hinderliter said, "but only Gabby survived." Gabby, Hinderliter's 13 year old mare, was only four weeks old when Johnny brought her home. "She wouldn't drink out of a bottle, so we had to make this baby mash for her and she would just sort of slurp it." The second foal, which was only two weeks old at the time, soon died. "He was just separated from his mother too soon, and he was already badly dehydrated and undernourished when we got him."
Gabby sparked Hinderliter's interest in mustangs and it has since become a passion. She discovered the BLM program in 1989 when she attended her first adoption in Flagstaff. Since then she has helped deliver adopted horses to their new homes, inspected properties and conditions of applicants to the program, and helped find new homes for those animals whose adoptive "parents" don't quite make the grade.
"The important thing to remember is these animals are wild," Hinderliter said. "It's easy to adopt a horse - maybe too easy. Only about 50 percent of adoptions are successful. Most adopters are first-time horse owners and don't realize what they're getting into."
Potential adopters file an application with BLM prior to attending an adoption event. Once approved, for a $125 fee they are then eligible to bid on the horses. Many horses are purchased for only the $125. Adopters then receive the animals into their care for one year. At the end of the trial period, if the animals are well cared for and healthy, final title is issued.
BLM adoption events are held throughout the year across the country. To file an application or to obtain more information visit the Bureau of Land Management website or call your local BLM office, and adopt a living legend.
The Life Foundation
National Mustang Association P.O. Box 1367, Cedar City, UT, 84721
The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros 6212 E. Sweetwater Avenue, Scottsdale, AZ, 85254.