They Shoot Wild Horses Don’t They?

Wild, wild horses we will ride them someday (Jagger/ Richards, 1970)

Captives from the wild Captives from the wild

When I was a little girl growing up in Wyoming, horseback riding was my passion– almost an obsession. We were town-people in ranch country making access to horses somewhat onerous. When I took lessons on my rented horse Suzie, I would come home with blood dripping down the inside of my knees, saddle sores from gripping the saddle so hard in my efforts to perfect sitting in the seat of a western saddle.  In 5th grade, I looked out the window of our home. Dad had pulled up front with a horse trailer and bay quarter horse.  My very own horse—Debbie! It was love at first sight. While nowadays my children play soccer, lacrosse, and volleyball on the weekend, when I was growing up I rode Debbie whenever I could beg someone to drive me to the pasture.  My parents sold Debbie when I was a freshman in college.  Debbie wasn’t getting any attention and the funds for boarding were needed to help pay for my schooling.

Budweiser Clydesdale on display--gentle giants Budweiser Clydesdale on display–gentle giants

I haven’t owned a horse since but I ride whenever I get a chance. I follow horses.  I have seen the magnificent draft horses at the Montana State Fair, the Clysdales when they were housed in Fort Collins.

I have attended an Arabian Horse Sale in Scottsdale, Arizona where several horses went for over a million dollars.

Arabian Horse Show for Millionaires Arabian Horse Show for Millionaires

I have also seen the Lipizzans perform in Vienna.

Lippizzan in Vienna Lippizzan in Vienna

No surprise that when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) advertises  Wild Horse Auctions in Boise, I drove out to see the captured herd, remnants of America’s great western plains legacy.

The first horses came to American in the 1500s with the Spanish Conquistadors. When the Spaniards left, they left behind what was to become the wild horse herds roaming the Great Plains.

The horse transformed Native American's culture. The horse transformed Native American’s culture.

These wild horses or mustangs transformed Native Americans from hunters and gatherers on foot into fierce warriors capable of traveling long distances, hunting Buffalo and bedeviling white settlers and the Army.

New technology and the establishment of Indian reservations made the horse obsolete as a work animal by the beginning of the 19th Century. Wild horses were routinely shot wherever they interfered with cattle ranching.  In 1938 after the great drought, Congress created the United States Grazing Service later to become the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM was responsible for regulating 143 million acres (261 million today) of public lands primarily in 10 western states, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico,  Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada. Given the strong influence of ranchers on the BLM, the policy for wild horses remained to destroy them either through poisoning of water holes or paying bounty hunters to shoot the horses. The program was stunningly effective between 1946 and 1950, over 100,000 wild horses in Nevada were reduced to 4000 animals.  Because of public outcry over this needless slaughter Congress passed legislation in 1971 designed to manage and protect the remaining wild horses.

Horses up for adoption Horses up for adoption

The horses up for adoption in Boise are a direct outgrowth of the 1971 legislation. Today, over 30,000 wild horses roam free in the west. But another 50,000 are kept in holding pens by the BLM. The holding program costs $42 million of the BLM’s  $72 million allotment for the wild horse program. Whenever the number of free horses, exceeds the BLM targets, the wild horses are rounded up.  The goal is to reduce the herd to the BLM’s lowest target number. I visited with the BLM horse program manager in Boise and he said the targets are scientifically established based on the number of horses which can be sustained in a multi-use environment.  Once the horses are rounded up, the BLM hosts auctions to adopt the young horses.  At next week’s auction there will be 24 fillies and 17 geldings all under a year old.  Given the high cost of maintaining a horse in today’s world, it is not surprising that many horses are not adopted. These Boise horses were harvested from Black Mountain, Hardtrigger, and Sands Basin because of the recent fires in Idaho.  In addition to the 41 wild colts, there is one halter trained horse available from the BLM 4-H program and one horse returned because an individual adopted in excess of BLM policy.

4-H trained mustang colt 4-H trained mustang colt

The wild horse adoption program has come under severe criticism this month for allowing a single Colorado rancher to adopt 1800 horses. The Inspector General determined the rancher shipped the horses to Mexico for slaughter, successfully avoiding the laws against killing wild horses in the United States. Because of this expose, the number of horses any one owner can adopt is 4 horses in six months.

Returned Horse from buyer who took too many. Returned Horse from buyer who took too many.

The BLM program manager I talked to said he was very concerned with the long-term prospects for the wild horse program. Given a Congress intent on saving money and the costs of maintaining large numbers of penned up horses increasing,  the time seems ripe for new ideas on mustang management.  Recommendations from experts include better reproduction management, collaboration among all stakeholders to better protect the native eco-system, and placing the needs of the wild horses first rather than beginning with arbitrary range management statics.  I have no easy solution to advocate. After  spending a crisp fall afternoon watching once free horses nervously run in pens, I believe we need to find a way to sustain these gorgeous symbols of freedom and the old west in the wild.

Wild Horses and open range are our western legacy Wild Horses and open range are our western legacy

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