The mystique of the west lives on through wild horse herds that roam open range in ten western states. To avoid overpopulation, overgrazing and disease, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), manages herd size with periodic round ups and herd culling. Excess horses are offered to the public for adoption.
An August round up resulted an adoption weekend south of Boise in late October. Around 40 horses and burros were available to the public. Burros are kept separate from horses. Mares and foals are adopted out as pairs and kept in a separate corral. Prime young fillies are kept together, and the recently gelded males are kept together. The older stock mill in larger corrals. A horse with a pen to itself is fair warning that this one doesn’t play nice with its mates. All of the animals have been tested for infectious disease and other medical problems, vaccinated, and freeze marked (a process of permanent identification that is less traumatic than branding and more visible than tattooing).
Older horses, like this regal 17-year-old mare, will probably not go to private homes. Horses that do not find private homes, are trucked to long-term holding facilities or “Federal Rest Homes” around the country. One of the best solutions, and where I was told the unadopted animals from this gathering would be shipped, is the Wild Love Preserve in central Idaho.
For those who do find a “forever home”—as the euphemism goes—the first few weeks will be scary for all involved. Horses are social, herd animals. Mustangs, in particular, find comfort and safety in numbers. Being singled out and pulled from the herd is a death sentence on the range. Their senses are attuned to survival as prey animals. A completely new set of survival skills must be learned to live socially among us crazy two-leggeds. They will be lonely and scared.
The safety of the buddy system
The Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) utilizes popular Extreme Mustang Makeover events as a catalyst to stimulate and increase success rates of wild horse adoptions. Demonstrating innovative new gentling techniques, based more on psychology than on brute force, the MHF “promotes the mustang’s versatility, trainability, and value as an equine companion.”
Matt Zimmerman, winner of the 2014 Idaho Extreme Mustang Makeover, ran workshops on both days of the Adoption weekend. Working in a round pen with one of the two-year-old fillies, Zimmerman explained a six-step process from crazy-scared to what-do-you-want-of-me? transformation. In about 40 minutes he had this endearing little sorrel trotting around him in the direction of his choice, changing direction by facing him rather than by instinctively turning her butt toward him, and stopping on command to face him and inquire what was next.
I was tickled to see one of the fillies I’d admired earlier performing so intelligently in the round pen.
After a break to change out horses, Zimmerman took on the challenge of one of the newly gelded four-year-old males. This boy was hot and beautiful—still filled with stallion assertiveness and determination. He had already been worked in the pen earlier in the week. Given his youthful male vigor, Blackie will need lots of repetition for the lessons to take hold.
By the end of a sweaty half-hour session, Blackie was paying attention to the boss.
Please forgive the lousy audio of the video below. I’m just figuring out how to use this feature of my camera.