A herd of wild mustangs running freely across the prairie landscape or thundering down a mountain slope brings many images to mind. There really is nothing that can compare to the breathtaking sight; the feelings of freedom and wild abandonment symbolized in the flowing manes and tails as the hooves seem to float over the ground. It is a beautiful scene. It is a scene that is rare and over time may join the lost scenes of large buffalo herds grazing on the wide open prairies of the American West.
Mustangs are one of the icons of the American West symbols. The history of these magnificent animals goes back to a time before the influx of Easterners into the west of the United States. The wild horse was abundant with numbers estimated at more than two million. However, by the 1971 when the wild horse finally received federal protection, its numbers had been reduced to approximately 18,000. What happened to these horses?
During World War I many wild mustangs, about one million, were captured and sold to the
army for use in combat.
The remainder was hunted for use in pet foods and simply for the sport. They were chased down by helicopters and vehicles, weighted down with tires so they could be easily captured, run over cliff edges, and shot in corrals. These horses were not considered “wild” by many people; but rather were considered feral animals that were once domesticated. People who hold this view of the wild mustangs do not believe the horse are deserving of federal protection. They consider the horses a nuisance and a competitor for the grazing lands.
The Saviors of the Wild Mustangs
The slaughter finally came to an end in 1959. In 1950, Velma Johnson a Nevada rancher’s
wife who was later known as “Wild Horse Annie,” saw blood leaking from a livestock truck. She followed the truck and learned that it was full of captured mustangs being taken to slaughter.
At 6.5 cents per pound, the meat was profitable for those who captured the horses as long as they provided large quantities to the slaughterhouses and the only requirement was that the horses were ambulatory. Any injuries incurred by the horses were of little concern to their captors. Johnson crusaded to pass a law protecting the horses and in 1959 a law passed that prohibited the use of motorized vehicles or aircraft to capture wild horses or burros.
Further outcry came from mothers and school children. In 1971 Congress received more
letters regarding the plight of the mustangs than any other issue in the history of the United States up to that date. The Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed which declared wild horses and burros to be living symbols of the spirit of the west.
With the passage of these laws, the mustang herds grew and eventually incurred the wrath of ranchers who used federal lands for raising cattle. The horses and burros came under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Act states that the wild free-roaming horses and burros are protected from capture, branding, harassment or death. However, the 1971 law also required that the wild horses be kept at the then-current population. That figure had not been determined which set up a continuous controversy as to the state of the wild mustangs.
Pryor Mountain's Wild Mustangs
Wild Horse Rescue and Adoption
Controlling the population proved a difficult task for the BLM. In 1975 they amended the 1959 law to allow for the use of aircrafts in capturing the wild horses. Another difficulty was determining exactly which federal agency had oversight to enforce the laws. The BLM and the Forest Service came under the Secretary of Interior while the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) came under the Secretary of Agriculture. Thus, the BLM and Forest Service could use aircraft to capture the horses, but could not kill them. The USFWS could not use aircraft to capture the horses, but they could kill them.
To keep the population at an acceptable level according to the BLM numbers the agency created the Adopt-a-Horse program in 1976. Since that time more than 176,000 mustangs and burros have been taken off public land and offered for adoption. The BLM claims that about 157,000 have actually been adopted with the remainder held in holding pens awaiting their fates.
Activists in support of the wild mustangs claim that many of the captured animals have in reality been sent to slaughterhouses.
The adoption program has many obstacles to overcome: lack of adopters, monitoring horses after adoption for cruelty and appropriate care, before adoption screening, claims of title
transference resulting in slaughter after adoption, and too many unadopted horses with little space to contain them as they live out their lives.
The BLM has attempted different plans to address these concerns such as a waiting period of a year before the title can be transferred and more recently competitions for trainers in which
they are given a mustang and have 90 days to train the horse. They opened sanctuaries in Kansas and Oklahoma to shelter horses and burros that are not adopted after at least five auctions. However, at any given time there are approximately 5,000 horses and burros in those holding facilities. According to proponents of protecting the animals further, the efforts of the BLM still seem to run short of what is needed to keep the wild mustangs from being permanently eliminated from the landscape of the American West.
The Benefits of Adopting Mustangs
People who are experienced with horses generally like the mustangs. Because they grew up on the open range, the mustangs tend to have strong feet and sound minds. They socialize in a natural way and have better manners than most domestic horses. They are sure-footed and contrary to logic are in general less skittish than domestic horses.
Wild mustangs make great endurance horses as they do not waste energy. They are accustomed to living from waterhole to waterhole, know the difference between a predator and a blowing tarp, and thus have incredible stamina. They seem to recognize danger more quickly. The mustangs are smart and learn quickly, making them good candidates for almost any equine sport.
Most owners of mustangs report that the horses easily bonded them and are easy-going,
healthy and tough. They tend to heal quickly from injuries and in general are hearty and easily kept, not requiring rich feeds or supplements. The price of the adoption generally starts at $125 and this is what initially attracts many mustang owners.
It is not long before the temperament and quality of the horse has hooked the owners for life.
Owning a symbol of the American West can be thrilling and satisfying. Before adopting a wild mustang or burro, consideration must be given to the ongoing cost of care for the animal. The initial pricetag may be low, but horses require regular hoof and vet care along with feed, water, and shelter. For those who can afford to own a horse, a wild mustang adoption may just be the ticket. Attend a wild mustang rescue auction and it can be expected that one of these gloriously magnificent animals will tug the heart strings. Take it home and enjoy a wonderful and enduring companionship.
The copyright of the article Preserving the Old West by Saving the Wild Mustangs is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
Imagine A Place
The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary