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The Status of Mustangs in 2020

Adoption of Mustangs lags behind burgeoning numbers in holding

Wild horses on winter range
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“It’s like dropping your rope on a bull elk,” Dwight enthused. “You are always just one step away from a 911”. His blue eyes glitter and his quick grin is infectious. He is a tall man, dressed in typical cowboy jeans, flannel and tan Carhart vest, but his quick, animated movements side to side as he talks with increasing enthusiasm are anything but typical. This is no droll Marlboro man.

Dwight is an ex accountant from California who moved to Pagosa country to savor the outdoors and had become an aficionado of the wild mustang who barely survive on the mesas of south Archuleta County, Colorado.

Mustangs share the range with cattle and sheep and the territory keeps shrinking. The recent drought in the west has depleted the remaining grasslands; the pervasive ooze of civilization has squeezed the territory of the mustang, and that of other wild animals. In December, 2005, an omnibus spending bill introduced by Tom Goring of Montana, repealed a 34-year-old law that prohibited the sale for slaughter of trapped mustangs, and now allows those over ten years of age or unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times — the newest version of the three-strike law — to be sold at auction.

There are an estimated 95,000 mustangs running wild on 27 million acres of the western range — more than half of them in Nevada, sharing the rancorously contended grassland with millions of cattle, wildlife, recreational pursuits, and energy production. There are many more wild horses than the BLM’s designated “appropriate management level” in many of the 177 herd management areas across ten states. Fifty thousand more have been captured by the BLM and imprisoned in holding pens at the cost of tens of millions of dollars per year. Upwards of 10,000 more horses are scheduled to be captured each year. The BLM has jurisdiction over most wild horses in the western US along with more managed by the forest service and some Indian tribes, and are the only ones licensed to trap them. The BLM uses helicopters to drive the horses into camouflaged holding pens before transporting the terrified animals to gathering points. Alternately, fenced areas are baited with precious water tanks and feed until accustomed bands are trapped with remotely controlled gates.

In some smaller HMA’s the dedication and skill of trained volunteers allows the control of mustang birth rates by darting selected mares with Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) vaccine that prevents pregnancy for one or more years. In this way, population is controlled and the availability of adequate browse protected.

Descendants of cavalry stock, escaped ranch horses, Colonial Spanish mounts, and Native American herds, mustangs have persevered in the face of terrible hardship, starvation and drought. Their senses are acute and their bodies are honed sinew and bone, fast twitch muscle and flowing motion. They react to perceived danger with fight or flight. After capture, it takes time and patient, experienced handling, abundant feed, and security for many mustangs learn to trust human partnership.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation was established in 2001 to educate the public to the plight of the American Mustang and to develop avenues for adoption of the mustangs into private homes. The Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) allows knowledgeable trainers to pick up untouched mustangs from the BLM and train them to minimum requirements for adoption.

The Foundation puts on a number of “Extreme Mustang Makeover” and “Mustang Magic” events to showcase wild horses with 100 days of training leading to competition in maneuvers, trail obstacles, and freestyle performances. The mustangs are then available for adoption. Since 2001, fourteen thousand mustangs have been placed in private homes through the Mustang Heritage Foundation programs.

Like many wild horses that are nutritionally challenged, the mustangs of Archuleta County, Colorado, are smaller than domesticated horses, with long manes and coats. Their bones are denser, their hooves harder. By winter, the mares, still supporting last year’s foals and pregnant again, are ribby and tired. In the winter, they subsist on sage bark, pinion shoots and oak brush, making trails through four feet of snow, their range marked by “stud piles” — foot-high mounds of manure that stallions use to set boundary lines. Most young horses are driven out of the family herd by the age of two, but some are still inbred and have occasional birth defects. The horses — about sixty-five in several herds — run on national forest service, Southern Ute Reservation and private land. The forest service doesn’t want them because the land is leased out for cattle graze. Some of the private landowners fear the seduction of the wild herds will draw their personal stock away from the ranches — it happens. Access to these wild horses is restricted and secretive. Trespassing on the Southern Ute Reservation or private land is prohibited. The horses travel as needed for food and safety.

Each year, Dwight and a very select group of experienced horsemen and women ride into the mesa country on strong geldings and set up in strategic locations. They have permission and access through private land. In the dead of winter. The mesa country is riddled with canyons and rock, ravines and scrub under four feet of snow. Mustangs hang out in canyons on south facing slopes where any snowmelt may give them hope of scant green. If the ‘stangs are available, the riders basically drive them in an age-old method of relay race until the mares quit in exhaustion and the yearlings running alongside become fair game for a rope. It takes a brave man to drop a loop over the neck of a 600-pound wild animal fighting for its freedom.

One year, Dwight missed on a paint stud colt but caught a stout sorrel filly just on the edge of the cliff. The yearling spun away behind him crossing the rope over his forearm and behind his back, heading straight down hill. Months later the scar on Dwight’s arm is just healing. The bellowing filly pulled him backwards off his horse, and took him for a sleigh ride sans sleigh down the sandstone cliff face until she caught up on a ledge. More horses, more ropes, and she and Dwight made it back up the hill. One rider then lined out five or six miles towards a trailer while the others hazed the caught horse, still roped, from behind. The mustang follows its domesticated kind to a new life.

A few days after capture, I stood outside a good size corral and tried hard not to look the filly in the eye. I didn’t want her to think of me as a predator, but her dark eyes were locked on mine warily. She had spun away, snorting and spraying the churned mud with her pumping hooves as I first approached, but now she warily watched. She had been eating — just beginning to appreciate the novel taste of oats, but ravenous for the fine stemmed hay. Already she was learning the easy life. And soon the innate curiosity of the young horse took over and she blew a warm breath my way. I returned it and she twitched her nose, cataloging my smell as human but without a modifying adjective. She would give that some time.

The old, the defective, the ill and injured mustangs don’t make it long in the wild. In Colorado, mountain lions are their only natural predator.

Some of the gathered mustangs are so ingrained with the fear of confinement that they live and die to be free, and they fail to tame, to accept the gentling hand of man. Some are never adopted and live confined in paddocks for years. The lucky ones are selected and get turned out forever on the diverse mustang sanctuaries across the country, relatively free to live out their lives.

DeMayo: “They (mustang) belong to the American People. They Are the American Spirit”.

In Colorado, The Serengeti Foundation has established two sanctuaries. The Disappointment Valley Mustang Sanctuary is 3700 fenced acres in the high desert of the southwest, providing water and food as needed to 33 mustangs mostly from the Spring Creek Basin Horse Management Area (HMA). Spring Creek Basin HMA is one of the few that has managed herd numbers successfully for years with PZP vaccine by darting mares. No gathers have been needed in years.

Engler Canyon Ranch Mustang Sanctuary is 22,000 acres, partially fenced, in southeast Colorado, established in 2017, by the Serengeti Foundation to provide a home for high risk wild born mustangs — older, unadoptable wild horses, some of which have been in captive holding pens for much of their lives. 148 horses currently run free on the sanctuary which is also a grassland, native habitat restoration project. Additional fencing will allow more horses.

Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary at Deer Trail, Colorado, is associated with the Sand Wash HMA in northwest Colorado. GEMS helps with documentation, fertility control, training and adoption of gathered mustangs, and education. Unadoptable mustangs live wild at the sanctuary as ambassadors for wild horses everywhere.

Mustang sanctuaries across the country are nonprofits. Funds are always needed.



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Patty Latham

Patty Latham


Veterinarian CSU 1975. Mom. Rider of mustangs. Author of Napa Valley Vets, novel Colorado Blood, and over 20 case reports and features for EQUUS and on line..