Mustangs Teach RU Students About Nutrition, Behavior

What do wild mustangs have to teach people? If you ask the students enrolled in Rutgers University's (RU) Young Horse Teaching and Research Program (YHTRP), the answer will likely be, "plenty."

For the past two years, the YHTRP, headed by Sarah L. Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, associate director of teaching at Rutgers' Equine Science Center, has been home to several Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustangs. As Ralston explained, the previously wild horses have taught the students plenty about nutrition, behavior, and wobbler syndrome.

The YHTRP was founded in 1999 and initially worked with draft-cross weanlings from pregnant mare urine (PMU) ranches in the North Dakotas and Canada. In addition to learning more about the nutritional needs of this type of horse, it was Ralston's hope that the program would be able to change the public image of these horses, typically viewed as only "byproducts" of the Premarin (hormone product for estrogen replacement in women) industry.

After a school year of handling these young horses, they were auctioned off to the public with the proceeds benefitting the YHTRP. This became an annual event, and Ralston reports that all of the RU "graduates" are doing exceptionally well in their homes.

"We obtained good research information, the Rutgers Equine Science programs and the PMU horses received a lot of good publicity, the students gained tremendous experience, and the horses all went to good homes," Ralston explained. "It was a win-win-win-win situation for everyone."

By 2009, however, the PMU industry no longer needed RU's support. The industry had shifted to producing only purebred draft or quality sport horses that were commanding high prices, even as weanlings. So Ralston and her students turned their attention to another aspect of the equine community that needed a "public boost" of sorts: the American mustang.

Ralston led a small group of students and one sponsor to a BLM adoption in Ithaca, N.Y., in the fall of 2009 to pick up a group of yearlings (all from Nevada herds) from those not purchased by the public at an auction. Under BLM rules, they were technically "three strikes" or "sales" horses and were available for only $25.00 and clear title (contrary to regular adoption regulations).

"There was nothing wrong with them," Ralston added. "There were just more horses than potential adopters."

With eight horses at RU during 2009-10 (four PMU yearlings and four new mustangs), the students that year had a unique opportunity to observe the behavioral differences between the previously feral mustangs and the supposedly more docile draft crosses.

"We actually found that the mustangs tended to learn things more quickly and were, in some ways, less spooky than the draft crosses because they were more aware of their surroundings and very sensitive to even subtle cues," Ralston explained. "They would perceive a potentially scary thing (such as a student standing on a stool) from a distance and very cautiously approach it, whereas the draft crosses would often not notice the challenge until they were very close and reacted with a flight or evasive action. However, the students quickly learned that they needed to stay focused when working with the mustangs, who responded to perceived cues the students were not aware they were giving."

The students also learned about the differences in nutritional requirements between the mustangs and the draft crosses, Ralston explained: "Contrary to popular belief, the four mustangs were equivalent to light horses in their dietary efficiency, not more efficient, as are the draft crosses. The mustangs voluntarily consumed the recommended amounts of calories for growth and gained weight and height as predicted by the National Research Council for horses maturing at 1,000-1,100 pounds. The draft crosses however, as in previous years, consumed fewer calories and actually gained more weight than predicted for horses maturing at 1,400-1,600 pounds."

After the mustangs and the remaining PMU horses were sold at the 2010 spring auction (with positive reports still coming in from the new mustang owners), Ralston and her students chose eight new BLM mustangs to bring to RU for the current 2010-11 school year. Two of the horses are BLM fosters (they have only been to one adoption event so far and they will be available for adoption after the Ag Field Day show) and the other five will be offered in the Annual Young Horse Auction.

"This year we selected six 2-year-olds and only two yearlings," Ralston said. "The 2-year-olds proved to be a bit more difficult to tame in that they had a year more of only negative experience (being herded through chutes for vaccinations, etc.) with humans. It took a lot more time and patience to gain their trust. Not having the more placid draft crosses as 'role models' might also have been a factor.

"They also had more time to get into trouble," she continued. "One of the geldings turned out to have a neurologic problem due to a neck injury that had occurred before we got him and will not be offered for sale or adoption (see sidebar). Another of the fillies turned out to be pregnant, so someone will be getting a two-in-one package."

Since the horses arrived in September, they've made great strides in their training. The mustangs will be shown at the Rutgers Annual Ag Field day horse show, held at the horse facility on College Farm Road on the G.H. Cook Campus in New Brunswick, N.J., on April 30 at 10 a.m. The two foster horses will be available for adoption after the show, and adopters must be pre-approved by the BLM. The rest of the horses will be auctioned the following day.

"We will not be getting in new horses next fall," Ralston added. "The demands of training the young horses are so intense that I have not had the time to adequately evaluate the data we have collected over the past two years. So I will be taking a much needed break to reassess and write up our findings, with assistance from my research students, and plan the future of the program.

"We will continue to help promote and help horses at risk through education and training of our students and field research," she noted.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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