Freedom Contained

Romantic images swirl through the mind when one considers America's wild horses. For some the image might be that of a beautiful wild stallion racing across the prairie, mane and tail flying in the wind as he celebrates his freedom. For others, the image might be a temporarily helpless newborn foal lying in the grass, its mother hovering over it.

Movies and stories have helped to foster these images, and the wild horse--in the minds of many--has become a living symbol of the West. When Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it stated just that, declaring, in part, that wild horses and burros were indeed "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses are fast disappearing from the American scene."

Today, the problem in the minds of some government officials and ranchers is not that wild horses and burros are "fast disappearing," but that they exist in greater numbers than their habitat can properly support.

As an aid in solving this problem, wild horses have been put up for adoption and offered for sale. What has this meant to this "living symbol?" Have these horses been able to make the switch from wild to domestic? Have their new owners treated them humanely? Can a wild horse be converted into a domestic animal that is involved in equine competitions? What's in the future for wild horses?

We'll take a look at all of these questions, but first, we must put the subject into proper perspective by answering a few other questions. Included are these: What type of horses are we dealing with? Where did these horses originate? What stimulated the enactment of federal legislation to protect them? Are they truly in competition with cows and sheep for available rangeland forage?

Horses in America

First, we must remember that these aren't wild horses in the true sense of the word, but are feral horses, which means they descended from domestic equines. However, for the purposes of this article, we will refer to them as wild horses.

To tell the story appropriately and accurately, we must journey back in time to 1519, when a Spanish adventurer named Hernando Cortés landed in what is now Vera Cruz, Mexico. It is reported that Cortés and his cohorts landed 16 horses on North American soil on March 13 of that year. Although there were horses in North America at an earlier time, they had become extinct thousands of years previously.

The Cortés horses proved to be the first drop in what became a trickle, then a flood as livestock of all kinds arrived in the new world as the Spanish continued in their efforts to conquer the native population.

In the beginning, the horse was their major weapon. The natives had never seen a horse and were in awe of a mounted rider. The Spanish exploited this fear and after successfully subduing the natives, they declared that horses would be off-limits to anyone who wasn't Spanish.

Their efforts--in the beginning at least--were successful and they continued their domination over the local populace. Later, however, there were uprisings and the Spanish were driven from some of the conquered areas, leaving their horses and other livestock behind.

Soon the horse was spreading north from Mexico into the Great Plains and beyond. The arrival of the horse completely changed the lifestyle of many of the Native Americans. People who had been tillers of the soil became nomads as they used their horses to follow migrating buffalo herds. Horses became a prime weapon of war for these nomads and in time, a warrior's wealth and importance were measured by the size of his horse herd.

The Native American herds had to rustle for food on their own. This wasn't a major problem during the summer months when green grass flourished, but during the winter, horses sometimes survived by gnawing bark from trees. Needless to say, a number of these horses strayed away from the herd, and soon bands of wild horses made their appearance. The fact that neither the Spanish nor the Native Americans, in general, believed in gelding their colts, served to accelerate what was becoming a population explosion. (They believed that gelding a horse reduced its power, energy, and spirit.)

As the settling of the West got underway, the burgeoning herds of wild horses were enlarged when wild stallions drove off mares from ranches and farms. This adding of domestic horses to the wild bands further helped diversify the type of wild horse that was found on the plains.

The population explosion reached its peak in the early 1800s, when it was estimated that between two million and three million wild horses roamed western rangeland.

By then, more and more areas of the West were being settled, and the ranchers and farmers brought livestock that competed with the wild bands for available forage and water. The settlers declared war on the wild horses and sought to eliminate them in any way possible. Stories are told of herds of wild horses being driven off cliffs to their deaths, of wild horses being shot, and others being rounded up and shipped to slaughter. They were not symbols of any kind to these ranchers, other than being a nuisance that should be exterminated.

The war against wild horses continued unabated until the 1950s. Until then, few people were familiar with the wild ones or the methods utilized in their capture and shipment to slaughter. Then, magazine articles began to appear concerning the sometimes inhumane capture and transportation of wild horses.

It was in 1951 that Velma B. Johnston made her appearance on the scene and became a key figure in stimulating passage of the legislation that governs the handling of wild horses today. Velma was born and raised in Nevada. She was one of four children in a family that believed in kind and humane treatment of all animals. Velma suffered from polio as a youth, and it left her with a twisted body. Often ridiculed by others of her age, she devoted a good deal of time to animals.

As an adult, she launched her campaign for wild horse protection in 1951 after observing a truck load of horses in transit to a slaughter plant. In those days, horsemeat was turned into pet food and fertilizer, with little or no outlet for human consumption. Velma was appalled by their poor condition and by the way they were being handled. She watched in horror as a foal in the truck was trampled to death.

She lobbied Congress with vigor and emotion, seeking an end to the slaughter of wild horses. Velma was vehemently opposed to the use of airplanes for driving horses into traps. She became known as "Wild Horse Annie," and her first success came in 1959 when Congress passed what became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act, forbidding the use of airplanes in wild horse captures. However, the Act did nothing to protect the wild horses beyond that.

By that time, Johnston had aroused the public conscience, and pressure was applied on Congress to further protect wild horses. The result was the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that protected the horses from capture or harassment by the general public. Enforcement of the provisions of the Act was turned over to the Department of the Interior through its arm, the Bureau of Land Management.

The Act also provided for the removal of "excess" wild horses. These are horses, the Act declared, "which must be removed from an area in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple use relationship in that area."

So far, so good. The slaughter of wild horses had come to an end. They were protected. However, what to do with the "excess" horses that were removed became the problem. In 1973, two years after adoption of the Act, BLM began providing for placement of "excess" horses with individuals willing to adopt them.

And how is this working out, one might ask.

"Very well," says Jeff Rawson, group manager for the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. Since the adoption program began, he says, more than 208,000 wild horses and burros have been placed in adoptive homes. The majority are horses, reflecting the fact that there are many more wild horses than burros on the western rangeland.

Each year, BLM conducts "gathers," during which wild horses and burros are rounded up and placed in either temporary or permanent holding facilities. The temporary facilities are designed for horses that will be put up for adoption, and the permanent facilities, consisting primarily of ranchland leased from private individuals, is for horses that, in many cases, are deemed less likely to be adopted, primarily because of age.

Rawson estimates that there are about 18,000 head in the long-term holding facilities and another 8,000 in the short-term facilities awaiting adoption.

Some of the horses are adopted at the short-term facilities, and others go to locations where they are gentled. Four correctional institutions and one private facility are involved in the gentling program. The correctional institutions are located in Riverton, Wyo., Canon City, Colo., Carson City, Nev., and Hutchinson, Kan. The private facility is operated by Steve Mantle, a horse trainer near Wheatland, Wyo. Mantle also puts on clinics, some sponsored by BLM and some that he does privately, to help new owners understand and deal with their new acquisitions.

Horses that are adopted at the short-term facilities are offered to persons 18 years of age or older for a minimum fee of $125. The adopter must be free of any prior convictions for inhumane treatment of animals or violations of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The adopter must also prove that he or she can and will provide feed, water, and shelter to the adopted animal in the United States. In order to gain approval, a potential adopter must fill out an application.

Here is what the BLM requires:

  • A minimum of 400 square feet (20 X 20 feet) for each animal adopted. Horses less than 18 months of age should be kept in corrals with fences five feet high. Fences must be at least five feet high for ungentled burros and six feet high for ungentled horses more than 18 months of age. 
  • The acceptable corral must be sturdy and constructed out of poles, pipes, or planks with a minimum thickness of 1.5 inches and must be devoid of dangerous protrusions. Barbed wire, large-mesh woven wire, stranded, and electric materials are deemed to be unacceptable.
  • Posts should be a minimum of six inches in diameter and spaced not farther than eight feet apart. Horizontal rails should be three-inch minimum diameter poles or planks that are at least two feet by eight feet. No space between poles or rails should exceed 12 inches. If poles are used, there should be a minimum of five rails. If two-by-eight planks are used, there should be four.
  • The adopter must provide shelter from inclement weather and temperature extremes. Shelters must be a two-sided structure with a roof, well drained, adequately ventilated, and accessible to the animal or animals. The two sides of the shelter need to block the prevailing winds and need to protect the major part of the body of the horse or burro.

Once a potential adopter feels that she or he has met the above requirements, it is time to fill out an application and mail it to the BLM office serving that area. The BLM, during its review process, will seek verification that appropriate facilities are going to be provided. This could involve an inspection of the site or an interview with the potential adopter.

While the minimum bid for adoption is $125, it often goes higher than that. At present the average adoption fee is about $185 for horses, $135 for burros, and $160 for mules. Each individual is permitted to adopt up to four horses per year. If more than that are desired, additional criteria are involved.

At the five gentling facilities, higher prices are sometimes obtained as the gentled, semi-trained horses are sold through competitive bidding.

The new owner must sign an agreement that states, in part, that the adopter has "no intent to sell this wild horse or burro for slaughter or bucking stock, or for processing into commercial products."

Title to the adopted animal is not legally  transferred for one year. During that time, says Rawson, the BLM, with help from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, monitors the adopted animals, making certain they are receiving proper care. About 6,000 animals per year are adopted, he says, and on an annual basis, there are between 4,000 and 5,000 compliance checks.

The goal, he says, is to determine whether the animal is receiving proper care before title is passed after one year. Once title is passed, the horse, burro, or mule becomes private property and neither the BLM nor APHIS has jurisdiction. The unspoken message, or hope, is that if a person has properly cared for the adopted animal for a year, that same type of care will continue without agency oversight.

Before title is passed, the title application must be signed by a veterinarian, humane official, or cooperative extension agent declaring that the animal has received proper care.

Once Wild…

Considering that these animals are coming in from the wild, do most adopters bond with them, and do the animals truly adjust?

Rawson thinks that is what happens in a vast majority of cases. However, if, during that first year the new owner can't cope with the animal, he says, the adopter can return it to the adoption facility and an effort will be made to find the animal a new home. While that has happened, it hasn't been often and usually is the result of the adopter moving to a new location or having other circumstances occur that make it impossible to provide care for the adopted animal.

How about the bonding issue?

"We receive reports that these wild horses have a strong tendency to bond with their owners," Rawson said. "It might be because wild horses in a band tend to bond, and they transfer that tendency to their new human companion."

And if the adopted horse dies? The BLM has covered that contingency this way: If, within the first six months of adoption the animal dies or needs to be destroyed because of a pre-existing medical problem, the BLM will provide the adopter with another animal. The adopter has 12 months to select a replacement animal from those available for adoption at a preparation center or at an adoption event held somewhere besides the preparation center. 

Adoption Procedure

In an effort to provide more individuals with an opportunity to adopt a wild horse or burro, the BLM offers online adopting. Photos and descriptions of the adoption candidates are placed on the internet. Potential adopters fill out the normal application blank and, if accepted, are eligible to bid online for the animal they desire. A beginning and ending point for the bidding is established and, once the deadline arrives, the highest bidders are notified.

For example, one of the more recent internet adoptions opened March 13, 2005. All applications had to be filed by March 26, 2006, and bidding closed two days later on March 28. Photos of the horses eligible for adoption were posted on the internet March 1, 2006. Potential adopters were informed on the internet that once their application was received, they would be called and the information would be reviewed by a wild horse and burro specialist.

If the potential adopter is approved, he or she must post a $125 deposit in order to receive a Bidder ID number. Animals are picked up by the highest bidders at the holding facility where they are located, or they might be shipped to another centrally located facility.

As a protection to the online bidders, the BLM does not require that the highest bidder take the horse if it does not meet the new owner's expectations. There is no penalty for not taking the animal. Persons declining will be given credit for their deposit or will be eligible to adopt another horse at that particular event.

Health Care

By the time adopters receive their horses, the animals have already received basic health maintenance care. Shortly after being captured and sent to a holding facility, the animals are dewormed and administered an extensive series of vaccinations. Early in this process, APHIS often becomes involved and continues with that involvement during compliance checks and at other points along the way as wild horses and burros are moved through the system with adoption as the end goal.

The program between APHIS and the BLM operates under a Memorandum of Understanding created in 1999. Heading up the APHIS end of the program is Albert Kane, DVM, PhD, program manager for the APHIS/BLM Wild Horse and Burro Partnership. The partnership, Kane says, offers the BLM a national network of veterinary expertise while offering APHIS an opportunity to be more active in the horse industry.

One of Kane's responsibilities is to help coordinate services between private veterinarians, APHIS veterinarians, and the BLM. In addition, he says, APHIS helps with public outreach and education on behalf of the wild horse and burro program in general.

While much of the veterinary work is handled by private vets, APHIS staff members are available to step in if needed and to serve as a technical resource.

Once a group of wild horses or burros is gathered, Kane says, they normally are confined to a holding facility before deworming and vaccination programs are instituted. "We want them to settle down and get on feed for a week or so before we begin treating or vaccinating them," he explains.

In addition to assisting with outreach and healthcare, APHIS personnel also are involved with obtaining blood samples that are analyzed as part of the effort to keep watch on genetic diversity of the various wild bands.

Veterinarians at the holding center normally castrate the stallions that are four years of age or older.

All horses entering the system are freeze branded with a coded brand that stays with them for life. The identification number applied in the procedure, says Rawson, allows the BLM to track the horse at any point.

Slaughter Horses

Do many adopted horses wind up at slaughter facilities?

Rawson is convinced that very few do, especially during the first year of adoption before title is passed. He said the BLM has an agreement with the horse slaughter facilities in the United States that calls for them to notify the BLM if an untitled horse arrives at the slaughterhouse. Because of the freeze brand, Rawson says, it is very easy to determine whether an untitled BLM horse has arrived for slaughter. If that were to be the case, the horse would be turned over to the BLM and the seller would face prosecution.

The concern about wild horses going to slaughter was exacerbated when Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana attached a rider to the omnibus spending bill signed into law by President Bush in late 2004. The rider basically directed the BLM to sell horses that were 11 years of age or had been unsuccessfully put up for adoption three times. There was nothing in the rider to prevent these horses from being sent to slaughter, and that is exactly what happened to about 40 of them. When the news surfaced, there was an outburst of indignation on the part of wild horse advocates. The BLM halted the sales and restructured the contract.

Today, the sales have been reinstated, but there is strong language in the BLM-produced contract prohibiting the sale of wild horses for slaughter or to someone who might send them to slaughter. To date, some 1,500 horses, many of them from the permanent holding facilities, have been sold under this program for amounts ranging from as little as $1 per head to as much as $1,500 for an individual horse.

Ranchers utilizing BLM-administered federal lands for grazing have been urged by Public Lands Council President Mike Byrne and Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke to buy some of the older wild horses that now are kept at the long-term holding facilities. Many of these horses are available at the selling price of $10 per head. The goal of this approach would be to relieve pressure on the BLM long-term holding facilities.

The annual appropriation for the wild horse and burro program, Rawson says, is about $36 million, with much of the money being spent to maintain the horses that haven't been adopted. Approximately 150 BLM personnel devote all or at least part of their time to the program, Rawson said.

Rawson believes that definite progress is being made in arriving at the number of horses that BLM believes their range can support. At present, he says, there are about 32,000 wild horses and burros in 10 western states--with about half of that total number being in Nevada. The goal is to lower that total to about 28,000. And that goal, Rawson thinks, can be reached in 2007.

Bottom Line?

So, one can conclude, the care and welfare of the wild horse and burro population is something of a dichotomy. Horses and burros that are adopted, generally speaking, appear to be well cared for and are the property of satisfied owners. The older horses being sold under provisions of the Burns Rider have no guarantees, but are spared a trip to a slaughter plant.

As mentioned earlier, the wild horses are a diverse lot. Some are large, some are small, but many, as the result of nature's culling, are quite healthy with strong, well-conformed hooves.

Some of the adopted horses have gone forward to make names for themselves and their owners. An example is Mustang Lady, owned by Naomi (Tyler) Preston. Lady was adopted in 1982 as a 2-year-old and went on to be an acclaimed endurance racer that in 2001 was elected to the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) Hall of Fame.

Then, there is JB Andrew, a wild horse captured in the rugged mountains and deserts of Nevada when he was about six months old. He spent a year at a holding facility, then went to one of the correctional institutions for preliminary training. The black colt grew to stand 16.3 hands and weighed nearly 1,900 pounds. When "Andy" was 2½, he was adopted by Ginger Scott. Later she would turn him over to Kelly O'Leary, and the two went on to perform and win at high-level dressage events. Eventually, Scott sold the big gelding to O'Leary.

But there are stories of a more humble nature that are just as heartwarming. Take Jennie of Shelbyville, Ky., for example. Nancy Ruble read a notice in the paper that some burros were going to be put up for adoption in Cross Plains, Tenn. She and husband, Ralph, hooked up the trailer and headed down. There Nancy met 8-year-old Jennie, a burro that had been removed from her desert range in California. They paid the $125 adoption fee and, with Jennie in the trailer, headed back home. That was 25 years ago. Ralph halter broke the burro and convinced her to allow him to pick up her feet. That's about all they asked of her. Jennie had free run of a spacious pasture.

"She was nothing but a pet," Ralph says with a smile. "She was like a big ol' dog. She could be out in the pasture, and when Nancy would come out of the house, she'd start braying."

Jennie died peacefully and of natural causes at age 33 this past January.

There are stories of horses, donkeys, and mules who were neglected, or sent to slaughter, and though it's harder to verify and find them than the success stories, where there's smoke, there's usually some fire. The branding of the animals helps them to be highly visible, and public sentiment is certainly on their side.

What can we conclude about the health and welfare of wild horses and burros based on the foregoing? Let's look at it from Velma Johnston's perspective. She would probably frown at the Burns Rider, but she'd likely smile at the success of the BLM adoption program.

For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management at 1-866-4MUSTANGS or

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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