Volume 104, Number 17 - April 26, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Annie O’Brien
“Doesn’t everyone want a wild horse?” Sandra Goodwin posed that rhetorical question as she pointed at Toy, her tall, stronglooking white mustang. Toy hugged the corral’s fence while Sandra spoke as though she knew we were talking about her. Sandra is one of several Sublette County residents who have adopted mustangs through the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program (WHBP). The WHBP seeks to manage mustang and burro populations on public lands. Velma Johnston, a Nevada woman better known as Wild Horse Annie, campaigned to prevent aggressive horse roundups and to allow the BLM to control the herds. Allegedly, Johnston witnessed an overcrowded trailer hauling horses to a slaughter house. A colt had been crushed in the melee.
Sandra adopted Toy in 1996 when Toy was only four weeks old and was still nursing. It was not the first time she tried to get a mustang. She had made a competitive bid, but decided to try and get a horse as a “walkin.” Sandra put her name on a list for bum colts, and a few months later she was given two colts.
One of the colts died a grisly death not soon after she brought him home, impaling himself in the stomach. “I get chills just talking about it,” she shook her head and said. Toy also has an interesting survival story. One day Sandra noticed Toy would not lift up her head. An X-ray revealed a broken neck, but Sandra and her vet did not put her down. Toy healed and her injury hasn’t affected her ability to ride. “These guys are tough as a boot,” Sandra said.
She considers mustangs a superb breed, able to ride long, fast and smooth. Evolution endowed mustangs their speed and grace, Sandra believes, because weak, stumbly horses could not have kept up with the rest of the herd. She also likes them for their healthy bodies and keen minds. Their hooves are typically thick and strong and she knows of no health concerns particular to mustangs.
She explained that natural breeding for a life in the wild meant the species had to become sharp, alert and hardy. Toy notices cars, and Sandra said one of her friends, a volunteer with Search and Rescue, wanted to bring her mustang for training. She had to persuade Search and Rescue to let her use the mustang. During a drill in which the trainees were supposed to be searching for a “perp,” Sandra said her friend’s mustang paused and looked up at a tree, where the person playing the perp was hiding.
Their intelligence means trainers might have to take a softer, trust-based approach when working with a new mustang. “You don’t break a mustang, you tame a mustang,” she said. Toy was Michigan-native Sandra’s first experience training a horse and is now a good roping horse, her owner explained. Their relationship was cemented early because Toy was so young when Sandra adopted her. Sandra said she acted as though she were the boss mare, a role Toy accepted because Sandra nursed her when she was a colt.
The contention over wild horse use of public lands that are also used for ranching is usually rooted in the idea that mustangs, which are a feral species, not a wild one, consume valuable water and grass species with hooves that damage the range. Ranchers charge the mustangs are a species with few natural predators, and unchecked growth of their numbers is harmful to public land grazing. Recently a controversial amendment to a budget appropriations bill, drafted by ex-Montana Senator Conrad Burns, would have removed restrictions on wild horse adoptions, making it possible for the slaughtered animals to be sold commercially. The amendment died.
Sandra brought up other methods of controlling mustang herds, such as giving the mares hormonal birth control. Nikki Mann and her boyfriend Jeff Wohl have also adopted mustangs, Spencer and Derringer. Like many of Nikki’s animals, the mustangs were named in honor of guns. Jeff said he wanted to take in a mustang “for the challenge and because they’re affordable horses that need homes and can turn into great mountain horses.”
Mustangs pose a training challenge because they are unfamiliar with people. Their initial experiences with man, during the BLM roundup and branding (all horses on BLM land are branded on their necks) are often frightening, Jeff explained. Nikki adopted Spencer, who, at over 16 hands is also very tall, in September of 2005. She discovered him in the Palomino Holding Center outside of Reno, Nevada. Spencer had been part of a “bad adoption” at a facility infected with strangles, but she chose him anyway. She affectionately compared his long-legged, big-head body to that of a moose.
Training him was tough, Nikki recalled. When he was frightened he would charge his large, powerful body directly at her. She had to always train from his shoulder. Because he is so large, Spencer may have learned to use his size to dominate other horses in the herd, Nikki speculated.
“It took a long time before I felt comfortable standing in front of him,” she added. Like Sandra, Nikki loves the mustang personality. “They’re loyal yet independent, if that makes any sense,” she said. She also shares Sandra’s appreciation for their physical hardiness, especially their “great feet.” Spencer and Derringer took a 182-mile pack trip across the deserts of Nevada and has worked in the Wind River Mountains.
However, Nikki supported the Burns amendment to the WHBP. Nevada, Nikki’s home state, has the largest population of mustangs, and she said she has witnessed the degradation of rangeland from herds with no natural predators.
Nikki added that mustangs are not for everyone. Mustangs are athletic and many will jump over inadequate fencing. They also present a formidable training challenge and are not for owners who simply want a “pasture pet,” she said.
Debi White, Sandra’s cousin, also praised her mustang Flame’s smooth, fast gait. She is friendly with all of Debi’s other horses. Flame is smaller than Toy and Spencer. Her coat and mane are a rich shade of ruby-red that sparkles in the Wyoming spring sunlight. Debi loves to ride Flame from her home in Bargerville to the Winds but no longer rides as far as she once did. “As I get older, I’m getting to be a sissy. Five or six miles is enough for me,” she said. And Bargerville’s steadily increasing development also limits her ability to take her horses for long trips through the wilderness. Debi gestured at the network of dirt roads and houses under construction and said she remembered when nothing stood between her corral and the mountains.
Photo credits: Annie O’Brien
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