I stood at the head of kind of quiet looking wild Mustang my friend Angie had brought from Montana and I talked to it gently while she adjusted stirrup leathers on the saddle we’d been walking this horse under for a week. It was zero-hour and time for her to ride him for the first time. This was to be no wild-west show, the object was for Angie to merely put weight on the saddle and, if all went well, ease up and then on his back for just a few moments—not even move forward, just build tolerance, from which we hoped would come trust. That would be the limit of our small day’s progress and then we’d put the stallion away. We’d been handling the horse for two weeks and for the most part had avoided all confrontations.
This was 1955 and Angie was among the first eastern rich kids to try and save wild Mustangs from the killer yards by adopting. You had to be rich to dabble in this dubious venture. Vanning a fractious, unbroken Mustang from Montana to Illinois and boarding it long enough to know if you had anything workable was expensive. In those early days it was supposed that mature wild horses could be gentled and ridden for pleasure. Wild Horses Wyoming and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary have since learned better and now limit their rescue operations to returning wild horses to relative wild, the private wild of big spreads in private hands. At any rate, there I was, standing in front of this late-learner, holding the bridle and soft-selling all the gentle horse vocabulary I could think of in a near whisper as Angie applied her weight to the near-side stirrup . . . slo…wly, ever so slowly.
It was over so quickly I really have no idea what happened, but in less time than it takes to apply the period to this sentence, the stallion had snatched his bridle out of my hands, turned 180 degrees and kicked me hard enough that I landed some ten paces across the indoor arena in a heap. Breathless and writhing, he’d apparently caught me with his leg rather than a hoof and I was uninjured other than having had the wind and considerable pride knocked out of me. Accomplishing what he no doubt felt to be rough justice, the stallion just stood there, head a bit lowered and waiting for our next move.
Our next move was to put him away and Angie sent him the following week with a shipment of show horses headed west, to a friend’s ranch in Wyoming. Our experiment ended with much money spent, good intentions thwarted and a much annoyed wild stallion turned back onto the range. Fifty years later, absent the Horse Whisperer, that’s still the best most of us can manage. Like Zebras, wild Mustangs are meant to live wild and the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior are left with the unenviable job of managing the herds.
‘Managing’ in bureau-speak usually means shooting, but 16 years after my humiliation at the south end of a Mustang headed north, Congress protected them from the bullet and instead allowed their slaughter for meat. I have my own thoughts about that, arguing that it’s more trauma to a wild thing to be rounded up, transported, corralled and slaughtered than it is to be shot in the wild. But Congress and a good many ordinary citizens have a problem with this particular kind of gun control. The present herd of 37,000 horses is deemed by the BLM to be 9,000 too many for the range to sustain. So, they’re rounding up and selling, as is their mandate. Dog food, horsemeat to France for dining tables, or buy ‘em for retirement, take your pick of the not-so-pretty options.
Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary currently has about 400 horses and says that’s all they can manage. Angie and I couldn’t manage even one, so I know their plight. Wild Horses Wyoming bought out the last auction at about $50 a head and plans to provide for an ultimate herd approximating 5,000. The long-term logistics of these solutions shake out pretty quickly and it’s obvious that no matter how well-intentioned, adoptions aren’t going to do the trick.
It seems there are three possible solutions:
- Leave everything be and let nature set the rules as nature does with all things. If 37,000 horses are too many for the range, the weak ones will starve off and the herd will balance.
- The government has a lot of land . . . open up some more range and wait for that to overcrowd.
- Get seriously in the meat business.
My own vote tends toward nature setting the rules, because I think that man, no matter how well intentioned, usually comes up with awkward solutions. There are exceptions, but those mostly have to do with hunting game-stocks and wild Mustangs are not game animals.
Nationwide, Mustangs are the small tip of an iceberg whose immense bulk is substantially the whitetail deer population in the suburban East. A more immediate problem, people there are frustrated and desperate enough to shoot Bambi if only it were possible within crowded populations. But Laramie, Wyoming (where the wild burros and wild horses play) remains the mystical (and mythical) American West in the eyes of congressmen and animal activists.
I applaud their sensitivity but think the world is becoming less and less a place where the truly wild can find accommodation alongside man.