Breed evolution: More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers voyaged to the Americas bringing select Iberian Horse stock. Breeding farms raised tough, strong, beautiful horses. Over generations, stock was traded, stolen, or escaped to become the wild herds of North America.
Some of the wild mustangs roamed near ranchers or cavalry who would introduce a large stallion, such as a Thoroughbred or Tennessee Walking Horse, into the herd in an attempt to increase the horses' size. Later, their offspring would be rounded up and trained for use on ranches or in the military. In these wild herds, the original Iberian blood was diluted.
However, this dilution didn't occur in some geographically isolated wild herds or the wild mustangs domesticated by Native Americans. Each tribe zealously guarded their horses and kept detailed pedigrees, oral and written. The horses that retained significant Iberian blood have been known as the Original Indian Horse or Spanish Mustang, and are now called the Colonial Spanish Horse.
With the passing of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, 47 million acres of public land were assigned to support wild horses in 303 Herd Management Areas. The BLM, and in rare instances the United States Forest Service, were charged with managing the HMAs and the wild mustangs that call them home.
Since then, more than 223,000 wild horses and nearly 37,000 wild burros have been removed from the HMAs, and 102 of the HMAs have been, in BLM terms, zeroed out - emptied of wild horses and burros.
Gary McFadden, top wild horse specialist at the Burns, Oregon, BLM office, reveals that this year the agency hopes to reduce the numbers of wild horses and burros to 24,000, a sustainable number on the remaining HMAs. He hopes that with 6,000 to 10,000 animals gathered annually, and the same number of adoptions every year, the target populations will be stable and healthy.
Today, the number of wild mustangs and burros living in government holding pens exceeds the number that run free on their home range. According to recent statistics issued by the Bureau of Land Management Program Office in Reno, Nevada, there are an estimated 27,000 horses and burros living wild in Herd Management Areas in the Western states. Living in BLM captivity, awaiting adoption: an estimated 30,000. In 2006, there were just 5,172 adoptions.
Owners tell us: Nancy Kerson is a BLM Wild Horse and Burro volunteer and creator of Mustangs "4" Us! - an online gathering ground for mustang enthusiasts. "Mustangs are incredibly intelligent - not that domestic horses necessarily lack intelligence, but mustangs just have a depth, a complexity, as well as what, for lack of a better word, I will call 'wisdom' than other horses," she says. "They're more interesting to work with for that reason."
Kerson believes mustangs that have spent time on the open range in a functioning herd make especially good trail horses. "Until being captured, their everyday life was an endurance ride and a trail ride, averaging 18 or more miles per day," she points out. "They know where their feet are. And they don't want to get hurt. Their surefootedness and their ability to make sense of the movements, sights, sounds, and scents along the trail rival that of the best mules, in my experience."
Another advantage of wild mustangs, Kerson points out, is that they're used to living by their wits and their ability to read other animals' intentions. As a result, they're absolute masters of reading people.
"Mustangs are capable of bonding very deeply to their human, just as in the wild they bonded to their herdmates," says Kerson. "Once they trust you and bond with you, it goes very deep."
Kerson has experienced this connection with her mustang, Sparky. "He has an uncanny ability to sense my feelings," she notes. "He'll come to a dead stop if the thought just crosses my mind, and he will not do something if he feels I'm not comfortable doing it."
To further illustrate Sparky's perceptive personality, Kerson relates this amazing story. "When I was first learning to ride, and didn't feel ready to trot fast or lope, Sparky would feign sluggishness. A person could whip him but he wouldn't go any faster. But once I got my confidence up, no problem. Sparky now has energy to spare, except when I am really tired."
Carmon Deyo and her husband, Mike, adopted their first mustang in June 2002 while they were in the process of moving from Austin, Texas, to northeastern New Mexico. Mike didn't ride at that time, but Carmon's Missouri Fox Trotter had soundness problems, so she needed a horse to ride in the mountains. One day, Carmon was browsing through the BLM website when she found Cuervo. The couple purchased the mustang - who then quickly bonded with Mike.
"I never would've thought a green rider's first horse should be a mustang, but those two are a perfect pair and are learning together," says Carmon. "I have no doubt that Cuervo will be one of those wonderful trail horses who'll absolutely take care of his rider, due to their special relationship."
After falling in love with Cuervo, Carmon found Corazon at the 2003 Western States Wild Horse & Burro Expo in Reno, Nevada. The couple now own four mustangs.
"Each one is completely different, yet that humbling trust is there with all of them," says Carmon. "These horses know how to take care of themselves and you in the process. Their natural athleticism and self-carriage is what we spend years trying to develop in domestic horses who are destined for dressage.
"Our mustangs' beautiful bare hooves carry us confidently over terrain that owners of shod domestic horses tell us is too dangerous to be traveled, and they do it with a contagious eagerness to see what's around the next bluff or bend. Trailblazing is nothing for them, and, no matter where or how far you go, you can always trust them to get you safely back home again.
"Once you've created a bond with a mustang, there is nothing else in the world like it," Carmon continues. "The absolute trust on both sides is beyond anything I've ever experienced in my entire history with horses."
On the trail: Steve Mantle, a longtime professional trainer, broke young horses in the traditional manner until he met trainer Bryan Neubert, who taught the gentle horsemanship approach to training.
So Mantle traded his tough cowboy style of breaking for a much gentler approach, respecting the animal as a partner. He began offering his training services to the BLM in 1998. "They'd send horses from 6 up to 18 [years old], which is the oldest I've ever started," says Mantle.
Today, Mantle owns and operates Mantle Wild Horse Adoption and Training Center in Wheatland, Wyoming, and travels throughout the country giving gentle horsemanship clinics, using his mustangs as training models. He also uses mustangs on his family's large Colorado dude ranch, and on hunting trips.
"During hunting season, I used these horses as the pack string for a 25-man pack-in hunting camp," he notes. "I'd pack them with eggs, lanterns, fuel - anything breakable, since they wouldn't hit a tree and were a lot more perceptive then the typical domestic horse."
As trail horses, "The mustang has an elevated sense of self-preservation," says Mantle. "It's what keeps them [safe], and also makes them unique. They're more observant of things on and around the trail.
"Some people who don't gentle their mustangs will call this 'bad behavior,' but actually, it's a super trait that benefits both horse and rider. They won't end up in a bog, they aren't going to step in a hole, and, most likely, won't end up banging your knee against a tree or other object.
"If you allow the horse to do his thing and have taken the time to put on a good foundation and gentle him, you'll come back time and time again to use your mustang," Mantle concludes.
Selection savvy: Generally, the younger the horse, the easier it'll be for him to adjust to domestic life. The BLM organizes horses in holding pens by age and gender. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and many older horses have been adopted quite successfully. Seek out people who've adopted mustangs, and learn from their expertise. Develop a network of mentors.
Be patient. Most wild mustangs have suffered the trauma of a helicopter roundup and separation from their herd. They've exchanged life in the wild for life in a holding pen. Know that mustangs are generous and forgiving by nature. Time, love, and hands-on caregiving can heal many wounds.
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