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Rediscovering Our Underdogs

As August is upon us, my thoughts turn to fall and the proposed gathering of wild horses. Modoc National Forest intends to gather 1,000 horses, the greatest number that they can feasibly gather. Devil’s Garden currently has a population of 3,900 horses, but the Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the area is 206-402 horses. Accounting for an 18-25% growth in population per year, wild horse gathers will have to be continued in successive years to achieve AML.

With 1,000 wild horses coming off the range, I have been pondering the feasibility of adoption. As a horse lover and future horse owner, I wanted to dig into the requirements and impact of adoption. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requires a 5-6 foot fence and a shelter, a physical inspection, and a year of successful housing before receiving a horse’s title. The adoption form requires descriptions of the adopter’s corral, shelter, feed and water capacity and a map of the location. I hypothetically wade through the paperwork and requirements. I have experience riding and caring for horses, but these are not your backyard ponies, these are wild animals.

In 2017, only 3,517 wild horse and burros were adopted from the BLM nation-wide. As of June 2018, 44,730 wild horses and burros are being cared for by the BLM at off-range facilities. I have to believe that this gap exists because while there are other horse lovers like myself who are willing to give a horse a home, many do not have the expertise to train a wild animal.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation was created in 2000 to increase the adoptions of mustangs in holding facilities. Since then, it has started programs such as Trainer Incentive Program (TIP), Extreme Mustang Makeover, and Mustang Million to promote mustang adoptions. The Mustang Heritage Foundation have placed 7,500 mustangs into private homes. TIP increased the adoption of horses in holding facilities by matching potential adopters with horse trainers.

The TIP program includes over 345 trainers nationwide. The program involves basic gentling of mustangs by the trainers. To be considered “gentled” a horse must be halter broke, willing to pick up all four feet, and able to load and unload from a trailer. Local programs such as the Modoc Mustang Training Program (MMT) have boosted the numbers of adopters by gentling mustangs before they are adopted. Programs such as TIP and MMT close the gap between those who wish to adopt wild horses and those who need a professional to jumpstart the training process. An adopter can acquire a TIP trained wild horse for $125, the same fee as adopting an ungentled wild horse. TIP-approved trainers can receive up to $1,000 for the training of a wild horse.

Although the adoption of Devil’s Garden wild horses exceeds the national average, with 1,000 horses proposed to be gathered in the fall, more outreach and promotion will need to happen to place all the animals. Last year, 221 horses were gathered and placed in the BLM Litchfield facility to await adoption. The Modoc Mustang Training Program led to 55 adoptions and 7 more horses were sent to an inmate training program.

Programs such as the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s TIP make it more realistic for wild horses to find homes. Even so, the gap between the 7,500 trained or adopted horses and the 44,730 in holding is a large one and will only increase as the population of wild horses increases. There is more value to be had in a working horse or pleasure horse than a starving horse, a horse destroying local ecosystems, or a horse in long term holding.

In my mind, adoption is not a question of money but a question of knowledge and culture. Horses are easy to come by, yet the horse world prioritizes pure bloodlines. The mustang is the mutt of horses, a child of different bloodlines mixed on the range for over 100 years. Last week, an adopted mustang not only placed top ten in the Tevis cup but also won the Haggin Cup for best conditioned horse for the 100 mile endurance race. In a race that is normally dominated by Arabians, the mustang was highly competitive despite being a mutt.

In recent years, small pet owners have been more willing to adopt unwanted or stray animals instead of purchasing pure breeds. Horse owners must make a similar shift and learn to appreciate the strong, tough blood of wild horses over purebreds. This is not a sacrifice of toughness, trainability, or beauty; this is a change in values. The supply of wild horses greatly surpasses the demand for adoption. This must change if people want to see fewer horses in holding facilities. We have started to see a shift in adopting mixed breed dogs, why not appreciate the mixed breeds of the West.

Each and every horse that has been taken off the range and adopted is a success story. These horses no longer face starvation and injury and there is one less mouth for the damaged land to feed. If you are looking to acquire a horse please consider adopting a wild horse.

Further Reading:

Adoption application form

Data on the wild horse program

Devil’s Garden wild horses

Modoc Mustang Training Program

Reducing Population Growth Rates: Fertility Control in Wild Horse Mares

Mustang Heritage Foundation and TIP training

Tevis cup

Devil's Garden Wild Horses Facebook Group

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