The wild horse is an animal most of us see as a beautiful, capable, defiant creature, comfortable in his environment and not needing human intervention to survive. However, this is not always the case, at least not in the United States.
Wild horse herds in the western United States (Nevada and Montana) have grown to nearly double the number of animals that their habitat can comfortably support. This area is currently home to about 48,000 wild horses, while the range can realistically only support about 25,000. Not only that, but the herds double in size every four to five years.
This leaves us with a very large surplus of wild horses that we must help unless we want to see them suffer increased rates of disease from overcrowding at feed and watering sites, death from starvation or dehydration, and/or inbreeding in large, unculled herds.
Programs are already in place to gather wild horses for adoption by the public, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working with Congress on a plan to accelerate the current gather programs to cope with the overcrowding. This will increase the numbers of horses gathered from the wild and offered for adoption. This year, the BLM plans to gather about 13,000 horses from these herds and sell about 7,500-8,000 of them.
Horses five years old and younger are put through the adoption programs, since they tend to gentle more quickly than the older ones and are also the first ones sought by potential new owners. The remainder will go to long-term holding facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma, where the rangeland is not overcrowded.
Simple overpopulation is not the only reason for wild horse gathers; natural disasters such as wildfires and droughts can further diminish the rangeland’s ability to sustain horses. In the last few years, wildfires in northern Nevada destroyed significant portions of the horses’ range, requiring the BLM to gather more horses to protect those that were left.
During gather operations in the Las Vegas area, foals from one day to three months of age are often removed from their mothers to reduce stress on the mares and the rest of the herd, and save the foals. Historically these herds are overpopulated, with overcrowding reducing water and forage and thus weakening mares, foals, and the rest of the herd. To date, the Las Vegas BLM has brought over 600 foals to the National Wild Horse Association (NWHA) for 24-hour care. These foals are bottle-fed until they are weaned at about four to five months, then placed in the BLM’s adoption program. Only five of these foals have been lost (0.83%) compared to a probable 95% loss if they were left out on the range.
One of the biggest hurdles for gathers and adoptions is the misconception that wild horses are undesirable because they are ugly, hard to train, or too small. Organizations such as the BLM and the National Wild Horse Association are working to get horsemen more interested in adopting these horses by dispelling these myths.
Wild horses have been competitive in endurance, dressage, reining, three-day eventing, as well as being popular for casual use. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and many new owners have found wild horses to be willing, hard-working, durable animals. All one needs to do when working with a newly adopted horse is to handle him calmly and patiently, slowly winning his trust. The time it takes to fully adapt a wild horse to domesticated life varies with the individual horse’s personality, of course, but in general the horse wants to trust his new owner–he is looking for a family member to bond with now that he is without the herd.
The wild horse is also an incredibly tough individual, having survived Mother Nature’s harsh selection for the fittest individuals. You might see unusual conformation in some wild horses, but very rarely will it be unsound conformation–in the wild, unsound horses usually die before reproducing.
Another advantage to adopting a wild horse is that you start with a clean slate–having never been handled before, a wild horse lacks preconceived notions of how he can or should react to interactions with humans. With patience and good horse sense, one can often end up with a horse described as “the best horse I ever had.”
Gary McFadden is a Wild Horse Specialist with the United States Bureau of Land Management. Billie Young is the president of the National Wild Horse Association. Ric Redden, DVM, is the owner of the International Equine Podiatry Center, Inc., in Versailles, Ky.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
If you would like more information about the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, please visit www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov.