March 25, 2008

Mustangs in the wild.

The US Bureau of Land Management is making about 90 horses and donkeys available for adoption in southeast Texas this week.

The animals are at Ford Park Arena, after being collected as part of a federal program. The BLM program protects feral horses and burros that have lived freely in the western United States for almost 500 years.

BLM spokesman Paul McGuire said the horses and burros will be available for adoption from March 27 to 29.

"Their lineage goes back to when the Spaniards first introduced horses to North America," he said.

The descendants of these Iberian horses later mated with horses brought by pioneers, gold prospectors and US cavalry.

"What evolved over hundreds of years was the American mustang," McGuire said. "It's a product of America's own experience. They are truly symbols of our heritage. Living legends, so to speak. That's why they're protected."

McGuire said about 30,000 feral horses roam parts of the 260 million acres maintained by the bureau.

Federal officials monitor the mustang's population, which is unchecked by natural predators, and collect enough horses and burros to keep their numbers within a sustainable threshold.

McGuire said his division of the bureau holds up to 18 adoption drives each year throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kansas.

Adoptions are held in Beaumont about every other year, he said, and have generally been quite successful.

On Thursday, Southeast Texans will have an opportunity to visit and consider adopting some of these wild stallions, mares and their diminutive cousins.

At 10am on Friday competitive bidding will take place for the horses and burros that are sought by more than one person.

The remaining animals will be available for adoption for a $125 fee. To qualify, applicants must be at least 18, have suitable facilities and no record of animal abuse. Each applicant is limited to four animals, which must be loaded into covered, stock-type trailers with swing gates, sturdy walls and floors.

"These are wild animals and that's something important for people to realize," McGuire said. "These animals are going to be very wary of people initially. They initially view people as predators."

He added that there is a misapprehension that mustangs are untamable, but "once they realize which side their bread is buttered on they respond to people quickly," he said.

"I expected to just see maniac horses," said Lauren Vincent of Sulphur, Louisiana, a participant in the last adoption drive in Beaumont.

Vincent said the horses had been in captivity for about six months and had only limited contact with humans. "They knew what two-legged things were, but they hadn't gotten close to any of them," she said.

While they were clearly scared at first she later found it easy to quickly befriend the two horses she adopted with her husband. "We took ours home and kept them in pens for about a week to let them get acclimated, then we let them bond with the regular horses," she said.

When the mustangs, General Buck and Chief Red Cloud, were about three years old they began training them for riding, Vincent said. The mustangs were bright and quick learners, she said, making the process surprisingly easy.

"These animals, having been bred and lived in the wild, have had to develop keen intelligence," McGuire said. "This makes them able to respond very well to proper training techniques."

Vincent said she and her husband relied on techniques they viewed on a video produced by horse trainer Monty Roberts.

"A horse generally has a fight or flight attitude," Vincent said. "We used methods to encourage the horse to come to you seeking help and protection."

She said since their training began they have proven quite adept at taking direction. Vincent said she and her husband have taught them to race barrels and poles and they have taken them to rodeos where they raise awareness of the breed.

The biggest difference she has noticed between the once feral horses and their domestic counterparts is stamina and adaptability, Vincent said.

"They adapt to just about anything we need them to do. When bringing them through the marshy-type terrain they just plug straight through, don't hesitate at all," she said. "Some other horses say 'whoa, no, I'm not going through there.' It helps to have a really confident manner that you're not going to put them in any danger."