For decades, the US Bureau of Land Management has been scratching its head, to the point of going bald, over the conundrum of what to do with our country’s overwhelming surplus of wild horses.
Currently, more than 55,000 wild horses live on the open range, but that range can only sustain about 27,000 horses. Another 35,000 wild horses live in off-range pastures, but those pastures are reaching capacity.
On March 4, the BLM put out a call for private landowners interested in providing quality care for 200-5000 wild horses. This plan may prove to be a viable and sustainable way to ease overpopulation while giving horses good homes and putting a smile on the faces of wild horse advocates. What’s more, this plan has a proven track record.
In 1988, I pitched this exact idea to the BLM. I had recently bought a 35,000-acre ranch in South Dakota and was casting about for an operating plan. At that time, the BLM had 2000 excess unadoptable wild horses locked up in feedlot prisons. It occurred to me that I could give those horses a fine retirement home on a sea of prairie grass.
The BLM took a shine to the idea but insisted that I lobby Congress to get a bill passed giving the agency permission to contract with me. Senator Dennis DeConcini from Arizona helped me get approval for our country’s first government-sponsored wild horse sanctuary. Within the year, semi-trailers trundled down the ranch road delivering a total of 1500 wild horses. I was the caretaker of that herd for four fabulous years.
Would I recommend that someone with land and a love for horses and adventure apply to be a wild horse caretaker? Quicker than a hawk dives for a field mouse.
But here’s the rub. The BLM contract stipulates, among other things, that the horses have little human contact, that they are moved regularly to fresh pastures, and that they are monitored. What the BLM fails to mention, however, is it’s darn difficult to move and monitor animals that have a deep-seated fear of human beings. It is we the people who have chased them off the range with helicopters, split up their families, forced them onto trucks and into captivity. No wonder they humans more than anything. Had I not befriended the wild horses, those four years on Mustang Meadows Ranch might not have been so spectacular.
When the horses first arrived on the ranch, a crew of cowboys couldn’t get closer than half a mile before those horses would bolt. Somehow I had to reverse their training in fear. I needed to teach those horses that I was their friend, not their enemy. I had to work with them gently and kindly, win their trust so that they would follow me across the prairie and through a gate onto fresh grass. I developed a program that I called “herd behavior modification training”. Monty Roberts would later call it “horse whispering”.
The cowboys on the ranch thought I was nuts. Three times a day, we got in a corral the size of a football field with 100 horses. The races would start. Back and forth those frightened animals sprinted until they figured out we weren’t going to harm them. Pretty soon, they started following a cowboy on a horse around the corral, then through the gate, then through the lane to the pasture. The entire training took about a week. By the time spring rolled around and we had to move the entire herd to summer grazing, all the horses had graduated from school. Of course, one question remained: Would the training stick?
As it turned out, it did stick. When we moved the herd across six miles of prairie, including through gates, not one horse bolted. Imagine leading 1500 wild horses at an easy gallop, the closest ones about eight feet behind you. I’ll never forget the sound of the horses grunting, the feel of the land vibrating. It was the highlight of my ranching career.
Without a doubt, private wild horse sanctuaries can be a win-win for wild horses and horse lovers. With more sanctuaries in place, perhaps the BLM can concentrate on ways to keep the free-roaming wild horses from overpopulating the open range. Then maybe, just maybe, the Wild Horse and Burro Program will become as manageable as a trained herd of wild horses.
Alan Day was the owner of Mustang Meadows Ranch near St. Francis, South Dakota; Rex Ranch near Whitman, Nebraska; and Lazy B Ranch in southern Arizona. Alan relates the story of working with the wild horses in his award-winning memoir The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs.
With his sister, supreme court judge Sandra Day O’Connor, he also coauthored Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest.