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Rural Missouri Magazine

Diamonds in the rough
Adoption program places wild mustangs in good homes

by Jason Jenkins

The Bureau of Land Management held a wild horse and burro adoption in Sedalia in late June. Five burros and 46 horses were adopted during the event, and three horses were placed into foster homes until adopters are found.

With her tiny right arm outstretched to its limit, a young girl reaches through the fence and offers a fistful of hay to the 3-year-old chestnut colt inside the temporary corral. The colt warily steps back.

The girl stretches farther, leaning in until her right cheek presses against the fence’s cold metal tubing. Again, despite his hunger, the colt takes another step back.

Eight months ago, the colt roamed free on federal rangeland in Nevada. Today, he stands with 60 other mustangs at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia awaiting adoption through the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Still suspicious of people, the colt isn’t willing to let anyone near him. Earning that first touch, and the trust and respect it requires, takes time, patience and humor, says Tiffiney Smith of Jackson.

“It’s awesome to get that first touch,” says Smith, who has adopted 14 horses and burros since 1998. “Once you develop that trust and relationship, it’s amazing what they’ll allow you to do. You can do anything with a mustang that you can do with a domestic horse.”

As much a symbol of the West as bison or pronghorn antelope, the wild mustang is emblematic of American spirit and unbridled determination. Today, about 29,000 wild horses and burros roam on federal land in 10 Western states. However, until the mid-20th century, wild horses and burros were indiscriminately slaughtered for commercial purposes.

A prospective adopter writes down a horse's number before the Sedalia adoption began. Horses and burros at the event were adopted for as little as $25 and for more than $400.

“Wild horses had no protections, but then a lady from Nevada named Velma Johnston, who’s better known as ‘Wild Horse Annie,’ organized the schoolchildren of America in a letter-writing campaign to Congress,” says Bill Davenport, BLM public affairs specialist.

“As a direct result of that campaign, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was passed.”

Wild mustangs began to thrive under federal protection. But now they faced a new threat — themselves.

With no hunting pressure and few predators, the mustangs risked depleting their food and water resources. Instead of dying at the hands of a commercial hunter, starvation or dehydration were now the mustangs’ enemies.

“We wanted to ensure that these wild horses are around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy,” Davenport says. “So the BLM started the wild horse and burro program in 1973 with the idea of maintaining the integrity of the herds.”

To keep up with a reproduction rate that would double the wild horse herd about every five years, the BLM gathers up a few thousand horses and burros from federal lands in Western states each year. Most of these animals are then shipped to the East for adoption.

“We run between 20 to 30 adoptions per year in the 31 states that are east of or adjoining the Mississippi River,” says Davenport, who is originally from Kirksville, but who now lives in Virginia. “We move them around each year trying to give folks an opportunity to adopt these animals.”

Even when placed in a corral, the mustang's desire to run never waivers.

Since the BLM program began, more than 216,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted nationwide. According to Davenport, Missourians have adopted more than 6,000 horses and burros, including the 14 that Smith has adopted.

Having just spent the summer working with horses on a ranch in Colorado, Smith’s interest in mustangs already was piqued when she saw an advertisement for a BLM auction scheduled at the nearby Flickerwood Arena in Jackson in 1998.

“My family didn’t know what kind of addiction they would start that day,” she recalls. “We only had two other horses on the farm at the time, so we adopted two mustangs, Miss Chips and Miss Willow. Once I learned how to hook up the truck and trailer, (more mustangs) just started showing up.”

Although she’d had horses since she was 4 years old, learning to work with her mustangs required an entirely different training style.

“The old cowboy methods that use fear and domination to train horses don’t work with mustangs,” she explains. “That’s how you ruin a mustang. You’ve got to work with trust and build a bond with a horse.”

Building such a bond requires time and lots of it. From the day Smith brings a mustang to the family farm, she spends hours in the corral simply talking to the horse, allowing it to become comfortable with her and her voice. Once the mustang allows that first touch to happen, then Smith begins exposing the horse to many stimuli, from washing and brushing to new people and environments.

As a special education teacher at Jackson’s South Elementary School, Smith has found many similarities between training mustangs and teaching. Just as a teacher must employ different teaching styles to accommodate different learning styles, a mustang trainer must be willing to try different techniques depending on the horse.

Tiffiney Smith adopted Elvis. A larger-than-average mustang, Elvis exhibits the influence of draft horse genetics, but wild horses descended from many breeds, including Thoroughbred race horses and those turned out by Spanish conquistadors and the U.S. Cavalry.

“The training is unique to each horse,” Smith says. “You have to become an observer and watch and listen to the horse’s behavior. With Miss Chips, it was quite the learning experience. She was very forgiving of my mistakes.”

Smith says that even if you don’t plan to ride your mustang, it’s important that it be tame enough to be led with a halter.

“It needs to be safe for your vet and your farrier to work on your horse,” she says.
While the majority of wild horses are used for recreational riding, they are capable of much more, Davenport says. “When folks are willing to work with them and train them, wild horses have excelled at just about any equine discipline you care to name — dressage, hunter-jumper, barrel racing, endurance riding, even trick riding.”

Many people prefer mustangs over domestic horses because of their inherent toughness. Genetic disorders and conditions that have been bred into domestic breeds don’t occur in mustangs.

The BLM uses freeze marking to identify individual wild horses and burros. The permanent, unalterable mark is placed on the left side of the animal's neck.

“Mother Nature breeds horses for one reason and one reason only, and that’s survival,” Davenport says. “She doesn’t make great big animals when there’s not very much food, so these wild horses typically are about 15 hands tall, which is perfect trail-riding size. You’re not ducking the branches or dragging your feet on the ground.

“Wild horses also are extremely strong. Their bones are a little bit larger, their muscles are thicker and their hooves are like iron. And, they’ll keep going when everybody else is ready to quit.”

Smith adds that her mustangs don’t get sick as often, and they are more sure-footed than her domestic horses.

In addition to adopting 14 wild horses and burros, Smith also has fostered five other animals, which she has brought to her family’s Cape Girardeau County farm for shorter stays while she finds them homes. She says working with the foster mustangs gives her a chance to feel the bonding experience that is such a part of owning a wild horse.

The standard base adoption fee for a wild horse or burro is $125, but an older animal can be adopted for as little as $25. Davenport says using the auction format sometimes means that animals with unique characteristics go for much more than $125.

“The majority of wild horses are bay or sorrel, but a couple years ago we had a blue roan, a horse with a blue cast to it,” he recalls. “There were three ladies that wanted him, and $1,800 later, one of those ladies took him home and he’s been worth every penny to her.”

Despite being a burro, Buddy can be as stubborn as a Missouri mule. He's the patron of Smith's "Band of Burros," which also includes Daisy, Ellie and Noelle.

Before you can adopt a horse or burro, you must meet a set of adoption requirements, including minimum facility requirements for fences, shelter and square footage. Once approved, adopters must care for their animals for one year before they can apply for title on the animal.

Currently, about 28,500 wild horses and burros are fed and cared for at short-term and long-term BLM holding facilities at a cost of nearly $20 million a year. While removing these horses ensures the viability of wild horse herds in the West, it also demonstrates a large need for more adopters.

“You just have to look past the cuts, the scrapes, the scars,” Smith says. “These horses are diamonds in the rough.”

For more information on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, call 1-866-4MUSTANGS or visit www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov. The BLM Eastern States Wild Horse and Burro Facility at Ewing, Ill., is open six days a week for walk-up adoptions. Call 1-800-370-3936 for directions and more details.

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