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Mountain Mustangs

Blithe Spirits of the White Clouds

(page 3 of 3)

Unselfish by design, if not intent, these horses’ ability to find water under any weather conditions is a boon to other wildlife as well. During summer droughts, when water sources become scarce, they use their keen sense of smell to find water and then use their powerful hooves to pound the water to the surface. In winter they break open ice-covered water sources through snowpack for nourishment.

If they survive the harsh winters, the mares begin foaling in early spring. They hold out—if they can—until nightfall so they have the added protection of darkness.

Mares who can’t care for their young, or who die while birthing, are dutifully replaced by another mare. They work together teaching the foals discipline, respect and the ways of their ancestors. The old mares know the ancient trails to high, spring-fed pastures in summer and the sheltered arroyos and canyons in the harshness of winter. They work together in disciplined order. This deep family connection is one of the reasons the roundups are so hard on the herd.

Every summer in Challis, the Bureau of Land Management conducts a census from an airplane. When the herd numbers approach 253, they hold what they call a “gather,” rounding up and removing enough horses to bring the numbers down to around 185 to share 126,000 acres, a combination of both public and private land.

To the observer, these roundups are dramatic and seem inhumane. The herds are chased across wide valleys, deep canyons and eventually into burlap-lined runways that funnel into metal holding pens. As individual bands of horses are pushed in, the stress and instincts cause stallions to fight, putting mares and foals in harm’s way. Some will be injured trying to escape, some will be orphaned, and possibly some will die.

At the end of the day the shaken animals are loaded into cattle trucks to be transported to a BLM facility. At the facility the horses are sorted, some are released back into the wild and some are sent off to auction. Some will be sold for $125 each. Some will spend the rest of their lives in government holding pens, others might live their lives out at sanctuaries. Still others could find their way to slaughter.

In an effort to stem the need for roundups, the BLM and the Humane Society have begun administering a form of temporary birth control to the mares, a contraceptive vaccine called PZP. The method has proven very successful, is easy to administer, and does not disrupt the complex social structure of the wild herds. The goal is to minimize the need for these costly and traumatic roundups, which will also save millions of tax dollars while ensuring genetic diversity.

The people who handle these horses once in captivity are regularly amazed at their level of health.

Parasites that plague domestic horses don’t seem to be an issue with wild horses and they are most often well-nourished and strong of hoof, according to Dr. Jeff Hoffman, a Salmon, Idaho, equine veterinarian who works with the BLM to examine and vaccinate the animals.

Leigh Redick, head of the Challis Wild Horses Program for the BLM likes the stock so much, he has adopted six for himself.  Are they trainable?
“In general, the younger animals are easier to train,” he says.

Dr. Hoffman agrees.

“The older horses are harder to train. A lot of them have had bad experiences with humans. They’ve probably been through a few roundups. The vast majority of them just won’t settle down. A lot of them have had bad experiences with humans and they just plain lack trust in people.”

But it’s not impossible, Redick adds, his eyes softening, revealing his compassion.

“It all really comes down to the person who is working with the horses.”


Bureau of Land Management

International Fund for Horses

Return to Freedom

Society for Animal Protective Legislation

Wild Horse Preservation Campaign

Wild Horse Sanctuary


Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Feb 26, 2012 09:00 am
 Posted by  binnin

Wild horses and burrow are one of our national treasures, but cattle ranchers have sought to destroy them for more than a century. Seems like they have almost completed their goal.

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