Program steals wild horses’, burros’ freedom, saves their lives
By Kathy Chaffin
ARCHDALE ó The shock of captivity had lessened to a dullness in the wild horses’ eyes when you could actually see them.
As much as possible in the corrals at the Triad Livestock Arena on the outskirts of this Randolph County town, many hid their eyes from prospective owners and curious spectators. For some of the 51 mustangs ó all captured in Western states ó not even the hay on the outer edges of the corrals was enough to lure them from the security of the more distant, inner bars.
Some held their heads down in seeming defiance. Others, on occasion, raised them boldly to take in their surroundings.
The five burros seemed less affected by the confinement. They stood farther apart than the horses and watched passersby with what appeared to be natural curiosity.
At one point, three rolled playfully on their backs to the delight of the humans in the arena.
After running wild since birth, all of the horses and burros wore the freeze mark of the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program ó a government project that takes their freedom, but may ultimately save their lives.
Due to overpopulation, some of the nation’s wild mustangs and burros ó all descendants of animals released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, American Indians and the U.S. Cavalry ó face possible starvation on the open ranges.
That was the reason for the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which gave the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service the authority to manage, protect and control wild horses and burros.
Bureau of Land Management officials monitor herds and the rangelands on which they live to determine how many horses and burros the vegetation and water can support. Based on that information, they gather the excess animals from areas where supplies of vegetation and water are threatened by overpopulation.
Lauren Ritchie, program specialist for the Eastern States Office of the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program in Jackson, Miss., said the Bureau of Land Management uses helicopters to round up the horses and lead them to a trapped area.
“Once they get them there,” she said, “they sort them out and take them into the holding corrals.” Mustangs and burros are sorted according to sex and age, and mares and jennies are kept with their unweaned foal.
Once the animals are in the corrals, Ritchie said they’re branded with freeze marks individualized for each horse and burro, dewormed, vaccinated and given a Coggins test for Equine Infectious Anemia.
Some are then adopted on site while others are transported throughout the West for adoption events at rented facilities. Still others are transported around the country to adoption sites such as the Triad Livestock Arena in Archdale.
Ritchie was in Archdale on July 18-19 for an adoption event which led to new homes for 28 mustangs and five burros. The adoptions were arranged through an auction process with a minimum bid of $125 for animals less than 3 years of age and $25 for animals 3 years and up.
The high bid was $200, she said.
A total of 23 mustangs were not adopted, Ritchie said, and transported to a holding facility in Ewing, Ill,, where they will remain until a future adoption event.
This was the first time any horses had to be returned from an Archdale adoption auction. “I know there’s been a drought around here in North Carolina,” she said, “so it has been hard for people to get hay.”
Last summer at the Archdale auction, the first one to be held at that site, all 80 wild horses and burros were adopted. Four months later, at an adoption auction in Kenansville, 25 were adopted.
The previous year, 72 wild horses and burros were adopted in Kenansville. In 2006, the adoption event led to 80 animals finding new homes.
Ritchie said the Land Management Bureau has also held auctions in Asheville, Wilmington and Clinton. “We’ve jumped around quite a bit,” she said.
The Eastern States Office also schedules auctions in the other 10 states in its coverage area: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The next adoption event is scheduled for Aug. 1-3 at South Congaree, S.C., and instead of a competitive bidding process, Ritchie said adoptions will be offered to pre-qualified buyers on a first-come, first-serve basis. “We’re trying different methods to see what people like,” she said.
Nationwide, Shayne Banks, who handles public relations for the Eastern States Office, said 100 to 125 adoption events are held annually, resulting in 4,000 to 5,000 animals being placed.
“It’s mostly horses,” she said. “We don’t have that many burros in the adoption system … maybe 5 percent.”
Banks said the number of horses being adopted has decreased slightly over the years. “At one point, we were pushing close to 6,000 being adopted a year.”
That’s how many the Bureau of Land management needs to be placing annually in order to avoid overpopulation, she said.
Since the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program started in 1973, Banks said 220,000 horses have been adopted nationwide. Though the mustangs come from 10 Western states, Banks says 54 percent are from Nevada
Horses at the Archdale adoption auction were from Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. The five burros came from Arizona.
Prior to an auction event, Banks said she contacts area media representatives asking them to publicize it.
“The biggest thing we’ve got going for us right now is the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s ‘Extreme Mustang Makeover,’ ” she said, “which is getting attention nationwide.”
The way the competition works, Banks explained, is that trainers from across the country are assigned wild horses captured as part of the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program and given 100 days to prepare them for competition. The trainer whose horse performs the best in the national finals wins a $50,000 prize.
The Extreme Mustang Makeover started last year and the second annual national finals, to be televised by RFD-TV, will be held in the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 18-21. Area competitions have been held throughout the year leading up to the finals.
“These horses are so well trained that at the end of 100 days,” Banks said, “they’re competing in front of judges. What it’s done for our program is it allows the general public to see that these wild horses can be trained.”
RFD-TV also features programs on training horses, and books and videos are also available.
“Those work really well with the wild horses,” Banks said. “As long as the trainers have got a whole lot of time and a whole lot of patience, they do well.”
Ritchie said many people who adopt one wild horse or burro return to adopt more. “It’s very common,” she said. “People get so excited, they send us all kind of pictures, and they tell us the names of their horses and fun, crazy stories about what they do.”
When they return to the site of a former adoption event, Banks said people who have adopted horses bring photos with them.
“They just want to show them off,” she said. “A lot of times, people will have more pictures of their wild horses than they do their kids and grandkids.”
Banks said there have been a lot of success stories in the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program.
“A wild horse is really a feral horse,” she said. Their ancestors were all domesticated, so most of them adapt very quickly and easily “and become very happy in their new homes.”
For more information on the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program, call 1-866-4MUSTANGS (866-468-7826) or log onto wildhorseandburro.blm.gov.
To find out more about the Mustang Heritage Foundation and/or the Extreme Mustang Makeover, log onto www.mustangheritagefoundation.org and/or www.extrememustangmakeover.com.