Adoption? Poor Option
The Tragedy of Privatizing Free-Living Horses
Dillsburg, Pennsylvania — No unruly manes flew through the breeze on that hot June day; no pounding hooves vibrated through earth. But for a lone tractor traversing the landscape, the panorama surrounding Diamond Seven Ranch and Arena was strangely quiet.
I knew, though, that a herd of free-living horses had been taken from their western homeland to this dusty, rural Pennsylvania town.
Pulled from public land to be adopted through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program, the 68 horses were stored inside a large, dust-covered arena. I found them, separated by sex, stallions rearing, hooves clicking, now fighting for dominion over their very lives. Mares, placed in half-dozen groups, paced nervously from one end of their bin to the other. The less raucous geldings eyed the hay placed strategically near each bin’s perimeter as people shopped for a new pet.
I travelled to Dillsburg that last weekend of June not for a hero’s task of rescuing or freeing the horses. It was too late for that. I came to observe. And as I watched cowboys push trepid horses into stock trailers and crowded bins, I felt helpless.
The experience in Dillsburg confirmed my suspicion: Adoption is not a respectful option for horses who once roamed plains and islands.
But these days, it’s common to hear of the privatization of herds of horses from public lands. By this year’s end, scores of wild horse adoptions will have happened in 15 states, from Connecticut to California, from Texas to Minnesota. 
As the federal government speeds up its evictions of these horses from the only home they’ve ever known, officials scramble for adopters deemed suitable to own them. In reality, due to the urgency of finding homes for the horses, applications are often completed hastily by people who know little about caring for horses at all — let alone wild horses.  Applicants pay just $125, describe their stabling amenities and trailer types, and agree not to abuse or sell the horse to slaughter.
One year after filing the application, the adopter gets the title. During that trial period, the Bureau of Land Management maintains ownership rights and is therefore charged with making sure that the animal receives care. The adopter, during this period, takes the horse for a sort of test run to determine compatibility. If owner and horse don’t mesh, the animal can be returned to the program.
One of the Dillsburg herd was up for adoption under such circumstances. Unable to assimilate with domesticated horses, a small, roan gelding called ‘Bree’ ended up back with the Bureau. A small placard outside his stall read: “Bree does not get along with other males” and “is afraid of seeing other horses ridden.” Despite warnings, a young couple from Dillsburg took Bree home that day.
Ownership rights are more immediate for some adopters, under an amendment to the Omnibus Appropriations bill last December. The law makes any horse older than ten years, or any horse offered for adoption unsuccessfully three times, subject to outright sale — or death.
In 2000, after assessing land in the eleven states where both horses and cattle graze, the Bureau of Land Management resolved to decreasing the horse population by about half. The result was a strict schedule of mass removals, and over twenty thousand horses in government-run holding areas at the time of this writing. Many are in long-term care - mostly older horses, undesirable to adopters.
Although the threat of death motivates people to adopt, the numbers are simply staggering. Six horses of the Diamond Seven lot had been put up for adoption three times. All six were taken up by adopters. Yet the bulk of horses remained in limbo by the close of Sunday’s exhibition.
Sunday afternoon, the young cowboys went back to work. They rounded up and loaded the remaining 40 horses onto trailers for another long journey. Some horses went to the next adoption site, in Illinois.
Adopted animals are not immediately unpenned, but instead isolated in a 20-square foot corral, where they might wait months or even years. New owners want assurances that the horse is tame enough, and can’t evade being captured by their new owner.
In most cases, adopters have noble intentions. They hope to keep horses from a life of starvation and dehydration on the range, or from hanging with their throats slit in a U.S. slaughterhouse.
But it is not nature, nor is it the slaughterhouse, that is the real source of the problem for wild horses and burros. It’s the ever-burgeoning cattle industry. Indeed, it was a wealthy rancher, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who introduced the threat-of-death amendment.
As long as we permit our government to continue putting the interests of a few wealthy ranchers first, the subjugation and control of free-living horses will not stop. And although we may express sadness or outrage at the trading and slaughtering of free-living horses, it’s the raising, the trading, and the slaughter of cattle that we really must address. Anything else, no matter how well-meaning, will lead us, over and over again, to temporary answers.
- Bureau of Land Management, National Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Schedule, 2005.
- After I filled out false information about amenities on the Bureau of Land Management Adoption Application, my initial request was approved without verification (24 June 2005, Dillsburg, Penn). A BLM official is supposed to check up on the horse sometime after the adoption is made final.
- Personal Interview, Sally Spencer, representative for Bureau of Land Management adoption program ( 11 July 2005).