Editor’s note: Last year 101 of the 2,331 wild horses adopted through the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program were relinquished back to the agency. In previous years, when adoption numbers were higher, it was typical for 300 to 500 wild horses to be returned by adopters who were in over their heads. The purpose of this article is to ensure that mustangs who are already imprisoned by the BLM—there are more than 45,000 wild horses and burros in holding facilities—and who might be adopted, find safe, loving forever homes and don’t end up, neglected, abused or sent to slaughter. However, Friends of Animals remains steadfast that wild horses are not overpopulated and humans should not be managing them on public lands by keeping them in small “herd areas,” rounding them up or limiting their population by forcibly drugging them with fertility control or sterilization to appease cattle and sheep ranchers. We continue to fight for true ecological zones on public lands where the landscape and animals are free from exploitation and management.
I will never forget the feeling of leading wild horse Comanche, his ears pricked, moving forward energetically at my side, changing directions and halting after he reads the subtle changes in my body language or hears me make a “kissing” sound. He was a different horse than when he arrived several months earlier at Primarily Primates, the sanctuary FoA manages in San Antonio, Texas. His fight or flight instinct was so great from being rounded up at that point that he refused to be touched.
We arrived at this dance together on June 5, after I observed several sessions of round pen training with certified horse trainer Keith Hosman. The round pen training, often misunderstood, did not entail running Comanche into the ground to show him who was boss. Instead it was a safe place to ask him to move, mostly at a walk, sometimes a slow trot. As Hosman explained, nature teaches wild horses there has be a boss, and that in every herd, large or small, one animal leads, and the others follow. And the test they use to decide who is in charge is, “If I can get you to move, I’m the boss.”
While Comanche and the two other wild horses FoA adopted last year, Bindi and Moxie, will never be ridden, the purpose of exposing them to some basic ground training was to earn their respect and get them to trust new leaders, such as care staff, a vet and a farrier. Even horses who are out to pasture and not being ridden need to have their feet trimmed in a timely manner, something that potential adopters of wild horses might not realize and might not be financially prepared for.
The next day on June 6, just 24 hours after experiencing our rewarding partnership, I walked up to put a halter on Comanche, but he trotted away—over and over again. We were no longer in synch. After about 45 minutes of using pre-cues, cues and motivators, and getting Comanche to think about what I was asking him instead of reacting, he accepted the halter and the training session continued.
I finally understood what Hosman had been telling me throughout the two weeks, that just when you are about to brag about what your wild horse has learned, you may have to reintroduce a concept all over again to get him to understand what you are asking. Horses, especially wild ones, are so sensitive to change. That particular morning we were using a different halter on Comanche, plus I was distracted because I needed to be at the airport soon to catch a plane back home to Connecticut.
It was my job to help Comanche find the right answer to what I was asking, but how could I do that if I was preoccupied? As Hosman also points out, one way to mess up training is for the human to get lazy or distracted. “If you are not committed to losing some fat yourself on Monday, then put off your work ‘til Tuesday,” he said. “Because every moment you are in your horse’s company he is learning from you, whether for good or for bad.”
Unfortunately for wild horses, lots of people lose patience if training becomes challenging and no longer fun, which can lead to abuse, as was the case with Samson, whose story is told by horse trainer Mitch Bornstein in his novel Last Chance Mustang. Samson was a free-roaming wild horse before he was ripped from his Nevada home by the BLM and thrown into a domestic world where he was brutalized before crossing paths with Bornstein.
Bornstein says training a wild horse is different from training a domestic horse because there is more potential for injury to the horse and the human.
“The only thing he knows is if you get in my space, I kick you or bite you because that’s what I did to the other bachelors and the rest of my herd,” Bornstein said. “Their language of communication is so different than a domestic animal who was basically bottle fed when it was dropped out of its dam by the person who bred it.
“So there is more potential that the human is going to become more frustrated. And rather than take a step back they are going to resort to some degree of harm, or violence or something in their mind that tells them they can control the animal or purposely punish it, which, either way, never works with any horse, especially a wild horse.”
Owning a wild horse is a big investment in emotion, time and money. It’s easy to underestimate the lifelong commitment, cost of training, feeding and hoof care, because of their inexpensive price tag—$125. Plus the BLM and its partner the Mustang Heritage Foundation, go out of their way to glamorize adopting wild horses since adoption is at an all-time low, by showing off ones who are trained, such as those in "Extreme Mustang Makeover" events, and by launching an eye-popping website americasmustang.com. But most wild horses the BLM is trying to adopt out have no training. While the website touts "owning a piece of our American spirit and heritage," it doesn’t emphasize that training a wild horse can be a slow, in-depth process.
“You can’t have your own agenda. You have to work on their time,” Bornstein said. “You have to be constantly tuned in to the signals they are giving you—it might be I’m scared or I’m threatened. If they don’t trust you, they will make life difficult for you, and you can’t put a timeline on when that trust will ultimately develop.”
“Wild horses are relinquished because people realize it’s much harder to train the horse than they thought,” Hosman added.
Hosman is adamant that people hire a professional trainer. If people insist on doing it themselves, he suggests reading as many books and watching as many videos as they can.
Since horses can live for at least 20 years—here is a checklist of costs to consider before making the lifelong commitment based on our experience the first year with Comanche, Bindi and Moxie:
BEFORE YOU ADOPT
Facilities: BLM requires a minimum of 400 square feet for each animal (but we feel that is inadequate since wild horses are used to roaming 30 miles a day). Corrals must be 6 feet high. You must also provide shelter from inclement weather and temperature extremes. The shelter must have, at a minimum, two sides with a roof, good drainage, adequate ventilation and access for the animals. Cost: $2,053 installed. (Our priority was to provide a 4 ½-acre pasture as well so the horses can roam. Cost for fencing: $18,968)
Training: Wild horses who are involved in the Extreme Mustang Makeover have had extensive training over a 100- day period by professional trainers with years of experience. The reality is most wild horses in the BLM's Adoption Program are not even halter trained. So you need to find a professional horse trainer. Expect that basic ground training work will take at least a month. The basics include simply getting the horse to move consistently in either direction, to come to you when asked, to stay in place if spooked by something, to not flinch regardless of where or how you touch the animal and to pick up the animal’s feet. (While the horses at our sanctuary will never be ridden, training for riding will consist of at least two to four months of training.) Cost: Three months of training for Bindi and Comanche, $5,080.
Food and supplies: Cost: approximately $1,500 for each horse per year. This does not include unexpected veterinary care. The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates that the minimum yearly cost for a horse is $1,825. Add in veterinary and farrier care, as well as boarding if you don’t have the acreage on your own property for a horse, and the minimum yearly cost for keeping one horse can reach $5,000 or more.
Hoof care: Hoof care is so crucial to a horses overall health that Hosman dedicated a whole chapter to it in his book, Round Penning, The First Steps to Starting a Horse. As we mentioned earlier, the average wild horse lives in an arid environment where they are likely to travel 30 miles on any given day to find adequate food and water. Because of that, evolution required their feet to withstand lots of wear and tear, the hooves never stop growing. But once the Bureau of Land Management rips them from the wild and forces them into the domesticated horse world through its adoption program, it becomes humans’ responsibility to provide hoof care. Hoof trimming should take place every four to six weeks. Going too long between trims to save money can cause a flaring out at the bottom of the hoof that can cause pain with each step, and eventually a lame horse who may take a year to be 100 percent again. In addition when the hoove’s wall grows to long, it can compromise the health of the frog, the part of the hoof that acts as a shock absorber. Cost: $600 minimum annually as trimming is done every 4 to 6 weeks
Vaccines/medication: Vaccines should be discussed with a licensed veterinarian. Core vaccines protect against diseases endemic to a region and risk-based vaccines are selected for use bas on risk assessment performed by the veterinarian. Cost: $134 over a nine-month period.