“One I got comes from Colorado,” says Steve Mantle, describing a stocky horse that stands 15 hands high. “I can heel on him. Can’t head on him. Start tons of colts on him.”
Like Mantle, a rancher in Wheatland, Wyoming, you, too can own a wild horse. The Bureau of Land Management is holding adoptions for wild horses and burros June 24-25 in four Rocky Mountain states, following a June 18 sale in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
The size, personality and usefulness of wild horses varies by region, says Mantle. Generally, they make excellent hunting or wilderness companions, or even roping horses on a busy ranch.
“Probably the thing I’ve noticed the most about him is our north pasture, we raise about 300 head of prairie dogs. He will just hit a spot going right through that prairie dog town. He will not step in a hole.”
Mantle has broken horses as a BLM contractor for 13 years. Along with his two sons and a summer hand, Mantle works with 60 to 90 new animals each year, and his ranch is home to 100 to 160 head at any time. The ranch will host its Steve Mantle Annual Adoption on June 25.
Nationally, about 5,500 burros and 33,000 horses run wild on 33.7 million acres of rangeland, including 26.9 million managed by BLM in 10 states, according to official estimates. The sustainable population, however, is considered to be 26,600 and, according to the BLM, a healthy herd can double its size in as few as four years. Nevada is home to the most horses, estimated at 17,710, and the second-highest number of burros at 1,347. (Arizona has the highest wild burro population.) On top of that, another 41,000 wild horses are already being held in captivity. Roughly one-fourth of those are in corrals; the rest have been moved to pastures in the Midwest. Holding costs account for more than half of the agency’s total $63.9 million program budget.
In addition, the land reserved for wild horses has shrunk by 20.1 million acres in the past 40 years. The BLM says the reasons for the shrinkage range from lack of landowner cooperation to parcels that have been transferred to other agencies, such as the Forest Service or Park Service. Land management areas that do not provide access to water cannot be used for horses. Some areas posed disease risk or were considered poor habitat, and other sections were already home to domestic animals. Federal orders from courts and other agencies removing land from the BLM’s purview have also had an impact.
But selling off icons of the American West for profit doesn’t sit well with animal rights supporters, who say the practice is cruel and violates the intent of 1970s legislation implemented to protect wild horses and burros. For example, a May 20 statement from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which argued Western ranges should be capable of supporting as many as 2 million horses, insisted that BLM roundups cater to ranching interests at the expense of wildlife. It’s all about the beef market, PETA says, because the wild horses compete with ranchers’ animals for grazing.
“It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, I can guarantee you that,” Mantle said. Breaking mustangs provides a living for his family, but he’s also locked into a five-year contract that he bid on when diesel was $1.85 a gallon. Now his fuel costs are twice what he expected when he hauls or cuts hay, hauls horses or travels to fairs and shows.
On average, wild horses sell for much less than they are worth these days. At the Wyoming State Fair last year, Mantle saw horses going for an average of $860. Considering the investment of gentling time and associated expenses, though, each animal should be worth at least $2,700. He points to the crash of the horse market two years ago as explanation, saying no horse is going for full value right now. In the Western states, the recession forced too many people to decide they could no longer afford to care for their animals, and the horse market flooded. That caused the going price of horses to plummet and stimulated regional attempts to implement slaughter programs.
Mantle doesn’t think contractors like himself are perpetuating the problem, however. He views his typical clientele as distinct from the buyers at prominent sales and shows — older, lower income, impulsive, and disproportionately female. Most of his clients are women in their mid-40s to mid-50s, no longer distracted by career pressures or young children at home, who have a little extra money and a renewed interest in riding.
Horse adoptions he handles are unlike major sales where knowledgeable buyers tend to have a specific task in mind and come knowing precisely the type of animal they want.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s ever gotten a horse from a noted sale, who, in 90 to 120 days goes, ‘I guess I don’t really want this horse anymore,’” Mantle says. “I have a different clientele. A lot of adoptions based on pure emotion, especially back East. They want a piece of the wild, wild West. A mustang represents that to them.”
That romance-driven decision process can pose difficulties for adopters once the novelty wears off and the reality of caretaking sets in. Legally, the BLM still owns an adopted horse for the entire first year, Mantle says. During that time, the animal is “untitled.” It may be repossessed in cases of abuse, neglect or illegal use. Adopters who run into serious issues may return their animals, but frequently the problems can be solved with patience. Mantle runs periodic training clinics for adopters to help them get used to their animals and learn to handle them properly. He said he’s never personally had to take back an abused animal, but he does get returns for financial reasons, usually divorce or job loss.
Adoptions are strictly regulated, and bidders must be 18 or older with no previous record of animal abuses. Untitled horses cannot be sold for slaughter or used as rough stock. Corrals must be a minimum 20 feet by 20 feet, with no barbed wire or electric fences. The animals must be provided shelter appropriate for the local climate, and death of any animal within the first week has to be investigated by a vet.
A four-horse limit on untitled animals on the same property within a 12-month time frame helps discourage “killer buyers” seeking inexpensive horses for slaughter, Mantle says.
“It’s not worth it to them,” he said. But somebody will always find a way around the rules, Mantle cautions. “It doesn’t always work and never will. It’s like hackers on the Internet.” The limit is not absolute, either. Camps and nonprofits, for example, may be able to apply for more horses, but the process is subjected to much deeper scrutiny, including actual site visits to confirm legitimacy.
Kate Schwab is an intern at New West.