Perhaps there is hope for wild horses

By Baxter Black: PNT columnist

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt anything but sadness for the wild horses.

I was a veterinarian in the Idaho-Nevada-Oregon sagebrush country the year that Wild Horse Annie managed to make wild horses a government dependent. Virtually all the dire predictions of the outcome have come true.

Lack of common sense and lack of good management have led to overpopulation, resulting in an excess of wild horses (30,000 head) now being held under fence and cared for like domestic livestock or zoo animals. Despite dog-ged efforts to sell, auction, or give away these apparently unwanted equine, they continue to propagate profusely.

I don’t hold those well-intentioned/misguided instigators like Wild Horse Annie responsible. We let them do it. They were ignorant of the consequences and never intended to take responsibility for the chaos they created anyway.

Nor do I place blame on the Bureau of Land Management. They have been forced to care for land and maintain many thousands of unmanageable horses we dump in their lap. They are plant people, for cryin’ out loud, not the Fish & Game Department.

The saddest result of this decades-long tragedy is that it has diminished and demeaned the majestic equine species. Today the mustangs are now just another category of the whole abandoned horse problem that is the result of these same well-intentioned misguided, take-no-responsibility horse lovers who have temporarily shut down the horse slaughter plants in the U.S.

But my heart is lighter today.

I recently watched a competition of the Extreme Mustang Makeover during the Heber City, Utah, Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Thirty trainers were each given a 4-5 year old, unbroken, solid color, sound horse from the BLM’s stockpile of wild horses.

They were allowed 100 days to train their animal and then invited to compete against each other.

As each trainer rode into the arena and began the obstacle course, every horse person in the grandstands seemed to be riding with them. We watched, leaned, tensed and sighed as they were snorting at the box of roosters, balking at the water crossing, tiptoeing to the steers, dancing, shying, sniffing, testing and finally, in the end, trusting the rider on their back, who had been their constant companion, feeder, teacher and friend for the last 100 days.

The judges, well-known trainers themselves, were asked to choose the winners. It was more akin to judging Olympic ice skating than a horse race.

Money was won. It made the trainers, the BLM, the Mustang Heritage Foundation and Heber City all look good. But the biggest winners were the horses. Not because they were mustangs, but because they were horses just like the ones you work your cows with, or rope off, or trail ride on, or race or show.

Just like the good ones the cowboys used to catch and train when they really were wild horses and they really were free.