Horse lovers are using adoption and advocacy to protect a breed that many in the West consider a nuisance.

Saving wild mustangs from an uncertain fate

September 16, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

The emaciated mustang locked eyes with Phyllis Mihm, "haunting" her every time she passed his stable at a federal government auction last fall in Virginia.

The western Howard County cattle rancher knew it would be difficult to take in the 2-year-old wild horse, who once roamed free on the Nevada range. The animal's previous adopter had starved him and two other horses; that history would force Mihm to allow the mustang, named Chance, to do nothing but eat for months.

But Mihm, 54, couldn't bring herself to turn away. She knew the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the country's wild-horse program, is rounding up more mustangs than it can place. Chance risked being corralled with tens of thousands of other "excess" horses and sent off for one more adoption - or sold into an uncertain fate.

"I just felt someone tapping me on the shoulder, saying, `If you don't do it, no one will,'" said Mihm, who purchased Chance at auction for $25 and owns three other mustangs.

Mihm is part of a small but fiercely protective community of people nationwide who are looking out for the welfare of mustangs - wild horses of historic lineage that many ranchers and commercial interests in the American West see as a nuisance.

Wild horses are rare east of the Mississippi River. Only 368 Marylanders have adopted 448 wild horses from the western ranges since the program started in 1973. Not everyone reveres their ornery spirit.

Mustangs are descendants of horses that Spanish conquistadors and priests brought to the uncharted Southwest. But today, the Preakness set considers most Mustangs the equivalent of feral cats.

The animals rarely win races or equestrian events. Most horse-registry organizations don't recognize Mustangs. The animals can have birth defects caused by inbreeding, such as blindness or deformities.

Although some of this is natural, wild horse expert Laurie Howard of Las Vegas says that the Bureau of Land Management often pulls in a herd and then haphazardly releases undesirables. Sometimes the only members of a herd returned to the wild are a father and daughter, or mother and son, which only furthers genetic problems.

The government began last year tracking genetic lineages of captured horses and monitoring for signs of inbreeding.

Howard and other advocates are pushing for greater use of injected, one-year contraception, which could lead to fewer roundups, healthier herds and lower sheltering expenses.

Thinning the herd

Cattle ranchers, miners, and gas and oil drillers in the West also have a stake in seeing the number of wild mustangs dwindle. The bureau estimates that 32,000 mustangs are spread across 10 states, and it wants 4,000 more removed. There are already 23,500 in holding facilities.

The bureau has set a population target of 28,000 because that's the number it thinks the land can sustain, given recent drought and competing interests for the 29.5 million-acre public range. Ranchers pay a minimal fee to let their livestock graze on government land, and the horses and cattle compete for food.

Bureau spokesman Thomas Gorey said that the wild horse population increases 20 percent every year. Without controls, the horses would overrun not only livestock, but also other wildlife.

But those who would preserve the mustang warn that there are too few people in the United States willing to adopt the West's wild horses, which, once broken, can be excellent for riding. The animals have few friends in Congress, which passed legislation last year allowing them to be sold for as little as $1 each.

Although the three primary U.S. slaughterhouses have told clients not to bring them government horses, Canadian slaughterhouses have no such prohibition - and horse meat is considered a delicacy in Europe. In May, 41 horses on two occasions were found butchered in an Illinois slaughterhouse, waiting for export.

Making adoption work

Mihm had always dreamed of owning a wild mustang. A postcard from the federal government about an upcoming auction pushed her to do it in May 2003.

By that time, her other horses were "senior citizens" and she felt ready to handle the wild creatures. She erected higher fences and earned the necessary sign-off from the government. She traveled to Pennsylvania to adopt her first mustang for $125 at auction. That horse tested even Mihm's patience.

"Believe me, Rowdy earned his name," said Mihm, a former postal worker who lives on a 130-acre farm in Woodbine. "He had dominance issues."

For months, Rowdy grunted and reared his head when she entered the barn. He wouldn't go near her, and he sometimes managed to unhalter himself. Mihm said she gave up.

A trip to a Mount Airy thrift shop, however, changed that. She spotted a dusty videotape from famed horse whisperer Monty Roberts and purchased it for 25 cents.

According to Roberts' theory, when the herd is roaming in the wild, the dominant mare pushes rascals away from the group, making them more susceptible to attacks from predators, such as mountain lions.

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