As an adult, I live in the West and sleep outdoors more than most people would want to. But the "wild" (they're actually feral) horse question is more complicated than it seemed in junior high.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that almost 50,000 feral horses and burros still roam the western range. The agency, which manages the federal lands where the animals live, also houses a similar number in pens and pastures.
The BLM periodically rounds up and removes some of the horses so they don't interfere with other uses of public land. The agency tries to find homes for them, but their corrals are starting to look like the Humane Society during kitten season. In 2013, only 2,671 horses and burros were adopted, less than half the number adopted in 2005. A steady parade of horses leave the range and end up in the permanent limbo of BLM holding facilities.
A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out that the BLM doesn't actually know how many feral horses roam the West. The NAS detected a lot of guesstimating in the agency's counting process, but was able to conclude that the horse population is growing 15-20% per year.
The report's most discouraging finding is the reason for the rapid growth rate: the BLM's removal program. When there are fewer horses on the range, there's more food for those left; the remaining horses get busy and make more horses. Although birth control would be a humane solution, the NAS doubted that it alone could reduce population growth to a sustainable rate.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation tells the story of the free-roaming horses that fired my imagination as a child. Their Extreme Mustang Makeover springs a handful of lucky horses from BLM limbo and pairs them with experienced trainers. Each pair has 100 days to get ready for the show ring, after which the horses find new homes at auction. The transformation from wary mustang to confident companion was recorded in the documentary Wild Horse Wild Ride. Spoiler alert: get your hankies out; the auction breaks up some close cross-species friendships.
My friend Matt Livengood was selected to participate this year. He's teaching This Bud’s for You (Bud, for short) everything he needs to know to be a safe, relaxed, equine partner for a successful bidder. A group of friends got together at Matt and Alayne's Sweet Pepper Ranch on Memorial Day. After a barbeque, beverages, and bantering, we gathered at Bud's corral to watch his progress.
Matt had Bud's saddle and bridle on before I got my camera out. Bud was already a pro at this part.
Matt had been putting weight on the saddle for many days...
...and even lying across the saddle while he patted Bud, swung the stirrup back and forth, and got Bud used to the strange things people do when they ride horses.
There were lots of human and canine spectators offering Bud advice during his lesson.
Whoa! Once in a while Bud had to stop and collect himself.
Matt kept working with Bud until...he swung up and sat on him. Bud couldn't believe his eyes; there was a person on his back!
Good job, Bud--and Matt!
Matt and Bud listened to each other constantly during the evening.
Bud looked pleased with himself (and relieved) after his first ride.
Bud even followed Matt without a lead rope. It showed he was paying attention and trying to understand what Matt wanted him to do.
Come watch Bud and Matt in Idaho's first Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Nampa Horse Park, July 25-26. If you languished in junior high, dreaming of roaming the West on horseback, this Bud could be for YOU.