For many, wild horses roaming a vast and trackless range is an enduring and iconic symbol that represents a certain feral freedom unique to the United States and particularly the West.
“It’s a romantic notion and it’s a cultural thing,” said Amy Dumas, Wild Horse and Burro Program manager for the Bureau of Land Management. “It’s part of the myth of the American West.”
Dumas operates a booth at the Nevada County Fair that seeks to serve as a public platform to educate the public regarding the BLM’s wild horse management program, which has been a magnet for embittered controversy that has elicited no shortage of passion from all sides.
Since 1971, when President Richard Nixon signed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 into law, the BLM has been charged with managing the wild horse and burro population in the West, attempting to balance the need to protect the animals while preventing the degradation of the ecology due to excessive forage.
Free-roaming horses and burros can be found in all states west of the Mississippi River, but most of the mustang population is concentrated in Northern Nevada, while much of the wild burros ramble throughout Arizona.
California also features populations of both animals, with the wild horses concentrated in the northern portion of the state and the burros mostly in the southern reaches.
The BLM has established two separate corral facilities in the Golden State; the Ridgecrest corrals, just 4 miles east of Ridgecrest, Calif., serves the south, while the Litchfield corrals near Susanville accommodate the north.
The BLM performs periodic roundups of horses and burros in an effort to curtail the ballooning population of the animals since they were afforded federal protection. The federal agency then castrates the males and adopts the animals out to homes that meet the stipulated requirements.
Dumas maintains four horses and a burro at her home and retains a strong attachment to the animals.
“They’re my babies,” she said.
The process of breaking a wild horse (the BLM uses the term “gentle”) is extremely emotional and rewarding, Dumas said.
At the beginning of the process, the horses are averse to interacting with humans, but incrementally, over a period of time an owner can use patience and body language to earn the animal’s trust and eventually even train the horse to perform the operations of a fully domesticated horse.
“With one horse, it took him eight months before he would approach me,” Dumas said, adding that understanding the body language of horses is key for progress.
“It’s a trip in self-awareness, if you let it be.”
Michele DeCamp, a volunteer with the Wild Horse and Burro Program, a nonprofit organization that works in concert with BLM, trains free-roaming horses and burros before they are adopted out.
“I believe in this program,” she said. “Often, they are adopted into good homes so they don’t languish in facilities.”
Both Dumas and DeCamp acknowledge the controversy that swirls around the program, as wild horse advocates claim the BLM’s use of helicopters to drive the horses into holding pens unnecessarily stresses the animals and causes injuries, some of which can be fatal.
“The horses are stressed, but it’s not necessarily detrimental stress,” Dumas said, adding that horses are easily spooked and experience various forms of stress on a daily basis.
“This whole program is done for the welfare of the horses,” Dumas said. “We are doing this because we love the animals.”
Recently, a 14-person panel assembled by the National Science Academy’s National Research Council, at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, concluded that BLM’s removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds, the Associated Press reported.
The independent scientific review of wild horse roundups in the West concludes that the U.S. government would be better off investing in widespread fertility control of the mustangs and let nature cull any excess herds, instead of spending millions to house them in overflowing holding pens. “Watching horses starve to death is not pretty,” Dumas said.
“It won’t help stave off the ecological destruction because they will have already killed the habitat.”
Nevertheless, Dumas concedes that adopting horses out is becoming increasingly difficult as the demand for horses has plummeted.
“There are just fewer people able to afford recreational horses,” Dumas said.
Outreach opportunities have taken on increasing importance in the face of diminishing desire for horse ownership, making the event at Nevada County Fair essential.
“We’ve adopted out about 20 animals just by making contacts at this event,” Dumas said.
Dumas and DeCamp show the animals every day at the fair at the Horse Arena. The demonstration begins at 12:30 p.m. today, followed by demos at 1 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
For more information regarding BLM’s demonstration, visit nevadacountyfair.com. For more information regarding BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption program, visit wildhorseandburro.blm.gov or call 866-468-7826.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.