Wild, wild horses
No longer strays, mustangs bond with adoptive families
Cody, a curious red-brown 2-year-old, appraised me carefully. He stepped up to the stable gate and searched me from head to foot with his soft, gray upper lip. The 15-hands-tall horse had a glint in his eye that reminded me of a 5-year-old getting ready for mischief.
“The lip is like a finger,” explained Tracy Ross, Cody’s owner and trainer. “It’s what they use to search with.”
The military named a fighter plane after these horses. Ford created a car line named after them. In the old cowboy movies they are waiting to be “broken” by the hero. They are mustangs.
Ross and other mustang families met at Ross’ Coyote Song Ranch in Chico May 19 to share stories, photos and training methods with people interested in adopting a mustang through the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro adoption program.
Ross adopted Cody in 1999. The decision was easy. “I just liked the whole idea of saving the horse,” Ross said. As director of the Butte Humane Society, she spends her days taking care of the unwanted cats and dogs of Chico, so saving a majestic animal that has been a part of American folklore since the earliest days came naturally.
Mustangs are gathered by the BLM from federal lands. The roundups help reduce the possibility of starvation or death from dehydration in scarce years. In the past, the BLM would open up selected areas to hunters. Planes were used to herd the horses into tight areas or pens. Rifle-wielding “hunters” shot the mustangs. The carcasses then wound up in glue and dog food factories. Congress outlawed the practice after an outraged public applied enough pressure to get it changed. Roundups and adoptions became the new way of controlling herd sizes.
“I had some experience with horses and taught riding,” Ross said. Even so, the commitment to a mustang still required a great deal of time. “I researched for several months. The Web has a lot of really good information.” Ross learned how to think like a horse.
“You have to speak the language of a horse,” she said. “Horses have a herd mentality. The worst thing you can do is chase them away from yourself.” It is hard to imagine the 5-foot 4-inch Ross chasing a horse whose shoulders meet Ross’ forehead and is built like a tank. But anytime Cody stepped out of line, Ross chased the horse away from herself.
Ross also used a technique called clicker training. Remember those metal clickers kids use to drive their parents crazy? The mustangs eventually learn to associate the clicking noise with treats. “The noise scares the horse at first,” Ross explained. “So, you click it and then give them a treat. Click it again and give them another treat, and so on.” When Cody needs to learn something new or Ross needs to reinforce good behavior, she makes the noise and Cody knows he’s going to get a treat.
Joy McClosky is another proud mustang owner. She doesn’t have her Cisco with her, but she does have pictures. Mustang owners are just like first-time grandparents—lots of photos and an endless supply of stories. Another mustang owner, who went to check on her horse before I could get her name, admitted that she brought her photo album.
“They are very intelligent and learn quickly,” said McClosky. “They are loving and trusting. All they need are training and love.” McClosky and her husband Hugh moved from Southern California to Yankee Hill are getting ready to build a new “Taj Mahal” for their horses.
“One advantage [mustangs have] is on the trail. If the mustang stops and looks around, it senses something. Listen to the horse,” she said. What about bred horses? “If you told them you wanted to run off a cliff, they’d do it. A mustang would stop at the edge and give you a look that says, ‘You first.'”
McClosky also spent a lot of time reading about and researching mustangs before adopting. Patrick Mikesell, a wild horse and burro compliance inspector for the BLM, says that is typical. “Most people are really dedicated, and the people without experience sometimes turn out to be the best owners.”
The BLM, pointed out Mikesell, doesn’t just hand over the reins to anyone who shows up at an adoption. There is an application to fill out and a list of requirements. The BLM also wants to know if the adopter has ever been convicted of animal abuse.
Before you run out to get a halter, there are a few other things the BLM would like to know: Where will the horse be stabled? What type of corral fence do you have? How is shade provided? Shelter? Food? Water? Will you be having another person care for the animal?
In addition to the above questions there are a few restrictions. The mustang (or burro—many of those are available for adoption, too) is still the property of the United States government until title is granted to the adopting family. Title is granted after one year and a veterinarian’s report is submitted to the BLM. Oh, and if you plan on moving the horse, the BLM must be notified within 30 days. “We get very suspicious if we go out to a place to check up on a horse and it’s been at the vet for a month,” Mikesell said.
Mustangs also cannot be used as rodeo stock or for other commercial purposes.
Out behind the show ring at Ross’ ranch, the mustangs were put through their paces. At least, that was the intention. Instead, it looked like the mustangs were putting their trainers to work. The obstacle course consisted of a small wooden bridge, four barrels, a tire pull and one jump. Mustang after mustang proved its intelligence at the bridge. After all, why go over something when there is plenty of room to go around?
Ross’ Cody got in on this act too, stubbornly refusing to walk across the platform. He finally stepped up after making several passes. The watchers applauded.
The north wind easily carried the sounds of nickers and whinnies. The stamping hooves and occasional bursts of nervous energy were a reminder of the power contained within each mustang. But the most blatant proof of their strength happened when Ross tried to place a blanket across Cody’s back. He pulled away, perhaps picking up the odor of the other horses on the fibers. With his rear hooves planted firmly in place, Cody leaned back and away from Ross, head arched. Cody could have easily broken away from Ross or even dragged her along behind him. Ross held the lead rope with only one hand. Instead, they reached a compromise: Walk the barrels but without the blanket.
There is a lot more to the wild mustangs than meets the eye. Where the home range of the herd is located determines the bloodlines. Barbary horses from North Africa, Sorias from Portugal. The famous Andalusian horses of Spain were all brought over during the Spanish conquests. English draft horses brought out from the colonies also managed to find their way into the bloodlines.
On the Web, ranches advertise “real Spanish mustangs” for sale. Their mustangs are bred for specific traits and intended to “preserve” the real heritage. The ranchers have made one mistake: Mustang comes from the Spanish word for strayed. If you ask members of the group gathered at the Coyote Song Ranch, they will tell you that there is a big difference between a mustang from the BLM and a second-generation horse.
“There is a trust that develops between horse and owner,” Ross explained. Each and every owner asked said that the bond was much deeper than with other horses.
After Cody came out from the obstacle course, he let out a great whinny and stamped sideways with excitement. "He’s been like that since he got out here," Ross said. "We think his half-sister is here."