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Where Horses Run Wild and Free

Ride a Wild Mustang

When I hear the thunder of horses hooves and see a wild herd come charging over a ridge, a shiver runs down my spine, said Glenn Foreman, chief of external affairs for the BLMs Utah office. Wild horses are the symbol of the American West, Glenn said. Its a real thrill to see a herd with its stallion; to hear stallions snort and watch them rear up and fight. Our wild horse herds are a national treasure, part of our heritage, Glenn said.

Viewing wild horses on the range is becoming an increasingly popular recreational activity, according to Glade Anderson, BLM wild horse specialist. We have people coming from all over the country to view and photograph the horses.

The BLM manages 23 horse and two burro herds in Utah, and many more in surrounding states. Many people dont realize there are so many wild horses, Glade said. Horses from one herd, on the edge of Cedar Mountain, can often be viewed from a maintained gravel road just two hours west of Salt Lake City.

Wild horses are called mustangs. In Utah, most mustangs live in remote areas in the west desert, in the San Rafael Swell, or in the rugged Hill Creek area of eastern Utah. Any BLM office can provide information on where to view the animals.

The U.S. Congress has recognized the value of wild horses and created laws to protect them: "Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people. . ." So reads Public Law 92-195, enacted on December 15, 1971.

Congress charged the BLM with managing the horse and burro herds, and strictly defined how the animals should be treated. The herds are prolific many are expanding beyond the capacity of their rangeland and the only tool Congress allowed to control herd size is a program whereby horses and burros can be adopted by members of the general public.

Utah has about 4,000 wild horses, Glade said. His office is studying the herds and range conditions to determine optimum numbers. The study is not yet final but Glade thinks we have far more horses than the ranges can reasonably accommodate. If we have a couple drought years the herds will be in trouble, he said. He'd like to see the herds pared back to about 2,000 animals.

For that reason, the BLM has launched an aggressive marketing campaign to promote mustang adoptions. The agency has produced a video about the horses and its adoption program. It prints and distributes fliers and booklets about wild horses and has launched an Internet site, http://www.blm.gov/whb/adpsch.html , which gives information about wild horse and burro adoption sites and schedules.

The BLM operates several permanent holding facilities for horses waiting to be adopted. People interested in adopting can go directly to one those sites, or wait for the BLM to bring a special adoption to their area. The BLM rotates adoption sites around the country to make it easier for interested people to participate.

You can can get details about BLM horse adoptions at this site: www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov

A few years ago the wild horse program received some bad press, mostly because a few individuals were adopting horses for purposes not in harmony with the Congressional mandate to protect the animals. Since then BLM has tightened procedures and established criteria people must meet before than can adopt. The person must have facilities to house the horse, must intend to keep it for at least a year, must not use the horse as a rodeo bucking bronc, or treat it inhumanly. The government maintains ownership of the horse for a year after adoption, then transfers full title to the adopter.

Wild burros of any age become gentle quickly and readily take to domestication. It takes time and patience to gentle a wild horse. In general, the younger the horse, the more quickly it can be gentled. Most horses put into the adoption program are five years of age or younger.

Recently the popular movie, "The Horse Whisperer," drew attention to a process that has been gaining popularity for years. Instead of breaking a horse using force and discipline, more and more people are "gentling" the animal by working with its natural tendencies, showing kindness and patience. The BLM sponsors clinics to help people learn to gentle and train adopted horses.

Adoptions in Utah are usually a bid process, with a minimum fee of $125 per animal. Some people have criticized the bid system because the best horses go to the people who can afford to pay the most. But studies show people do better if they can obtain a horse they really want, and the auction gives them that chance. Larger, highly colored horses usually go for the highest price. Many animals go for the minimum bid.

Our wild herds originated from horses that escaped from or were turned loose by ranchers, the military, the Pony Express and American Indians. Most mustangs are of mixed breed and are sorrels, bays or browns, although all colors occur.

Burros were brought to the West by Jesuit missionaries and were later used extensively by miners and sheepherders. Some of these animals were abandoned or escaped and formed the wild herds.

Horses were native to North America during the last Ice Age, but became extinct more than 10,000 years ago. The Spanish brought horses from Europe in the 1500s and the American Indians quickly learned to care for and use the animals, helping spread them across the continent.

Utah has one of the few wild horse herds in the U.S. that descended directly from the old Spanish Barb, the first horses brought to America by the Spanish explorers. Called the Sulphur Herd, the horses live on the mountain peaks and sloping lowlands of the Needle Mountain Range in southwestern Utah about 45 miles west of Milford.

Over the years animals from the Sulphur Herd have bred with escaped ranch stock, but some horses still hold many of the Spanish Barb traits. There are only two other herds of wild horses in the U.S. with these characteristics.

The original Spanish Barb displayed the characteristics of the extinct wild tarpan horse. The colors are buckskin and grulla (a gray or mouse color). The ears curve in like a birds beak, with fawn colored insides rimmed in black. They may have a dorsal stripe down the back, bi-colored manes and tails, and tiger-striped legs. There may be some cobwebbing or a mask on the face. The horses have a short back because they have only five lumbar vertebrae instead of six.

The Needle Range is a starkly beautiful mountain block in a vast, unpeopled region along the Utah/Nevada state line. In some spots the range rises to nearly 10,000 feet in elevation. It is composed of three main peaks: Mountain Home, Indian and Steamboat. The remoteness of the area has helped protect the horses and their Spanish characteristics, but it makes viewing the animals difficult. Still, people come from around the country some even from foreign countries to view these special horses.

Other herds are more accessible. BLM offices have flyers about each herd, providing a description, maps and tips for finding and viewing the animals. For more information about viewing or adopting wild horses, contact your local BLM office.

Ride A Wild Mustang

By Dave Webb

Audrey Carver runs a small business, The Horse Connection, taking people on guided trail rides. Her riding stock includes several gentled wild horses that she has adopted through the BLM wild horse adoption program. Some people seek her out because they want the experience of riding a mustang. Others dont know they are riding a wild horse and she doesnt tell them until after the ride.

I toured her operation, which is located in Eden, Utah, (next to Pineview Reservoir) and was very impressed. There were no horses in sight as we walked out to her corral. She called, Reno, and a big brown mare trotted around the corner, followed by six other horses. They came right up and ask to be petted.

Look at them and guess which ones were wild horses, she challenged. I looked, but couldnt tell. They all just looked like horses to me.

My 10-year-old daughter, Xanthe, was with me and Audrey invited us to go on a trail ride. Xanthe had never ridden and I expected Audrey to put her on the gentlest horse available. But no, that wasnt necessary. Audrey turned to Xanthe and asked, Which one do you want to ride. She assured me that they were all gentle, all trustworthy to carry inexperienced riders. Xanthe choose a large, gray animal.

Audrey saddled the horses and, again, I was impressed. The horses did not fight the bridle. They seemed excited to go on an outing.

After giving us a crash course in horsemanship, Audrey led the way down the trail, Xanthe followed and I brought up the rear. We were all riding mustangs and the horses responded to our direction with precision they were obviously well trained.

At one point Audrey stopped in the middle of a field. Our horses also stopped. Audrey then invited Xanthe to bring her horse forward. Xanthe, uncertain of commands, nevertheless guided her horse forward alongside Audreys, and the two rode side-by-side across the field. Big Gray was able to figure out what Xanthe wanted and responded in a way that made Xanthe look like an old pro. It was a real confidence builder for my daughter.

As we returned to the corral, Audrey had her horse side-step up to the gate so she could unlatch it, then side-step away as she pulled the gate open.

Audrey gentles and trains the horses herself and she has done a marvelous job. Ive never seen better trained horses. She loves working with the mustangs and she has proven they can be used for virtually any purpose. Her formerly wild horses have won many best-of-show ribbons and many first places trophies in halter, barrel racing, roping and other competitions.

Reno, her special horse, was named High Point Open champion at the National Wild Horse Show last year.

Audrey and her husband, Rod, were both raised in the Ogden Valley area. Audrey said she has always been around horses. We rode horses to friends homes, to swimming thats how we got around.

Her father was a mustanger who rounded up wild horses while that was legal. After Congress protected the wild herds and set up the adoption program, he adopted several of the animals.

After she married, Audrey began adopting horses, gentling them and giving neighborhood kids free riding lessons. Shes adopted about 30 wild horses over the years.

There came a point when caring for the horses put a strain on our budget and my husband said we had to either get rid of the horses or the kids. You couldnt sell kids for much in those days and so I started charging for riding lessons.

She launched her business about eight years ago and it has grown steadily, mostly from word-of-mouth promotion. Rod has been 100 percent supportive, she said.

If I was smart I would promote and expand, but I want to keep it small and fun.

She charges $15 per hour per horse (plus a guide fee) for one or two hour trail rides on private property overlooking Pineview Reservoir. She takes groups out mornings and evenings, but not during the heat of the day. She specializes in helping inexperienced riders and loves to work with family groups. She can take five riders at a time.

She is open by reservation only, from the time the snow melts in the spring through the end of September.

She also offers carriage rides using her wild horses.

She does not allow people to run her horses, and she does not rent them for riding at other locations. Ive seen what my kids do to other peoples ATVs, she said. I dont want someone doing that to my horses. They are my friends, my babies.

Audrey was instrumental in starting the Utah Wild Horse Festival, and she serves as chairman of the event.

If you would like advice on adopting a horse, or if you would like to schedule a trail ride, give her a call Audrey Carver, The Horse Connection, 801-745-3018.