A Navajo ranch family gives a home to unwanted equines at the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary in Wyoming.
Horses have long fascinated artists and inspired poets. Their strength, swiftness, and trainability have made them useful to humans for centuries. Before motor cars, horses were necessary for transportation, agriculture, and freight. With 21st-century technology, though, horses are generally only needed as work animals by ranchers with cattle grazing in rough country. Automobiles and other advances have left many horses, especially wild horses free-roaming federal lands and cared for in holding facilities, without purpose. Unwanted. The question remains: What should be done with the 100,000-plus mustangs managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on open range and in holding facilities?
“If my Navajo grandpa was alive,” says Denise Oldham, co-owner of the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary north of Lander, Wyoming, “he would say, ‘You just let them be.’ It’s what those horses are supposed to be doing, being wild. Just let them be.”
Native people once rounded up mustangs and trained them when they needed horses for their ranching operations or sold them for much-needed revenue on the reservation, but today, the horse market isn’t as strong.
Wind River is one of three BLM eco-sanctuaries for wild horses open for public tours. Denise and her family care for 150 wild horses on their working ranch just over the Wind River Mountains’ rocky spine east of Yellowstone National Park. Denise, husband Dwayne, and adult children Jared, Odessa, and Jess use horses daily to care for their cattle and sheep. The BLM wild horse sanctuary, which they added to the ranch in 2016, honors their Native American culture and reverence of the horse.
In 1915, the U.S. horse population peaked at more than 26 million. Tractors and the mechanization of agriculture dropped it 80 percent to 4.5 million by 1959. In the last 50 years, the horse population doubled to more than 9 million, with two-thirds ridden for recreation, show, and racing. Equines are bred to suit these activities. Where does this leave the mustang horse? Its bloodlines are not specialized: Mustangs host genetics from roaming Spanish conquistador horses, stray U.S. cavalry mounts, saddle horses turned out during the Great Depression, and draft horses released after the invention of the tractor. Though unwanted by equestrians, the 55,000-plus horses roaming federal lands in the West embody freedom and the beauty of wildness.
With few predators, the U.S. wild horse population doubles every four years, straining fragile high desert lands where they roam. To protect the balance of forage and water available for mustangs, other wildlife, and plant regeneration, the BLM thins a percentage of mustangs from the landscape. There are now 46,702 of these animals in holding facilities. The healthiest and most trainable are available for adoption, and 2,331 mustangs were adopted in 2015.
Mustangs removed from BLM lands in Wyoming and Nevada graze irrigated meadows at the Wind River sanctuary. The Oldhams rotate the mustangs through large pastures to ensure grass is evenly grazed and to rest meadows from livestock presence. On winter mornings, brothers Jared and Jess pitchfork hay off a flatbed pickup for the mustangs. Feeding mustangs takes more than physical labor, though. There’s also the expense. In 2015, off-range facilities cost the BLM more than $49 million.
The Oldhams work among mustangs on open range as their cattle graze Aspen Mountain and Warm Creek north of Rock Springs. The overpopulated wild horses living in this area caused soil erosion from heavy grazing and stomped water springs into muddy flats. The large bands of horses also harassed the cattle and kept them from gaining access to the water, compelling the Oldhams to move their cattle elsewhere. The BLM rounded up a portion of the Rock Springs area mustang population. Horses from similar, previous roundups now live at the sanctuary.
“The land can’t sustain more horses,” says Dwayne, a veterinarian and rancher. “We can’t just leave horses out there to starve along with wildlife. Instead of being a complainer, we are trying to be a part of the solution. But the 150 mustangs we have here at the sanctuary are just a drop in the bucket. There needs to be more management, like birth control, of wild horses.”
Cowboys must watch out for mustangs when riding the range to care for cattle. Stallions charge horses and riders to protect their mares, and bachelor studs (without their own bands) try to steal domestic horses. “I tied a horse up to the stock trailer one day,” Dwayne recounts, “and rode another colt over a draw to check cattle. When I came back, there was a stud horse chewing the heck out of my horse. He was tied up so he couldn’t get away from the stud beating on him. Now, when I switch horses during a long day, I leave the horses I’m not riding inside the trailer to protect them.”
Horses are tools for the Oldhams. Their ranch horses are used by the family to doctor and brand cattle. During the autumn roundup, Oldham horses trot 20-mile circles for their riders to locate cattle down vast draws and behind looming buttes. But horses are also family. “I love the relationship I can build with horses,” says Odessa, Denise and Dwayne’s daughter. “We see horses as work animals, but they are also friends and beautiful creatures. If horses are left in a corral, they become depressed because they like to be active and working. They’re athletes.”
Her brother Jess thinks a solution for the high population of wild horses is to find them a purpose, just as the family’s ranch horses have a purpose. “We need to rethink the function of wild horses,” Jess says. “The mustangs here at the sanctuary have failed adoption. They aren’t trainable. So what is their purpose?”
Jared responds to his siblings, “We teach our ranch horses how to do ranch jobs, and they enjoy getting out and working. All wild horses know of their purpose is to find feed and water. And here at the sanctuary, they are knee-deep in grass.”
Jess nods and says, “An eagle needs two wings to fly: a left one and a right one. Both sides — keep them all free and decrease population — need to find a solution together for the benefit of wild horses. Before society modernized, horses were needed to work. Now we need to find a new balance for the mustang.”
From the May/June 2017 issue.