Want to Adopt a Wild Horse? The Government Will Pay You $1,000

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Christine Hauser, New York Times

March 26, 2019

It is like an online matchmaking service. Horse lovers who want to adopt a wild mustang from the western United States can browse dozens of headshots.

From drop-down menus, you can choose gender, color and age: a 4-year-old chestnut mare, for example, or a 9-year-old gray gelding. Some horses have no training, while others might be “gentled,” with experience being handled.

This is Wild Horses Online, part of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s online adoption service. Starting this month, the bureau is trying to make wild mustang adoptions more attractive by paying $1,000 to those who take in the animals, which are gathered up from public land in the western United States as part of efforts to manage the population.

The adoption program, which began on March 12, is intended to encourage potential owners to take the leap into adopting wild horses, whose access to pasture and water is challenged by factors including a rising population and droughts, said Deborah Collins, the bureau’s outreach officer.

Ms. Collins said the government hoped people would “take a fresh look” at owning a wild horse and say to themselves: “I got a little help now. I can go find me a trainer.”

The program is the first incentive of its type that the Bureau of Land Management has offered since the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 detailed the agency’s duties as the legal custodian of wild horses and burros in the United States.

Previously, people adopted a wild mustang by paying $125. Now, they are paid $500 up front and receive the $500 balance once they prove they have owned the animal responsibly for a year, Ms. Collins said.

Carrie and Jim Pacileo of Powell, Wyo., drove six hours on March 15 to an adoption event in Rock Springs. The couple already had adopted two mustangs, one completely trained and the other partly trained, but they wanted more.

“I told my husband I wanted to try to train some that were completely wild,” Ms. Pacileo said.

They came home with two mustangs: 9-month-old Remmi and 11-month-old Stormy.

“Being younger, we thought maybe it would be easier,” Ms. Pacileo said.

She said the money they receive for adopting the horses would be invested in equipment and hay production on their 40 acres.

“I wanted them because to me, they are just like the ultimate symbol of America,” she said.

More than 66,000 wild horses and about 15,000 burros roam on about 26 million acres in 10 states, the bureau’s latest data shows. The ideal level for both populations combined is about 26,690, according to the bureau.

The challenge for the bureau is to balance the population of these animals with available resources on public and private lands. Some have been found rambling along highways or foraging in backyards, or they are discovered on open range, emaciated and dying of thirst, Ms. Collins said.

The main method of population control has been to simply move them. From July through February, helicopters chase the wild horses into corrals or other facilities where they can be made available for adoption, or sold if they are not adopted.

Last year, more than 11,000 horses and burros were removed from public lands, the most in nearly a decade, the bureau figures show. As of last month, about 50,000 horses were available for adoption in corrals or in off-range pastures that had been there long-term, Ms. Collins said.

Some of the bureau’s measures have attracted controversy over its use of helicopters to chase the animals and its removal of horses from open range as its primary method of population control. Some have worried that wild horses could end up in slaughterhouses abroad.

The American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy group, said in a statement criticizing the bureaus’s new adoption program that the agency should employ other population control measures, such as fertility methods. “The B.L.M. cannot adopt its way out of the situation it faces with the stockpiling of 50,000 horses in holding facilities,” said Suzanne Roy, the group’s executive director.

Ms. Collins said the bureau had tried fertility measures, including sending volunteers to administer birth control vaccinations to mares in the wild. But the effects of the vaccinations last only a year to 18 months, and the results have not adequately addressed overpopulation, she said.

The bureau’s push to make adoptions more enticing has focused on training. The agency has been working with the nonprofit Mustang Heritage Foundation, which started Extreme Mustang Makeover, a national competition in which trainers have about 100 days to turn a wild mustang into a well-behaved steed.

Wild mustangs are also trained at some federal prisons in rehabilitation programs that are coordinated with the bureau.

The $1,000 adoption payout costs the bureau half of what it would to keep each animal for a year, Ms. Collins said. For owners, mustangs cost less to keep than other breeds, such as thoroughbreds or quarter horses, said Mary Santagata, who adopts and buys mustangs at All the Kings Horses, a rescue organization in Northford, Conn.

Adopted mustangs have current vaccinations, Ms. Santagata said, but annual veterinary care could cost about $300 “if there are no problems.” About $50 every eight to 10 weeks goes toward having their hooves professionally trimmed. Many owners just feed their mustangs hay, similar to their diet on the open range, rather than more expensive grain with the hay, she said.

“They are so hardy,” Ms. Santagata said. “They are built to survive.”

Other costs include adapting corrals with six-foot-high paneled fencing so the wild horses cannot escape, and providing them with open-sided sheds that they can enter themselves when they need shelter, because they are not easily led.

The most expensive part of owning a wild horse, Ms. Santagata said, is paying for experienced trainers. At 41, she has been around horses all her life, but she said she could handle only basic “gentling” of a wild mustang. When the horses are in her corrals, she uses a soft opening, by approaching and retreating, so they get accustomed to her.

“You walk around it and see how it reacts to you,” she said. “I have had mustangs that would not look at me for months.”

She gradually introduces them to halters and to being led around, which she is able to accomplish in about three months, she said. For advanced skills like riding, she sends the mustangs to professionals, but not before she has grown to know them.

“I look at them like I am adopting a living legend,” Ms. Santagata said. “They are a mystical creature out in the wild, and only a few lucky ones can find them.”

Originally posted by New York Times