December 2017 - Wild Horses Tame Hearts

Adopting a living symbol of America’s history enables equestrians to do well while doing good.

by Kim F. Miller

Amy Dumas has drunk the Kool-Aid. Currently the manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program in California, the lifelong horsewoman first worked with a wild Mustang in 1994. Today, she has four Mustangs and two burros and she wouldn’t trade them for the world. Trained to ride hunter/jumpers, Amy now does just about everything with her Mustangs on her personal time—trail riding, cowboy dressage, cattle work, etc. It’s the perfect background for her professional work promoting the suitability of these horses for almost any purpose.

BLM wild horses in the Desatoya Herd Management Area, Nevada. Photo: John Axtell, BLM Nevada

BLM wild horse in Garfield Flat Herd Management Area, Nevada. Photo: John Axtell, BLM Nevada

Like domesticated horses, wild horses (and burros!) come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and temperaments, but they do have a reliably consistent tendency to form unshakable bonds with their humans.

Along with the personal enjoyment of owning Mustangs, Amy has first-hand experience with another benefit of taking on “a living symbol of our American history”: the gratification of giving a good horse a home and being part of the solution to America’s long-standing challenge of maintaining its wild horse herds. Call it the equestrian version of the “doing well while doing good” social investment strategy.

Sandy Davitt was first motivated to do the good of adopting a Mustang when she saw a teenage stablemate do so back in the late 70s. It took her a while to fulfill the goal but the classical dressage devotee has now gentled 17 wild horses since 2003. She’s kept several for herself at Wild At Heart Ranch in Placerville and gentled several others, as a volunteer, for the BLM.

She works for certified hunter/jumper and dressage instructor Alejandro Salazar, who saddle starts her Mustangs after she’s earned their trust and instilled good ground manners. Although Sandy is relatively new to dressage, the lifelong rider has become immersed in the process and benefits of pursuing the biomechanically correct foundation that is classical dressage.

Kristin Macey’s horse Bentley.

Jill Owens and Gypsy

Mustangs have been her partners throughout this ongoing journey. “If you have the highest competitive aspirations, then buy a purpose-bred horse,” she advises. “But most of us are not going to compete at that level.

We show a little and do other things.” For those aspirations, Mustangs can’t be beat. “I’ve been around horses all my life, including fancy and very expensive horses. I have never had a relationship with them the way I have with these Mustangs. Once they hand you that trust, they will try anything for you. I’ve never had a horse that is so willing.”

Willing Horses Widely Available

BLM removes horses from its lands and offers them to the public through their adoption and sales programs. Adoption events are held at the BLM’s holding facilities, including three in California, and at various satellite locations where staff brings the horses to prospective adopters. The three California corrals, Litchfield, Ridgecrest, and Redlands, are open to the public for adoptions, or just a visit. Amy advises making an advance appointment so that staff is on hand to share their observations about the horses.

Stephanie Yeh and her mare Samantha

Wendee Walker and Yogi

Horses adopted directly from the BLM corrals have no training and minimal contact with people. Mustangs with varying amounts of training are adoptable through several programs that partner with the BLM to prepare horses for future homes.

In her many years with the BLM, Amy admits there is no magic formula for what type of person should consider a Mustang. “It totally depends on the person and the horse. We’ve had those with very little experience do wonderfully with these animals and those with a lot of experience not do well at all.”

An open mind and a willingness to learn are the greatest predictors of success. “Those who come to it determined to follow a certain agenda will have a tough time,” Amy reports. “Whether you have a lot or a little bit of experience, these horses will teach you a new set of rules.”

That’s a great thing from the perspective of teaching broad and deep horsemanship principles. “As horse people, we grow up with the idea that green on green equals black and blue,” Amy says. “Most of us grew up learning to ride without learning to train a horse. A wild horse will teach you that. The things that can be taken for granted – putting a halter on, leading-- are subjects where you may have to go back to kindergarten and that gives you a much better foundation in horsemanship.”

The payoff is well worth it, confirms Sandy. She approaches the gentling process ready to respond with any of many tools amassed through years of studying others’ techniques and developing her own. Letting the horses “tell me” is the only common denominator in her process. “I love watching that lightbulb go off,” Sandy shares. “When they realize maybe I’m not going to eat them.” She’s had that happen in spans of time ranging from instantly to after six patient months.

Common sense is a prospective adopter’s best friend when selecting a wild horse. “Be open minded about your end goal for the horse, but also keep in mind form versus function,” Amy shares. “If you hope it will be an open jumper, don’t pick out a little, tiny horse.” She advises people to spend time observing the horses for clues to their temperament and to focus on the horses that are the right size for the intended rider and the right conformation for the type of riding they hope to do.

Sandy Davitt and her mare Jewel

Jewel and professional trainer Alejandro Salazar.

The best laid plans, however, can go by the wayside, Amy cautions. “Sometimes people come in with a set idea of what kind of horse they want, but a totally different horse meets their eye and captures their heart.” Often, relationships that start that way work out just fine. However, “If it turns out the horse doesn’t suit your needs, you can return him. Obviously, we’d rather see these horses go to forever homes, but we also want them to be wanted and useful.”

Adoption requirements include having suitable stabling and a $125 fee. Adopters will receive title to their horse upon submitting a statement, called a “title application,” signed by their veterinarian, farrier or a BLM official, confirming they have provided good care for their horse for one year.

Not So Wild Horses

The BLM partners with individuals and organizations to increase the adoptability of its horses. Each program produces horses with varying levels of training, from basic ground manners and being started under saddle to advanced work in various disciplines and, sometimes, unusual tricks. The latter may not be something a potential adopter would ever do with their horse, but they demonstrate versatility, willingness and trainability.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation is the BLM’s most prominent partner in this effort and has so far helped find homes for 9414 wild horses through avenues including the Extreme Mustang Makeovers and the Trainer Incentive Program. The well-known Extreme Mustang Makeovers give participating trainers 100 days to prepare a wild horse for a competitive showcase of skills ranging from dressage and jumping to cattle work and exhibition stunts. The Trainer Incentive Program seeks to bridge the gap between potential adopters/purchasers and American Mustangs via trainers who employ natural horsemanship techniques to gentle these horses, then matching qualified adopters/purchasers with approved TIP trainers. The MHF defines “gentled” as being halter broke, willing to pick up all four feet, and to load and unload from a trailer.

Amy Dumas and Eisen

Miki Przybylski and Iskra

Wild horses are the inspiring heart of several programs in which inmates, veterans and/or victims of post-traumatic stress disorder gain skills, confidence and healing while training Mustangs. The Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center’s Wild Horse Program in the Sacramento area is one of six such prison-based programs. There, the horses receive 120 days of training geared toward “making a nice saddle-started horse with a good foundation for any discipline,” Amy explains.

Happy Horsemanship Spark

Amateur dressage rider Miki Przybylski is not sure who started his mare Iskra’s training, but he’s absolutely sure that she’s a keeper. The Norco resident had only been involved with horses for about a year when he bought Iskra, but “we clicked instantly.” The mare had good basic training but was new to dressage when she and Miki began working with trainer Carlee Holden. The Norco professional believes dressage is natural for any horse and especially so for Mustangs. In their natural habitat, pirouettes, piaffe and haute ecole movements are used in pursuit of mating partners or to defend their mare band. “Using patience and trust, it’s all about learning to push the right buttons to show them how we do this when we’re on their back,” Carlee says.

Having worked with a few Mustangs in her multi-breed program, the trainer says great minds distinguish these formerly wild steeds. “It’s all about the mind and they have the drive and the desire to please and work hard. They will walk through fire for you.”

Melynnda Thiessen and Mariah

Fortunately for her student Miki, Iskra has those traits, plus long legs and a big stride that are beautifully suited for dressage. There were challenges at the outset as she learned to collect and engage her hindquarters, but they are now working on Training Level Test 1 and 2 elements. Plus, there’s pure fun of trail riding and bareback rides with only a neck rope for control.

“Iskra” is Polish for “spark,” and the mare has been exactly that for Miki these past five years. Like her BLM-branded brothers and sisters born on the range, she’s naturally healthy, sure-footed and sound.

Miki didn’t have a lot of horse experience when Iskra came into his life, but his open mind and attitude made him a perfect partner. The BLM is aiming to find all the “Mikis” of the world and get them paired up with a Mustang.

Along with most aspects of the equestrian industry, adoptions fell off during the economic recession and have yet to pick back up to needed levels. Five hundred horses and burros found new homes through California adopters in the last fiscal year. That’s down from pre-recession norms of 1000 per year and way down from the 1980s, when thousands of adoptions each year were typical. In the meantime the need to home these horses grows. The BLM is ramping up its mission to spread the word about the happy horsemanship spark an American wild horse can bring to the lives of any open-minded enthusiast.