Community July 24, 2008

Mountain Mustangs

Blithe Spirits of the White Clouds


We have been searching for almost a week now. The horses were lost during a pack trip in the White Cloud Mountains northeast of Sun Valley. Three of our group’s horses bolted from our camp near the base of Castle Peak. We haven’t seen my mare or the two geldings since. I imagine her, loping along unfettered, without my voice to summon her back. After so many days, I wonder if she’s frightened. My husband and I have a ranch at the base of these mountains near Challis, Idaho, and through countless forays into the canyons and sage-covered prairie, we have come to know its beauty and its dangers. If our horses cross from the White Cloud Range east into the high desert, they will enter the rangeland of the Challis wild horses. If they happen onto one of these bands, and they will, the geldings will be driven off, but my little mare will become embraced into one of the free-roaming herds. There she will face the reality of becoming truly wild. The stallions will fight over her and the wild mares will test her, seeing where she belongs in the pecking order of the herd. Will she be strong enough to survive in the hot desert heat? Will her hooves hold together after galloping over miles of rocky terrain without the help of metal shoes? Will she learn to find water in a land where little is to be had? This I wonder. Like a mother worried about her runaway child, I’m afraid she will fail the tests. It was midnight, seven days after losing our horses, when the phone rang. It was a bow hunter saying he had spotted three horses standing at a cattle guard near the end of a canyon close to our home. My husband and I drove there and found one of them, weary and ready to be rescued. We tracked the other two with flashlights, but it wasn’t until morning, miles from where we started, that we found them—their halters and lead ropes missing, heads low from exhaustion, their legs bleeding from scrapes and scratches. They were headed into wild horse country. Whether or not they had the mettle to survive being free, we will never know.

As recently as the 1800s, 2 million wild horses roamed the American West. Since then, the encroachment of man, competition for rangeland, and the introduction of barbed wire have chipped away at their existence. An estimated 32,000 undomesticated horses remain today, relegated by federal law to designated parcels across the West. Their quality of life has diminished due to competition for rangeland and the overall shifting priorities of man.

What nature doesn’t cull, humans do. Every few years the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), caretakers of the wild horse ranges, hold roundups under the auspices of reducing demand on the food and water supply. Horses, buzzed into corrals and chutes by helicopter and horsemen, are evaluated and most often placed up for adoption. Some go to sanctuaries, some are believed to end up at one of the few remaining slaughterhouses in the U.S. although the House of Representatives voted recently to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption under HR 503 The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

Some of the BLM’s techniques may be modern, but roundups are not new. For decades, cowboys have caught their own stock from among the bands, or gathered them up for sale in the same way someone might collect antlers for profit.

“The horses made up a huge chunk of my childhood,” says Kenny Bradshaw, a local rancher who was born and raised in his family’s cabin on Road Creek ranch near Challis where he has remained for all of his 85 years.

“There was a time when my brother and I and other local ranchers would gather up sometimes as many as 200 horses and drive them all the way to the sale yards in Mackay. We would train a few we caught and then sell them as working ranch horses.”

These days, the public can adopt a mustang—weanling to stallion and mares in all ages and colors—after the BLM holds a roundup.
Genetic analysis has shown that the horse family lineage in North America dates back to the Cenozoic era nearly 60 million years ago. Their remains have been pulled from the tar pits of La Brea, California, and fossils have been collected from the landscape of Idaho, most notably Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, where a skeleton of one of the hundreds of horses dubbed the Hagerman Horse can be seen. Scientists believe those horses became extinct and were reintroduced to North America in the 1500s by Spanish explorers.

The written history of Idaho’s wild horses begins in August 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the Lemhi Valley, east of Salmon, Idaho, and encountered Shoshone Indians. According to one journal entry, at least 700 horses were observed with the Indians. In the 1870s, along with the miners came the livestock men with their personal stock in tow.

Many of today’s Challis bands are thought to be descendents of horses turned out by Native Americans when they were forced onto reservations, and even by ranchers, who were forced to trust the horses to nature when the Depression left them broke and unable to care for them.

The most wary wild horses have hidden out in these hills for generations, breeding and forming their own bands, and these are the horses I have been tracking on the trails and in the hills surrounding our ranch.

I have watched the Challis herds for many years. I move slowly, I must be patient. I’ve learned to read the movement of the horses, keeping my scent downwind. In the wild and during roundups, I have witnessed births and deaths, changing of the guard, fierce competition, blinding fear and loyal fury. What I have learned—and likewise supported through others’ research—is that wild horses emote. They love, they fear, they have a sense of humor and they mourn. They are loyal, follow rules and take time out to play.

The bands resemble a tight family unit. The stallion is the protector of that unit. He wards off mountain lions, wolves and other physical threats, including man. Once established—through bloody battles with the other males in the herd—the lead stallion will never leave his herd unless he becomes incapacitated or too old to take care of them. There will come a time when a younger or more powerful stallion will drive him away, taking over his mares and offspring.

This is a difficult time for the mares and babies, as they adjust to a new father, mate and leader. The stallion, whose time has run out, is left to wander alone. If he’s lucky, he may find the friendship of other retired warriors or young males who were run off for failing to fall in line behind the leader, or for being too sexually aggressive with the mares. Though seemingly cruel, these herds of “bachelors” prevent inbreeding within the herds and are essential to the overall health of the herd.

Over the years, the horse has developed a symbiotic relationship with the land. Grazing on native plants all their lives has developed in them a different, less decomposing intestinal tract than domestic horses. According to wildlife ecologist Craig Downer, PhD and author of Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom, this means that their feces are more nutrient rich when they return to the soil, ready to germinate and restore. The horses’ nomadic behavior helps spread the new growth as well, creating a self-sustaining cycle of life.

Unselfish by design, if not intent, these horses’ ability to find water under any weather conditions is a boon to other wildlife as well. During summer droughts, when water sources become scarce, they use their keen sense of smell to find water and then use their powerful hooves to pound the water to the surface. In winter they break open ice-covered water sources through snowpack for nourishment.

If they survive the harsh winters, the mares begin foaling in early spring. They hold out—if they can—until nightfall so they have the added protection of darkness.

Mares who can’t care for their young, or who die while birthing, are dutifully replaced by another mare. They work together teaching the foals discipline, respect and the ways of their ancestors. The old mares know the ancient trails to high, spring-fed pastures in summer and the sheltered arroyos and canyons in the harshness of winter. They work together in disciplined order. This deep family connection is one of the reasons the roundups are so hard on the herd.

Every summer in Challis, the Bureau of Land Management conducts a census from an airplane. When the herd numbers approach 253, they hold what they call a “gather,” rounding up and removing enough horses to bring the numbers down to around 185 to share 126,000 acres, a combination of both public and private land.

To the observer, these roundups are dramatic and seem inhumane. The herds are chased across wide valleys, deep canyons and eventually into burlap-lined runways that funnel into metal holding pens. As individual bands of horses are pushed in, the stress and instincts cause stallions to fight, putting mares and foals in harm’s way. Some will be injured trying to escape, some will be orphaned, and possibly some will die.

At the end of the day the shaken animals are loaded into cattle trucks to be transported to a BLM facility. At the facility the horses are sorted, some are released back into the wild and some are sent off to auction. Some will be sold for $125 each. Some will spend the rest of their lives in government holding pens, others might live their lives out at sanctuaries. Still others could find their way to slaughter.

In an effort to stem the need for roundups, the BLM and the Humane Society have begun administering a form of temporary birth control to the mares, a contraceptive vaccine called PZP. The method has proven very successful, is easy to administer, and does not disrupt the complex social structure of the wild herds. The goal is to minimize the need for these costly and traumatic roundups, which will also save millions of tax dollars while ensuring genetic diversity.

The people who handle these horses once in captivity are regularly amazed at their level of health.

Parasites that plague domestic horses don’t seem to be an issue with wild horses and they are most often well-nourished and strong of hoof, according to Dr. Jeff Hoffman, a Salmon, Idaho, equine veterinarian who works with the BLM to examine and vaccinate the animals.

Leigh Redick, head of the Challis Wild Horses Program for the BLM likes the stock so much, he has adopted six for himself.  Are they trainable?
“In general, the younger animals are easier to train,” he says.

Dr. Hoffman agrees.

“The older horses are harder to train. A lot of them have had bad experiences with humans. They’ve probably been through a few roundups. The vast majority of them just won’t settle down. A lot of them have had bad experiences with humans and they just plain lack trust in people.”

But it’s not impossible, Redick adds, his eyes softening, revealing his compassion.

“It all really comes down to the person who is working with the horses.”


Bureau of Land Management

International Fund for Horses

Return to Freedom

Society for Animal Protective Legislation

Wild Horse Preservation Campaign

Wild Horse Sanctuary


This article appears in the Winter 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.