By Elaine Nash
When we had a large ranch near Santa Fe, NM, the US Forest Service had apparently heard that I’m a softie for any person or animal in need, because one of their guys from a district on the NM-CO border called one cold winter night and asked if I would mind taking in a thin two-year old mustang stallion that had been pushed out of his family band by the herd stallion. Without the team effort of the herd to assist him, he was unable to paw up enough grass from under the deep snow to sustain him through that especially harsh winter. Of course, I said yes.
The next day, after a harrowing six-hour-long, snowy drive deep into the mountain wilderness of northern NM, we arrived just before dark at the US Forest Service corrals, where we saw a pretty bedraggled and gangly bay two year old colt standing alone in the large panel enclosure he’d had been driven into earlier by USFS cowboys. As I backed our trailer up to the corral, I found myself wondering just what I was getting myself into. Although I’d owned and trained horses all my life, I’d never had an actual wild mustang in my care before. I anticipated that just getting this wild horse loaded into our ‘cave on wheels’ might be a real test of my horsemanship skills.
As I walked past the back of the trailer and eyed the open slot beside Keebler- the ‘buddy’ horse we’d brought along, I imagined that a space just half the width of a two-horse trailer would probably look awfully small to a horse who’d only known wide open spaces in his life. I walked to the center of the pen and was looking around- considering how best to use fence panels to create a chute for guiding the mustang toward that tiny, now-dark space in the trailer, when I heard a soft “clump, clump, clump”. I turned around just in time to see that ‘wild’ mustang- who’d never seen a horse trailer in his life, walk right up the ramp into his spot in that trailer- where he calmly started munching on hay. That unexpected display of courage and common sense turned out to be just the first of many surprises that we were to enjoy during our adventure as owners of Poco-the ”wild” mustang.
As soon as we got home we brushed and combed- as gently as we could, years of tangles out of his long black mane and tail while he was still in the trailer, and he hardly flinched. I chalked that up to his fatigue and probable trauma from the trailer ride. We then released him out into a roomy private pen, where he could live quietly for a few weeks while we gave him the groceries he needed to put on some weight, and where he could get acquainted with our other horses through the fence. By the time spring rolled around we’d had him gelded and he was back in fine physical form. We turned him out into our spacious pasture to ‘run free’ with the our herd of family horses. With noble- and romantic, intentions I had decided to ‘respect his wild origins’ and leave him untamed for life- but Poco had something else in mind.
All my childhood, movie-inspired images of captive wild horses yearning to be free faded fast as Poco made it quite clear that he much preferred the barn to the pasture, human company to that of other horses, and he thought that having good hay and grain delivered right into a feeder was clearly better than going to the trouble of grazing on wild grass. Suffice it to say that Poco turned out to be more puppy dog than wild horse. Teaching him to lead quickly became an effort to keep him out of our laps, caps, and pockets. He allowed me to ride him the first time he was saddled, he never bucked a single step with anyone, and the greatest danger that a person could be in while in his presence was having their belt loop tugged on or their hair nibbled. Poco was like a country boy who visited the big city, liked living in the lap of luxury, and decided to stay. He never displayed a single trait of wildness.
Now, I’m not saying that we should capture and domesticate America’s wild horses. In fact, I think that our wild horses should, in almost every case, be left to live their wild lives on America’s public lands as the longstanding US Wild Mustang and Burro Act dictates. But- as long as BLM and other government agencies continue on their mission to decrease the size of wild herds in deference to grazing beef cattle and the exploration for gas and oil on America’s vast public lands, mustangs will captured, and they will need homes.
I hope that anyone who considers adopting a mustang can realize that in doing so, they are not taking on a horse whose heart will always belong to the wild. Rather, they are creating an opportunity for a displaced horse with an incredible heart and spirit to form
(Note: Common sense still dictates that wild horses should only be handled/trained by people who have a significant amount of experience with horses.)
Notable equine advocate and founder of Fleet of Angels, Elaine Nash, writes at The Nash Rambler.