San Diego I thought they were a myth. I didn't know wild horses, or mustangs, even existed. Turns out, 38,000 of them roam the open ranges of the 11 western states. What's more, you can buy a mustang, or a wild burro (didn't know they existed either) at auctions like the one put on by the Bureau of Land Management at the training track at Del Mar. Actually, you can't buy a horse or burro, you can adopt one. The BLM retains the title to every horse or burro at their auctions for a year. And not just anybody can adopt. You must be 18, have no convictions for inhumane treatment of animals, and you must have facilities for them including at least a 20- by 20-foot stable with 6-foot fencing (four and a half for burros). During the first year you have the animal, the BLM may visit to inspect it and your facilities. After a year, provided you obtain a statement from a veterinarian that your horse or burro has been treated humanely, the BLM will send you the title to the animal.
The 66 horses and 16 burros, trucked from the BLM facility in Ridgecrest, arrive at Del Mar around noon on Friday and are herded into 20- by 40-foot pens. The public is allowed to view the animals but not bid on them until Saturday morning at 9:00. I arrive at 8:30. Along with 50 or so others, I walk around inspecting the six pens of horses and two pens of burros. This is not the Rancho Santa Fe polo crowd here. Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats abound, and there are even a few Old West handlebar mustaches in evidence.
Off to the side of the double row of corrals is a camper trailer the BLM uses as a mobile office. Would-be adopters line up at two windows on the front left of the trailer, waiting to have their applications approved. Nearby, I meet Doran Sanchez, a BLM wrangler and public relations specialist, who explains how the adoption proceedings work. "The first part of the adoption is competitive bid. That will start around 9:00 or so. Each animal has a collar with a numbered tag and that numbered tag is its ID number." He walks over to a pen and points to a clipboard hanging from a fence pipe. "For the competitive bid part, we have a clipboard for each animal. Once the adopters get his or her application approved, then they get a bidder number and they write it down on the clipboard corresponding to the horse they want. The minimum bid is $125. So they'll write their bidder number and $125. If nobody bids on that animal by the time we pick up the boards at 10:00, then they've adopted it for $125. Now, before 10:00, somebody else can increase the bid by a minimum of $5, up to a maximum of $25. The competitive bid part basically gives people the opportunity to adopt the animal they want. So if two people are interested in the same animal, all they have to do is bid. After the bidding part closes, the adoptions will be conducted on a first-come, first-serve basis. After the competitive bid stops, we'll start posting which animals were adopted. After that, people will be able to adopt any animal they want for a flat fee of $125. First-come, first-serve." The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act put the wild horse and burro herds under federal protection. Management of the newly protected animals fell to the BLM. In order to keep the herds from growing too large and destroying the range, animals had to be removed. In 1973, the adoption program was instituted as an alternative to destroying the animals. Since then, over 130,000 horses and burros have been adopted. Sanchez says adopters get "an animal of tremendous quality. They make great riding stock. These animals grew up in the wild, so as far as strength, endurance, and sure-footedness, there's not an animal that compete with them."
I look at the horses in the pen in front of us. They seem undersized, skinnyIthe word rangy comes to mind. They look like equine coyotes. Sanchez, reading my thoughts from the look on my face, says, "With regular good feed and water, they're going to grow up and they're going to fill out. See those horses the wranglers are riding?" He points toward two BLM wranglers mounted on tall, muscular horses. "Those are mustangs that they adopted, trained, and have been riding for years. That's what all these horses are going to look like in a year. The transformation is just unbelievable."
Sanchez says that the highest a horse has ever gone for at auction is $1100, but that's not likely to happen today. Walking around the corrals, I notice only four clipboards have bids on them and only one of those has multiple bids. None of the 16 burros have been bid on. One of the bids, on a six-year-old bay mare, #2296, was placed by Tricia Daniel. "She picked me out yesterday and she's the only reason I came back today," Daniel tells me, as she feeds hay to her adoptee through the fence bars. It's the only horse I've seen within two feet of the fence today, much less eating from somebody's hand. "My husband Lyle and I run Christian Horse Ministry in Lakeside. We already have six horses, but since we work with a lot of low-income, hard-luck teens, we figured we'd get a mustang to teach them lessons in stewardship. We want the teenagers to see how a horse learns submission. It relates to our Christian program, how God wants us to submit to Him and desire His care. We're going to show them how a horse submits to us, how it desires our care." Though she's never trained a wild horse before, Daniel knows other people who have and isn't worried. "There's that issue of trust," she explains. "Once you get past that, they are very willing, and they have wonderful personalities. They are very affectionate." Clarence Sanders of Ramona owns one mustang already but isn't here to adopt. He's here to offer horse-hauling services to adopters who may need it and because it's something of a social event. Asked what you get when you adopt a mustang, he answers, "I guess the basics is you can get a good sound animal for $125. That's a good price for anyone who wants to spend some time and work with a horse."
Once broken, Sanders says, "They make good riding horses. If you start with the babies, the six-month-old ones, they come around real fast. You can hand- feed them in a day or two. As soon as they realize you're not there to harm them, they come right around. From that point on it's just like another horse; you just have to take your time and show them how you want them to react to whatever commands you can give them. You need to be patient and consistent with them. If what you're trying isn't working, you might need to break it into smaller steps. Say you want to go into the corral, put a halter on him, and lead him over to water. Well, you might spend one day just getting in there with him, the next day you've got to be able to walk up to him. The third try you try putting the halter on him and so on. You break it down, take it slow. It's fun, it's a challenge, and it's a great sense of accomplishment."
Sanders introduces me to a friend and fellow mustang owner, Larry Bergman, also of Ramona. "I was raised on a farm in Iowa," says Bergman, who owns five mustangs. "The first two horses we ever had on that farm were wild horses that were brought back with a herd of cattle out of South Dakota. One of them, her name was Dinah, turned out to be one of the best cattle horses in the country. This was a wild horse that had just shown up. Back in those days, this was the '40s, ranchers could still get 'em off the range. You could brand 'em, break 'em, and keep 'em."
Bergman says gentleness and, above all, patience are the key to dealing with mustangs. "When you're getting one of these horses," he explains, "you're getting a wild animal. They're not like a domestic-raised horse, they're wild. Some of them may be three years old and have never seen humans. We're a predator to them. It just takes time. You've got to let them get used to you and trust you. You can't abuse them. You should be firm but patient. It ain't like you're going to grab one of these out of here and take it home and in a week you're riding it. No way."
How long does it take? "It just depends on how you move on them," Bergman answers. "What would you say, Clarence?"
"It depends on the horse," Sanders answers. "Like people, they all have different personalities. Some are more accepting than others, and some come around faster than others. But I would say on the average if you got a two-year-old and worked with it every day, you could probably ride it in two months." "When you first get them," Bergman warns, "you've got to be alert with them all the time. You never know what they'll do, especially the older ones that have been out on the range a long time. They're wild animals. They'll bite, kick, and they'll charge you if you corner them. But you can't be aggressive toward them. You've got to let them come around. Once you gain their trust, they're push-button, a piece of cake. By the time I've come to using a blanket or saddle or anything on all of mine, I've never had any problem." n