With nearly as many mustangs in captivity as on the range, the Bureau of Land Management has turned to the Mantle Ranch in Wheatland, Wyoming,
to help train the horses.
Numbers 2233 and 2252 trot into the round pen, their eyes darting as they take in their surroundings in the indoor arena. Bryan Mantle, the eldest son of mustang trainer Steve Mantle, slowly rides behind the sorrel yearlings, guiding them into a small holding pen that leads to a chute.
No. 2252 goes into the chute first, and Steve swiftly closes the panel behind the colt. He stands quietly as Steve slips a halter on him, and then Steve hands the long, dangling lead rope to his youngest son, Nick.
The chute is opened, and the colt bolts onto the soft dirt of an adjoining round pen. Horseback, Nick moves alongside him, giving slack to the lead rope. The colt rears and whinnies, before throwing himself in the dirt. Once the horse is back on his feet, Nick rides a slow circle around the colt, asking the youngster to move his feet and yield his hindquarters. Eventually he understands and settles in the middle of the round pen.
“That a boy,” Nick says quietly.
In a nearby round pen, Bryan repeats the process with No. 2233. Between the two of them and their father, they’ll work 10 yearlings before turning them out to pasture for the winter. It’s not ideal. They’d have much preferred to have these horses adopted as weanlings, but in the world of horses, ideal and reality are two different animals.
“My goal is to get on this side and have him stand still,” Steve explains, as he stands in the center of a round pen, a black colt at the end of the lead rope. The colt is nervous about the request, but once they’re haltered, mustang colts are whisked into their first lesson: yielding the hindquarters.
“You don’t have to worry as much that a domestic horse will kick you, but with these guys, you do,” Steve says. But, he adds, “he’ll tell me if he’s going to kick me.”
It’s not a conversation Steve has much anymore, after a lifetime of working with horses. The son of a cowboy, he began riding as a toddler and started his first colt in his teens. At 19, he began working horses with his father on the Sombrero Ranch in Northwest Colorado. The ranch horses didn’t sport the white freeze-brands of today’s mustangs, but many were Wyoming-gathered. In the early 1980s, Sombrero cowboys, Steve included, started dozens of these wild horses for the dude string.
Nearly 20 years later, Steve was retrofitting facilities on his 2,000-acre ranch in Wheatland, Wyoming, after accepting a contract to train mustangs for the Bureau of Land Management. The idea was simple: He would halter break 60 mustangs, and train them to lead and load within six months. The execution was more complicated.
The horses came in untouched, and ranged in age from 6 to 18. After months of hard work, 48 horses met the requirements and nearly 40 were adopted, a high success rate for the pilot program. Still, Steve questions the long-term success the new owners had with the older horses.
“I haven’t talked to all of the adopters,” he says, “but I don’t know of anyone who got one of those older horses and still has them.”
Steve has since maintained a contract with the BLM, but has modified his program to focus mostly on yearlings, and 2- and 3-year-olds.
“The people adopting from us, the most they can handle is a 2- or 3-year-old,” Steve says. “The horse is almost treated as a four-wheeler or a snow machine. It’s put away Monday through Friday, and on the weekends it has the daylights used out of it. The 2- and 3-year olds can stand a couple days off and they won’t revert, but if you give older ones time off, you’re going to start over.”
Having been raised around wild horses, Steve’s sons Bryan, 26, and Nick, 24, came on full-time with their father’s program, starting colts and taking on promotional side projects, such as competitive mustang challenges, in which trainers are paired with wild horses, then pitted against one another in a multi-event horse show. Working with wild horses is no easy undertaking, but as Steve puts it, “If you can train these, you can do a better job on domestic horses.”
“With these horses, you have to do things a little differently,” Bryan says. “You can’t sit down with a list of rules and say, ‘In 30 days, the horse is to be doing this, this and this.’ He might or he might not. There’s a lot more repetition involved than there is with a Quarter Horse.”
In the 1990s, clinician Bryan Neubert also worked with wild horses for the BLM, his contract tailored to giving demonstrations.
“It gave me a lot of insight and experience,” Neubert says. “My timing got better and my understanding got better. I got so I could accomplish quite a bit more with less time.”
After a couple of years, Neubert made the video Wild Horse Handling, which shows him working with a BLM mustang. After wearing out his first copy, Steve mustered up the courage to call Neubert.
“I’d never met anybody that cared to have that much education or experience,” Neubert says. “I had never met anybody who even wanted to work with wild horses as much as I had.”
A few years later, Neubert and Steve met in person for a BLM-sponsored wild horse clinic at the Mantle Ranch. Having an extra day after the weekend clinic, Neubert offered to help Steve start a group of 3-year-old mustang colts. Within a few hours, they’d set up four round pens for Steve, his sons and a family friend. Neubert instructed from above the panels, standing on a piece of plywood placed atop a chute.
“At 8 in the morning, we started those colts and at 5 that night all 11 were haltered and leading,” Steve says. “Six had been ridden, and four more were saddled. It was priceless. It changed what I do.”
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 charged the BLM and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to “protect and manage wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of public lands.” Nearly 40 years later, management of the wild horses has become a complex, political, polarizing endeavor.
BLM has increased financial support for its public-awareness campaigns in recent years, as adoption numbers have started to wane. Between 1998 and 2008, an average of 6,589 horses were adopted each year, according numbers provided by the BLM. In recent years, statistics show a drop in that number, though annual roundups remain large.
With the number of horses in captivity growing and adoptions declining, BLM officials announced last summer they were considering euthanasia, an action provided for by the act, but one that had not yet been utilized.
Several months after, Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, proposed the creation of a massive sanctuary for all wild horses and burros in captivity. The proposal stirred a wave of excitement, but BLM rejected the offer. The agency said it lacked the authority to commit to the fiscal demands of the plan, which included a $500-per-horse stipend to be paid annually for the animal’s lifetime. The agency also said it couldn’t utilize Nevada public lands, as proposed in Pickens’ plan, as they aren’t part of the original boundaries set by the 1971 act.
Her plan could be given new life by a recent proposal, however, introduced in February by U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-West Virginia). House Resolution 1018, better known as the ROAM Act, seeks to expand acreage available to wild horses and burros, strengthen the BLM adoption program, facilitate the creation of sanctuaries, and protect horses and burros from euthanasia. On April 29, the resolution passed the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and moved to the full House of Representatives for a vote.
“It is unacceptable for wild horses to be slaughtered without any regard for the general health, well-being and conservation of these iconic animals that embody the spirit of our American West,” Rahall said in a statement. “Introduction of this legislation will ensure the continued presence of those wild horses that make their homes on public lands.”
For those in charge of putting the changes in practice, however, the amendment “raises concerns,” says Wyoming state program lead Alan Shepherd.
“It has the potential to change the program a lot in the sense of expanding to areas outside of where the horses were first identified,” he says. “Some areas that could be potentially identified are private property. That would mean we’re telling land owners we’re going to run wild horses on [their land], which we’ve never done unless we’ve had an agreement.”
Rather than increasing land available to wild horses and burros, BLM officials have instead attempted to increase adoptions, with guarded success.
Currently about 37,000 horses roam free in 10 states, and more than 33,000 are held in short- and long-term holding facilities, Shepherd says. The 2009 Wild Horse and Burro Program budget tops $41 million, with 60 percent funneling into horse care, he says.
While events such as Extreme Mustang Makeover and Mustang Challenge have increased public awareness of mustang adoptions, the numbers are still small when compared to the number of animals that need homes.
“These trainers and the mustang makeover events have put a different adopter product out there,” Shepherd says. “The number of gentled animals is higher than even three years ago. But when it comes down to it, we’re still only looking at 300 to 600 animals a year.”
At the Mantle Ranch, the only private entity contracted with the BLM to train wild horses, Steve and his sons are churning out more saddle horses than ever before, and still adoptions for 2009 are down, Steve says. On average, the ranch places about 100 horses a year.
“From what I’ve seen in the last 10 years, BLM is managing the horses to the best of their abilities,” Steve says. “But we need more people to adopt horses. We need more people to step up and participate. You can criticize BLM until the sun doesn’t shine, but it won’t change anything for the horse.”
Bryan Mantle rides quietly toward a mustang colt standing at the rail. From the saddle, he has hold of the colt’s lead rope. Bryan walks to the colt’s hindquarters and at first the colt backs up. Bryan walks on, keeping the pressure consistent, continuing to ask for the correct response. The colt pulls back, shaking his head and leaning on the halter. Bryan remains quiet in the saddle, unmoved by the colt’s reactions. Eventually, the youngster will find release.
The challenge isn’t getting the right response from a horse, or giving the right reaction at the right time. The challenge is finding adopters with those capabilities, especially since the average mustang adopter is a first-time horse owner, or at least very green when it comes to horse handling.
“There’s no support system built into this program for the public,” Steve says. “They’ve got to hire somebody or take the horse to somebody, and a lot of adopters don’t have the means to do that, or aren’t willing to do that.”
The Wild Horse and Burro Program is organized such that adopters have the option of returning animals until they have titles of ownership, usually granted after a year of possession. Should a horse be returned, the adopter forfeits a fee, usually $125, and the Mantles aren’t out any money. Still, few horses return to the ranch.
The Mantles offer to spend time with adopters before they take their horses home, but very few take them up on it. Steve used to offer free clinics to anyone approved to adopt, but interest tapered so that by the end, only one of the 10 people registered showed.
“It kind of makes you wonder if a lot of people are getting a wild horse because he’s cheap,” Neubert says. “Some people think it’s some kind of horseman’s badge of honor to tell people, ‘He used to be a wild mustang.’ But I think their dreams often turn into nightmares. Like learning anything, it takes time.”
Regardless of the challenges and complexities, the time and elbow grease required, mustangs remain a beloved icon of the American West.
“They can get pretty friendly and loyal,” Bryan says, “where they’ll follow you around, and they like you handling them more than somebody else handling them.”
Take Steve’s mustang, for example, named for his gentle disposition and laid-back personality. They call him Dog.
Melissa Cassutt is a Western Horseman associate editor. Learn more about the Mantles at mantleswildhorses.com. Send comments on this story to [email protected].