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Mustangs On The Move


Seems like I struck a chord with my post on Mustangs, the slaughter issue and unwanted horses, which is exactly what I was hoping to do—stimulate discussion and provoke thought. I appreciate all of your comments and the provocative thoughts you’ve been willing to share. I think it is really cool how many people are devoted to the Mustang cause and all the stories about the many challenges, accomplishments and personal victories. There are a huge component of people dedicated to this iconic breed of horse and to preserving its integrity and longevity. But I wish there were more concern and romanticism about the tens of thousands of regular old back-yard “unwanted” horses that are also struggling to survive.

In a perfect world, things would probably be a lot different for the Mustangs. They would have an infinite range on which to roam free, plenty of rich and lush forage and little or no encounter with humans. But as most adults have come to learn, this is not a perfect world that we live in. People are homeless in this land of plenty, children go to bed hungry at night and the American Mustang is not always left to roam free.

Many years ago, perhaps a decade or more, I was privileged to be invited “behind the scenes” to one of the largest (at the time) BLM holding facilities at one of the original BLM training facilities at a prison in Canon City Colorado. This was a time when the Mustang was not nearly as popular as it is now and the pressure on the Bureau of Land Management was intense to keep the forage available for cattle. Many of the people involved with Mustangs today may not remember these dark days and the controversy and corruption that resulted from the real pressure to get the horses off the public lands, without any viable options of what to do with them. But the controversy and corruption inspired a few dedicated individuals to create the training programs in the prisons to help gentle the wild horses and prepare them for a life in captivity.

I was pleased to meet some of the leaders in this effort and to be invited to tour their facility, observe the work they were doing—jointly between the BLM and Department of Corrections, to meet some of the prisoners lucky enough to be accepted into the horse training program and to meet many of the horses that were “graduating” from the program and being adopted by loving and devoted families. I saw some really cool horses there. I remember a beautiful curly-coated dun stallion and some other incredible horses. Even during this time when the BLM was being investigated for corruption for (allegedly) letting some Mustangs go to slaughter, the men that I met were doing their best to find a workable solution to an overwhelming problem of what to do with all the Mustangs.

This is why I am so impressed with what the Extreme Mustang Makeover has brought to the breed—the attention and popularity it has brought to the breed and the increase in people interested in adopting them. But sadly, not all Mustangs survive the horribly traumatic process of being rounded up, separated from their herds, run through shoots, gelded and medicated and transported to a holding facility. Some are injured, sometimes fatally and others are so traumatized that they never adjust to life on the “inside.” Only the horses that adjust, even if only in a small way, are put into the adoption program. Because many of the people wishing to adopt Mustangs are newcomers to horses and because it is important to protect the safety of the humans involved, the highly traumatized horses never make it to the adoption program.

These horses remain in holding facilities while the more adoptable horses are put forth to the public. And yes, while Mustangs are incredibly hardy and healthy animals, anytime there is over-crowding and limited resources, there will be sickness and disease. Many of the more difficult horses are that way because their spirits cannot accept captivity and they fight to escape captivity with every ounce of life they have. And when their fight is fruitless and they are resigned to their fate, they become depressed animals—all the more likely to succumb to illness. It’s great to celebrate the success of thousands of Mustangs and their proud owners, but we cannot pretend that every story has a happy ending.

I think the Mustang programs of today have come a long way to solve some of these ugly issues of the past but I will never forget the sight of hundreds of Mustangs standing in crowded pens with distemper raging unchecked through the herd. Today we have many Mustang sanctuaries that have formed to rescue these “unwanted” Mustangs and give them a comfortable life–the work they do is remarkable. But sadly they are running out of space and struggling to find funding and while we happily celebrate the success of the many horses that have wonderful homes and dedicated owners, let’s not forget about the other side of the coin.

And we also cannot forget about the 90-150,000 domestic horses that were going to slaughter every year, who are now “unwanted” horses and in limbo and fighting for their lives. These horses may not be as romantic and iconic as the Mustang, but they deserve our attention—at least as much as the Mustang—since we are responsible for creating them in the first place, through indiscriminate breeding. And because we allowed the bill to be passed that put them in the miserable situation they are in today.

I applaud all of you that have had such tremendous accomplishments with your Mustang and for the enrichment it has brought to you and your horse. I wish that I had an answer for all the horses, Mustang and domestic, that have not been so lucky in their lives. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I also don’t want to pretend that they don’t exist either. What can we do to protect all the unwanted horses? Check out he Unwanted Horse Coalition for more information on this subject. These people are working hard to protect the horses that no one else cares about and they are doing great work.

All the best,


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  1. Thanks for your positive post about mustangs. I think most horse owners have a breed preference, I love mustangs.
    But, I also care about all the excess horses. It’s a sad situation and I can’t see a happy outcome for all of them. I implore breeders to stop and think before adding to the problem.
    As to the burro story….wild burros have a natural instinct to guard any pasture they are in. Which is why ranchers often put them out with their livestock in wolf and mountain lion country. What that burro did was not wild horse behaviour. The two species have very different minds. Mustangs are flight animals, the burros stand and fight.

  2. Guess I’ll put a few comments in on this. First, I have a friend who was up at one of the BLM adoption facilities and he said a large % (has slipped my memory but I was surprised) of the horses being brought in off the range now have shoes on. Guess that’s where some of the many unwanted domestics get dumped these days. Next, my massage therapist mentioned the other day she’d lost a son in 1988. Long story short-he was 6 years old, crossing a neighbors pasture with his 8 yr old brother and a friend when a BLM burro attacked him. When she saw him the burro had the boy in his mouth, slinging him around, limp. The 8 yr old said the burro ran up to his brother and kicked him in the head to start. Turns out the burro had been adopted almost 20 years prior. So…this is a first hand story. No matter how gentle some of these mustangs turn out to be let’s not forget they are wild animals with instincts. Of course nobody probably gave this burro the training it needed. And some neighborhood kids might have teased it before but she is sure her son did not. So PLEASE do not underestimate the behavior of some of these wild ones. Now lastly, I have 2 mustangs, one old and one young. (one is Kiger-the breed of Spirit the cartoon horse) My old mustang, now retired was such a wonderful mountain horse that when she retired I bought a young Kiger. They are different from the domestic horses I’ve had but I think the world of them. So maybe this will help people believe the above warning about the little boy. I love mustangs, I own 2 and I say be aware of what you are doing.

  3. Julie,
    another great post. you continue to knock ’em out of the park with each one. current, articulate, pertinent, intelligent and informative. this is why you are my horse guru-ess. you’re a great writer, trainer and clinician. you are as close to the horse culture as I’m able to get. depressing, but things could be worse. your teachings are an inspiration to keep my dreams alive. thanks so much.

  4. This world confounds me – such great efforts are made on behalf of some endangered species, such as the spotted owl. Half-hearted efforts are made to protect others.
    Our horse blogs are filled with stories of “throw-away horses” and irresponsible owners and breeders.
    Thank goodness we have some reputable rescue operations in place. In a perfect world, we would have less need for such rescue.

  5. Julie:
    I think the unwanted horse is all horses…The TB gelding that isn’t a race winner, the backyard bred horse with no training, the mustang in an adoption facility…They are all just waiting for a chance….So like many other groups, we (the mustang owners) choose to focus on helping out the component we most strongly identify with; and for those of us that have had the opportunity to own and bond with a mustang that is where our focus goes….And I have never taken one of the Appy’s, TB’s, QH’s that I’ve owned to a show and gotten such rude and asinine comments like “Didn’t know you could train a mustang”, “Can you pick up his feet?”, “Do you trust that THING with your daughter?” (all comments we’ve gotten when taking our mustangs to horse shows). So I choose to focus getting my “unwanted” horses the respect they deserve by promoting that they can be sane and serviceable mounts. So yes our focus is on the unwanted horse…And I’ve not met more opponents of back yard breeding then alot of the mustang faction.

    I’ve been a mustang owner now for 11yrs….In that time I’ve only ever met 1 mustang owner with no prior horse experience so I would have to challenge your comment on that….Most people I’ve met (at the adoptions I’ve volunteered at, at the Expos, horseshows, etc) with no horse experience shy away from adopting due to the complexities and fear of having an untouchable animal….Maybe the disparity in our experiences lie in our geographical locations…..Here in Missouri QH and paints are the norm and backyard breeders abound…You can pick up a QH/Paint here cheaper then you can drive to an adoption and adopt. We have no holding facility close by nor do we have a prison program here…

    Have no fear that we “will forget the other side of the coin”….Why do you think our mustang group spent over $800(out of our own pocket) exhibiting at Women and Horses Expo, and other venues in the midwest? WE are promoting our unwanted horses and will never forget the ones left behind in the sanctuaries, holding facilities, etc…So maybe just maybe you are seeing a “huge component of people dedicated to this iconic breed of horse” because we are doing something for our unwanted horse owners…I challenge domestic horse owners to get out there and promote their horses as well….At the expo, there was only 1 group promoting a diverse group of domestics (all breed, including grade) out of the entire barn.

    In closing, I urge ALL horse owners to get involved at promoting sane horse ownership and stewardship of their equine. Most of all, get up and out with your equine and be heard…Whether it’s your congressman or the local fun show where you can show them that your “xyz” horse can compete, be heard….

    No one has the complete answers to the world’s evils…Yet if we don’t take things sitting down like inhumane treatment of any human/animal, we can make a difference one person at a time…

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