This week I am honored to feature a guest post by Karen Elizabeth Baril. Karen has written more than 400 feature articles in top equestrian magazines including Equus, The Equine Journal, and Trail Rider Magazine. Most recently, she published a creative non-fiction essay in Still Crazy literary magazine. Her career goals are to inform, enlighten, and, of course, entertain her readers. Visit her website at: www.karen-elizabeth-baril.com.
I park along the dirt driveway next to a poster that reads:
“ BLM Wild Horse Adoption! Today Only!”
Dave tags along with me, partly because he’s curious, but mostly because he knows I’m impulsive when it comes to horses in need. That’s not a bad thing. We don’t have room in the barn for another horse and the truth is, we’re a little short on cash as well.
We follow the little paper-plate arrows to the indoor arena where the wild horses are temporarily housed in pipe corrals. For most of us in the northeast, the opportunity to see wild horses is rare so this adoption event has drawn a decent crowd. The atmosphere is part carnival, part county fair.
A friend of mine adopted her horse three years ago. She tells me these horses shipped in from Nevada last night where they’ve been in BLM holding facilities. Captured less than a month ago from herd management areas north of Las Vegas, they’ve been vaccinated, dewormed, and freeze-marked all in the last four weeks. Their adoption papers indicate where they were captured— Wheeler Pass, Montezuma Peak, and the Amargosa Valley, all places less than an afternoon’s drive from the Las Vegas strip.
The freeze mark indicates they belong to the US government until such time, usually one year after adoption, title is transferred to the adopter. After that, the adopter is free to do what they want with them. The brand shows the horse’s year of birth and registration number. It’s applied with an iron, chilled in liquid nitrogen, and held against the horse’s neck for 6-10 seconds. The nitrogen destroys the pigment in the hair follicle, but not the hair follicle itself. When the hair grows back in about 4-6 weeks, it grows in white so the mark can be clearly read even from a distance.
Outside the arena, a snack truck with hot dogs, chips, and soda is parked on a bank. The local country station has set up a small table offering free mugs and baseball caps. A tabletop radio blares Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels” and a couple of bystanders hum along.
The BLM office is just outside the arena entrance, though ‘office’ is a bit of a stretch. It’s really just a roped off area with a folding card table and a mound of pamphlets. A thin woman standing behind the table informs us that if we want to adopt a horse we’ll have to prove we’ve got the right set up—a corral with six-foot fences for adult horses, five feet for burros or young horses.
“How do I prove to you that I have all that?” I ask.
“Oh, we take your word for it,” she says.
She’s wearing an “Adopt a Wild Horse!” t-shirt. “If you adopt a horse today for one-hundred twenty-five dollars, we’ll give you a second horse for just twenty-five dollars,” she says, pointing to a list of names and phone numbers of previous adopters. “These people can help you get your horse home if you don’t have a stock trailer,” she says. “It has to be covered in case the horse tries to jump out on the ride home.”
We head into the dusky light of the indoor arena. There’s a grid of corrals and panels set up in the middle. Some of the corrals have several horses in them, others have just one. A red roan mare canters back and forth in the first corral, kicking up a lot of dust. The mare wears a thin rope around her neck with a yellow numbered tag attached to it. A paper tied to the outside of her pen corresponds to the number on the neck tag. The paper says she’s two years old and was captured in Nevada. Her flashy color improves her chances for adoption—she boasts the reds, oranges, and golds of the desert in her coat.
I ask a BLM wrangler how the horses get from the transport truck to the corrals. None of them are halter broke. She tells me they drive the horses off the trailer through a narrow wooden chute that leads directly into the corrals while other workers and volunteers dash around closing gates behind them.
An older couple pause to listen. The wife taps me on the arm. “I’m worried about them,” she says, motioning towards a corral that holds several weanling colts. I can tell by the way the woman is dressed that she’s probably not a horse person. The BLM employees are kind and gentle with the horses, but I’m worried about them, too. The weanlings she’s talking about huddle together in the middle of the pen. They look like awkward schoolboys on the first day of class. A little buckskin colt tries to hide by nosing his way into the middle of the throng.
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” the woman asks me. “We saw the sign out on the road so we came in to see the wild horses….” Her voice trails off as she looks back at the weanlings. “But, it makes me sad. Who checks on them after they go home?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I tell her.
Two rough-looking men wander over to the weanling pen. One of them is eating a hot dog and drinking cola out of a paper cup. The one eating the hot dog says—“That’s the one I’d take,” jabbing his hotdog in the direction of the little buckskin colt.
The BLM’s wild horse and burro program has one mission—to keep the population manageable, to keep a “thriving natural ecological balance.” It’s not an easy task. The BLM says they don’t knowingly sell to kill buyers, but I’ve seen the BLM freeze-marks at kill-buyer auctions. It’s impossible to keep wild horses out of the kill buyer market. The low prices lure unscrupulous dealers, people who lie on their applications. Even the animals that get adopted into legitimate homes are at risk. Wild horses are not for the inexperienced horse handler and some of them are brought to auction as a last resort when owners don’t know what else to do with them.
Then there are those who argue that wild horses aren’t really wild anyway, or not in the way a moose is wild or grizzly bears are wild. That can sometimes be a sticking point for ranchers who don’t believe feral horses deserve free-range or protection. America’s wild horses are mostly feral animals left behind by the Spanish explorers or turned loose by ranchers and Indians. A fair amount of BLM horses boast colors that wouldn’t ordinarily happen in the wild—like the palomino, grulla, dun, sorrel, and paint, colors that point to their melting pot genetics. If they were truly wild, scientists argue, they’d be plain and brown—nondescript like mule deer or elk.
By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the last corral, a BLM wrangler moves gently within a herd of yearling fillies. He keeps his arms close by his sides so he doesn’t scare them. Raised arms are perceived as a threat. One of the horses, a plain brown mare, stays near him while the others drift away like stars. This mare is not afraid—she holds her ground even though she can’t look the wrangler in the eye. Her neck tag says #7943. According to the paper tied to the outside of the corral, she was captured in Wheeler Pass a month ago and she hasn’t been gentled.
“See how she wants to trust me,” the wrangler whispers.
The filly reaches forward with her nose. She presses her nose to the wrangler’s outstretched hand. It’s probably the first time the mare has reached out and not pulled away. It’s huge.
The mare shakes her head; this is hard. Then she turns and looks directly into my eyes. That’s not a thing horses do—even domestic horses can have trouble looking directly into a predator’s eyes. The signs on the corral warn against getting too close, but I feel a kinship with this mare. Of all the horses here today from the colorful little weanling colts to the flashy red roan, I’d take this plain brown mare home with me if I could. I‘m kind of plain myself so I understand what it’s like to be passed over for a flashier model.
I break the rules and step closer to the corral. The mare walks towards me with purpose. She’s on the inside—me on the outside—the wrangler doesn’t tell me to move back. The mare approaches the pipe corral and presses her muzzle to my lips, exhaling a long breath into my nose and mouth. I drink in her scent- she’s sagebrush and desert, wind and water. A small murmur ripples through the crowd. It’s a moment, I’m told, that never happens.
“She chose you,” the wrangler says.
I feel it, too. This wild spirit, this beautiful brown bird–would fly free of these panel walls if she could. All I need to do is open the gate and she’ll fly away. But, today, she’s offering me a gift. I fervently wish I could offer her the one thing she’ll never have again. To go home. To return to the desert. What was the noon hour like for her just a month ago? Did she doze in the shade of the canyon? Did she lie down in the sagebrush?
Dave touches my arm. “Come on,” he says. “We should get going.” And I then I have to walk away. It’s the only thing to do. I walk away…from her. I look back and see that she’s turned away, too. I see the moment when she understands that she won’t be going home with me.
I don’t want to be the one without walls. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. I can walk out of the arena into the bright sun and go home.
Whenever I want to.