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Controversy surrounds wild horse roundups in the West

Ashley Ahearn

The West has tens of thousands of wild horses. And sometimes it seems there are almost as many opinions on what to do with them. In a new podcast called Mustang, Ashley Ahearn takes a closer look at controversies surrounding the horses -- and works to train one of them. This series for the Mountain West News Bureau is adapted from her podcast.

First of four parts

The first time I visit a government holding facility for wild horses is in Burns, Oregon. I’m thinking about adopting a wild horse – one of thousands that the U.S. government rounds up each year. They’re kept in large corrals until they’re adopted, and some live out their days in captivity.

I ask David Philipps, author of “Wild Horse Country,” about his first visit to the government corrals near Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he lives. The Bureau of Land Management was holding an adoption fair – inviting the public to bid on mustangs.

“And, you know, to be honest, I didn't even know that wild horses still existed let alone that they were being auctioned off by the federal government,” says Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times. “And so I thought, well, this will be an interesting story. Little did I know “

At the end of the day, Philipps asked how many horses were adopted. Only 4, he was told.

And, he found out, there are more than 50,000 wild horses in government holding facilities around the country.

“I was gobsmacked,” he recalls. “You know, I just kept thinking, how did we get into this situation?”

So there are some 50,000 mustangs in government holding facilities – and more than 80,000 roaming wild. And if you ask biologists, that is many more than the land can support. Almost three times too many.

There are many different -- and conflicting -- ideas about how to manage wild horses.

Some ranchers and biologists believe wild horse numbers need to be kept in check, and the government should round more of them up. Activists believe the horses should be left alone to run free.

So the activists sue the BLM to prevent it from rounding up wild horses. Ranchers sue the BLM to force it to do the round ups. And a lot of other people worry about all the taxpayer dollars spent to keep horses in long-term holding facilities.

“You know, this is a volatile issue,” says Utah State University professor Terry Messmer. “It's been described as one of the most wicked natural resource issues of the century.”

He has studied the wild horse conflict for decades, and calls it a crisis. “It's a crisis not only involving ecology, but it's a crisis involving our ability to communicate and to relate to each other as individuals.”

So that’s what brings me to the BLM corrals in Oregon last year. I want to give a mustang a home.

And there’s one little black horse with a bright white spot on his forehead that catches my eye.

I have a video on my phone of him from that first day. “I like the look of you,” I say. “Hey, handsome. I like his presence”

I just have a feeling he was the one. So I have him taken to a different facility to get some initial training – basically just to get a halter on his head so I can take him home.

As the cowboys work him, I watch. He just runs and thrashes around until he’s lathered white with sweat..

It’s hard to watch. So I wait until he stops racing and is just standing frozen with fear. And I climb over the fence.

I walk up to him slowly until we’re standing shoulder to shoulder. “Good boy,” I say in the video, as I get closer.

I focus on taking deep breaths and calming my body, because horses pick up on all the signals we don’t even realize we’re sending. Then I reach up and gently touch his neck. He flinches, but doesn’t run.

Here I am again in the video: “I can tell he’s nervous but He’s licking and chewing and relaxing. And I just want this horse to know that he’s safe with me and that we’re going to be friends for a long time.”

This horse and I are on a journey together now.

In Part 2, Ahearn looks at how wild horses impact other animals in the West. This series was adapted from her podcast Mustang; you can listen to all eight episodes wherever you get your podcasts.

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