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Wild horses create problems for western ranchers

Wild horses stand in a group.
Ashley Ahearn

Third of four parts

I remember the first time my mustang, Boo, bucked me off. We were riding along through the sagebrush following a cowboy friend of mine, Dave Johnston. I wouldn’t let Boo put his head down to munch the spring grass so he threw a temper tantrum. I stayed on for maybe four or five good bucks but then he dumped me.

Johnston watched it all happen. He was a champion bronc and bull rider in Alaska in his day, so he’s ridden his fair share of bucks.

“He was he was being a turd,” Johnston said. “But you know … for a Mustang you got a year ago, I couldn't believe it. I can't even believe you're on his back.

“But after about four or five seconds, I seen you turn your head and look at the ground. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's where she's going.’ Because that's what happens. If you start looking for a spot you're gonna find it.

Training a wild horse is not for the faint of heart. Boo’s bitten me, kicked me -- you name it. We’re both trying to figure one another out and some days it feels like one long battle of wills.

I’m not the only one with mustang trouble these days.

For many ranchers -- especially in the more arid parts of the west -- wild horses are a problem. They say the horses destroy fencing and water infrastructure, and compete with their cows for grass.

I went for a drive with Will DeLong on his grazing allotment outside of Winnemucca, in  northern Nevada. In recent years, DeLong has kept his cows off the range he leases because there’s not enough for them to eat -- the horses have grazed it down.

“You know I take pride in my cattle being in good shape,” DeLond says. “And I don't want them starving somewhere because it won't make me any money and it won’t do the cattle any good.”

Instead of turning his cows out, DeLong ended up buying hay and feeding them at home – and hay prices have been really high.

But unlike some of the ranchers I’ve spoken with, DeLong doesn’t want wild horses gone. In fact, his family’s history is entwined with them.

The family goes back five generations in this part of the world. His great-great-grandmother supplied horses to the U.S. troops as part of what was called the Cavalry Remount program. The government paid her and other western ranchers to keep horses at the ready for the next military campaign.

As we drive along, DeLong points to a canyon in the distance. “And there’s about two different horse traps along there. … You’ll be going through the juniper trees and you’ll be in the trap before you even realize it.”

In the early 1900s, Will’s great-grandfather would chase wild horses into those hidden traps, on horseback, and then sell them in town for money.

And long before the federal Bureau of Land Management took over responsibility for wild horses in the 70s, DeLong’s family was managing the ones that lived on the range around their ranch. They kept the numbers in check – culling the herd now and then, catching some horses to train and ride. They also released their own good mares and stallions intentionally, to influence the bloodlines of the wild stock.

“They managed the horses so that they were better horses all the time. They wanted to have the best horse they could out on the range,” DeLong says.

DeLong says that now, when his dad talks about the wild horses around here, it’s with a note of disappointment. He says the BLM doesn’t manage the herds as aggressively or proactively as his family has over the years.

And his dad thinks the quality of the horses has suffered. “And he still feels that pride and ownership of them, that they should be a prettier, a better bunch of horses,” he says.

DeLong speaks fondly about the mustangs his family has trained and ridden over the generations. His father had a beautiful buckskin named Gypsy; a lot of the horses on the ranch today are her descendants. And then there was Cadillac Jack, a beloved gelding. Or Pinto Pete, which DeLong rode as a kid.

He hopes there are always mustangs on the range -- even if they do compete with his cattle.

“When they're at the level of where they're supposed to be at or close to it they're not a challenge … ” he says. “If they’re managed to the right numbers, we’re used to ‘em. I like seeing them, actually.

In the final part of this series, Ahearn heads to the Spokane Reservation in Washington to find out how that Indigenous Nation manages the wild horses on their lands. This series was adapted from her podcast Mustang, which has much, much more about these iconic wild animals.

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