West Desert Mustangs
Last spring, some fellow photographers and I discovered that a group of mustang owners from the Utah Horse Expo & Festival of Learning had organized a field trip to the West Desert in search of the elusive mustang. We packed our cameras, joined the caravan and headed west. We were not disappointed. From the raw power of the stallions, to the fragility of newborn colts, it’s hard not to be in awe of the wild mustang.
It’s about a two-hour drive from Park City west to the Cedar Mountains, where one of the largest herds of wild mustangs in Utah can be found. Being there is like a scene from a movie — a herd of wild mustangs galloping alongside our car, and then disappearing around the side of a mountain, miraculously managing to skirt treacherous gopher holes and deep crevices. The mustangs were headed to a nearby watering hole, where eventually we would find a herd of nearly 100 horses.
Quietly, we crept up to a vantage point and watched in amazement as these incredible animals carried out their day-to-day lives. We saw mothers with foals, frisky adolescents and bossy stallions.
Wild mustangs abound today in North America’s western plains and deserts; but that wasn’t always the case. Decades ago, it was common practice to slaughter wild horses on public lands in the United States. In the early 1950s, Velma Johnson (a.k.a. “Wild Horse Annie”), grew tired of the cruelty, and concerned about the possibility of wild horse extinction, began a campaign for public awareness in her home state of Nevada. It was not until 1971 that Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act. Under the provisions of this law, wild horses and burros may not be captured for slaughter. Instead, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was put in charge of protecting and managing the wild herds.
Overseeing the wild horses is one small part of the Bureau of Land Management’s responsibilities. The general public, however, has an emotional attachment to the mustangs and considers their protection one of the Bureau’s highest priorities. Celebrated in film and literature as a symbol of our nation’s pioneer spirit, mustangs helped Lewis and Clark complete their historic expedition, and during the opening of the frontier, they pulled plows, delivered mail, and carried soldiers in battle. These animals have virtually no natural predators, and their herd size can double about every four years. As a result, an estimated 33,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM-managed lands in 10 western states, a population that exceeds by some 5,700 the number that can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses.
To keep the herds from overpopulating, the BLM periodically rounds up wild horses. After being branded, wormed and vaccinated, the captured horses are available at several BLM Wild Horse & Burro adoption facilities for $125 each to whoever can provide a proper home and care for them. With the help of natural selection, today’s wild horses are intelligent, sound-minded, sure-footed, and strong. Having had the benefit of life within a functional natural social unit, they are well-socialized and savvy. Once they overcome their natural fear of people, they can be trained to ride, drive, and perform, just like any other horse.
Since 1973, the BLM has adopted out about 100,000 wild horses and burros. Yet between 5,000 and 10,000 animals are available for adoption each year, so the mustang population exceeds what the BLM lands can support. Some Park City locals have stepped up to help. Jan Drake from the National Ability Center recently adopted two mustangs, a 2-year-old and a yearling. “They will eventually become therapy horses and be used in our riding programs for physically and mentally handicapped children,” explains Drake. “These are wonderful animals. Once you have them properly trained, they’re yours, and they’ll do anything you ask them to do.”
Park City local Meghan de Bruijn also adopted a wild mustang. “I promised myself (and my husband) that I was just going to look,” says de Bruijn of her trip to the adoption center. “That’s all, just look. I returned home with a well formulated plan to lure my husband all the way to South Jordan to take a look at my chosen mustang the next day. I retrofitted my pasture to meet even the most stringent of BLM investigators, and we headed off to pick up my $125 wild horse. There he was, patiently standing, with a big white question mark emblazoned on his head, waiting for his fate. He was known as ‘Quiz,’ not only for the very obvious face marking, but also for his inquisitive nature. ‘Quiz’ was renamed ‘Napoleon’ by my husband because he is short in stature but big in spirit. It couldn’t be a more appropriate name. He tops out at 13.3 hands on a good day, but will carry any rider on his back through the hills of Park City or sure-footedly jump the ‘scariest’ of cross-country jumps. Napoleon, now 5, is a permanent part of our ever-growing four-legged family.”
For more information about the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, call (866) 4MUSTANGS or view blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/wild_horse_and_burro.html.
For Vicki Ross-Gaebe, photography is a full-time passion; whether it's photo-graphing an equestrian or sporting event, real estate, or making “eye contact” with a bull moose, she’s always had the desire to document these moments through a lens. To see her photos of mustangs on the West Desert, visit parkcityphotography. com or our magazine Web site at parkcitymagazine.com.