If no one looks the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s gift horses in the mouth, it is probably for fear of getting bitten.
The 33 scrawny wild horses the bureau offered for adoption here last weekend were not strong in the social graces.
“Look at that one! It bit the other one on the butt,” a big-eyed boy exclaimed.
Another of the diminutive mustangs planted two hind hoofs squarely on another’s derriere like a cartoon donkey that boots its troublesome owner into the next pasture.
Who knows what wild burros would have done if the BLM had brought any of them.
But the people who came to the federal agency’s 4,000-acre Lakeview Ranch at the bottom of a wind-whipped coulee were looking for horses with an attitude.
“They’re the best trail horses in the world,” said veteran horse trainer Hap Wyse of Woodinville, Wash. “You can’t beat an animal that’s been out in the wild.”
Rand Miller of West Richland, Wash., agreed: “They seem to be a lot smarter than domestic horses. They pay more attention to things.”
Miller and his wife, Valerie, are members of the American Mustang & Burro Association. The association helps the BLM find homes for the animals when they are removed from overpopulated range land.
A lot of people apparently share the Millers’ enthusiasm for what the BLM calls “living symbols of American history.” About 100 people showed up for last weekend’s adoption, and 52 submitted applications.
People came Friday afternoon and waited several hours for a preview before the semitrailer carrying the horses arrived. Would-be owners circled the corrals until dusk, carefully taking notes.
The crowd filled the only motel in Odessa, and several families parked campers at the BLM ranch about six miles northwest of town. At least one family slept in its car.
Prospective owners may not have gotten a close look at the horses’ teeth, but the mustangs were scrutinized.
Although spooked at first by their new surroundings, most of the horses soon calmed down. A few actually warmed up to the crowd, and children wasted no time making friends with the gentler horses.
One 2-year-old bay was especially amiable.
“I think people have already rubbed the hair off of him,” said Lloyd Mulholland, who runs a BLM horse center at Burns, Ore.
Other horses, still shaggy with winter coats, looked like they needed to have some hair rubbed off. Most appeared as if they could use a good meal.
Mulholland cared for the horses at Burns after they had been removed from the Shwave Herd Management Area in northwestern Nevada.
“The best medicine is getting these horses adopted and in people’s homes so they can get proper care,” he said.
The adoption program requires people to demonstrate in a detailed interview that they would give the animals a good home. Adopters pay a $125 fee and sign a contract to take care of the animals for a year before they are granted ownership.
Many wild horses and burros were destined for the glue factory before public protests won them congressional protection in 1971.
Each year, Mulholland’s corral handles 300 to 500 horses and burros - mostly horses - that have been removed from federal land throughout the West to keep herds from getting too large. Before the horses are offered to the public, they receive veterinary care and numerous shots whose cost easily offsets the adoption fee.
There even are rules requiring adopters to have more substantial trailers than they might need to haul a domestic horse.
The Hays family of Bayview, Idaho, almost had to give up its mustangs when its two borrowed trailers failed to pass muster. Someone heading the same direction with a more substantial trailer came to the rescue.
Nathan and Patti Hays and their children, Nathan and Harry, were first-time adopters who had spent the previous month and a half building a corral. They want to establish a pack train for mountain outings.
“I want something that’s surefooted, and these guys are surefooted,” the elder Nathan Hays said. He also hopes wild horses will be good at avoiding bears.
Like most adopters, the Hayses have experience with animals. He is a falconer and she used to compete in dressage (horse talk for showmanship) and jumping events - but never with a mustang.
While a domestic horse may stand 14 to 16 hands (horse talk for 4 inches), the average height among the Shwave mustangs was 13 to 14 hands.
Mulholland said the Shwave area typically produces small horses, but he and other veteran horsemen predicted the younger mustangs would grow considerably with a better diet.
Preferences varied widely among the adopters, but a consensus favored a certain 3-year-old strawberry roan mare as the prettiest of the lot.
“Her head is nice,” retired school maintenance supervisor Red Stidman of Ephrata, Wash., said. “Her whole body is just put together nice, and her disposition seems to be pretty nice with the rest of the horses.”
If most people were right about her being pregnant, she offered a two-for-one bargain.
So there was a murmur of approval Saturday morning when Stidman’s name was the first to be drawn from a box and he chose the roan. Stidman’s 16-year-old grandson, Jeff Wentworth, shouted for joy because he wanted the horse.
“She’s a real pretty filly,” Mulholland said, but his personal pick would have been a 5-year-old roan stud. “I just think he’d make a good little cow horse. He’s small, but he’d be tough.”
The stud also caught the eye of Hap Wyse, who was the first horseshoer at the Yakima Meadows racetrack and who has worked with mustangs and other horses for most of his 66 years. He won the fourth draw and snagged his new trail-riding horse after others had passed over it.
Most people want a younger, easier-to-train horse, but veteran trainers look for a horse that’s ready to work, Mulholland said.
Some winners in the adoption lottery walked away empty-handed after being beaten to their choices by others. Two horses were left after 10-year-old Nathan Hays had pulled the last name from a box. A second drawing found homes for those animals, too.
A 3-year-old bay stud was the last to be adopted.
“I think, after he’s gelded and worked, I can make a pack horse out of him and probably ride him, too,” said Jerry Pennington of Wenatchee. “No bigger than he is, he probably can’t eat as much as the rest of ‘em.”