Decades ago – possibly even centuries – Mustang 2359’s ancestors had been turned loose by a pioneer, a cavalry officer, a tribal member or maybe even a conquistador.
But the open range grows only so much grass and can hold only so many horses. That’s why the U.S. Bureau of Land Management sent in a helicopter in late July to chase the 4-year-old mare and several dozen other mustangs from the herd into a makeshift pen.
Her wild days had ended. In short order, Mustang 2359 was assigned a number, needled with vaccinations, offered regular rations of federal hay and hauled by truck from the canyon lands of southwest Idaho to the Kootenai County Fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene, where she is being offered for adoption this weekend.
Friday was preview day. Mustang 2359 and about three dozen other horses gathered from two herds in Owyhee County stood in their pens at the fairgrounds, sipping water, munching hay and generally ignoring the humans who peered at them through the fence boards.
“Oh man, they’re so cool. I love mustangs,” said Anthony Kitchen, a 10-year-old from Pinehurst, Idaho.
Kitchen, who wore black cowboy boots and a T-shirt bearing the image of a horse, desperately wanted to adopt a mustang – especially one of the older, weather-worn horses – but he doesn’t have the space for a horse where he lives. Still, he didn’t want to miss a chance to see a wild horse.
“When I’m 25, I want to get 200 acres and a bunch of these horses. A lot,” Kitchen said, kicking the dirt. “I just love to be around them.”
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management periodically rounds up horses from wild herds throughout the West to keep their ranges from being overgrazed. An estimated 800 mustangs now roam public land in Idaho – roughly 175 too many for the condition of the rangeland, according to BLM data.
The mustangs need training before they’re ready to wear a saddle, but they take quickly to pasture living, where food, water and shelter is plentiful, said Sandra Hall, a Rathdrum resident who adopted a mustang in 2000. The mustang, who’s now called Choctaw, has become an ideal trail-riding horse for Hall’s 7-year-old daughter.
“He’s absolutely wonderful with her,” she said. “He’s very gentle, very protective.”
The horses being offered for adoption this weekend came from the Hard Trigger and Black Mountain herds, said Stephanie Snook, spokeswoman for the BLM. During the helicopter roundup, the best stallions were turned loose to keep the bloodline strong and healthy. Snook said mustangs have developed a reputation as sure-footed mountain horses. This year, the U.S. Border Patrol even began using wild horses to patrol the backcountry border between Washington and Montana.
“They’re rock solid,” Snook said of the mustangs. “They’re living legends of the West.”
Any horses not adopted this weekend will be offered at a future event. If they still have no takers, the horses will spend their remaining days roaming a government pasture at a long-term holding facility. “They live a happy life,” Snook said.
Spokane resident Jim Foley traveled to the fairgrounds Friday to catch a glimpse of the mustangs. When he was a boy growing up on the family ranch in Montana, he said, his father used a mustang to herd cattle.
“I just remember how tough that horse was,” Foley said. “He never ran out of breath. Their feet are tough as nails.”
Foley was considering adopting a horse for himself and his brother. He had his eye on Mustang 2385, a 2-year-old sorrel mare.
“Straight neck, solid shoulders – just a well-built little horse,” Foley said, eyeing the mustang.
Taming a mustang takes time and patience, said Todd Titus, a rancher and experienced horse gentler from Burns, Ore. Titus is offering demonstrations this weekend on working with the mustangs. Friday, he stepped into a corral with Mustang 2359.
The mustang trotted around the enclosure anxiously, flaring her nostrils as Titus approached. About 40 people looked on.
“They need to start reprogramming,” Titus explained to the audience, speaking calmly and keeping his hands in his Wranglers as the wild horse glared at him.
At first, when Titus stepped toward the horse, she skittered away and Titus would retreat, giving the mare space. After about 20 minutes of this, the mustang tired. She allowed Titus to approach, if only for a few moments.
After a while, the mare turned toward him and took a few tentative steps, staring at Titus and sniffing the air. Mustang 2359 seemed willing to give to give this strange, cowboy hat-wearing creature a chance.