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Mustangs in training

Thu., Dec. 18, 2008

Border Patrol will take eight horses to march in inaugural parade

When picking eight mustangs to represent the U.S. Border Patrol and the Pacific Northwest for the inaugural celebration next month, Lee Pinkerton has to worry about a horse’s temperament, its ability to work in a group, and whether it can learn some basic maneuvers.

Looks are pretty far down the list. He’s sure the eight horses picked from Border Patrol stations in Washington and Montana for the inaugural parade will be a varied lot that won’t match perfectly.

“Pageantry is part of it,” Pinkerton said as he watched Border Patrol wranglers work the agency’s 16 mustangs in an indoor practice facility south of Colville. But these aren’t quarter horses or Clydesdales, and there’s no standard for the perfect mustang.

That’s pretty much the point of having mustangs as part of the celebration, he added. “These horses are throwaways. They’re outcasts, just like many people who came to America were.”

Over the past two years, the Border Patrol has purchased the mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management’s Adopt a Wild Horse program, which is designed to cull the herds on federal lands in the West. The mustangs are sent for training at a prison program in Colorado where they are broken by inmates, then used to help patrol some of the most rugged stretches of the U.S. border between the Cascades and the Rockies.

“Just think of it, these are horses that were running wild two years ago, and next month we’re taking them to the most powerful city on Earth,” said Pinkerton, the assistant chief patrol agent of the Spokane District, who can wax poetic when talking about a program he helped start. “That’s a pretty short time to go from some of the wildest places in the country to a concrete jungle.”

The Border Patrol applied for and won a coveted spot this month for the mustangs in Barack Obama’s inaugural parade in January. The agents had planned to apply to appear in the parade no matter who won the election, they said, as a chance to show off a program that saves money, works well and preserves a piece of American heritage.

The mustangs are quite apolitical. Feed them twice a day and they’ll do about anything the patrol agents ask, whether it’s hugging a mountain trail or prancing down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Two years ago, Pinkerton and Dick Graham, patrol agent in charge of the Oroville station, were discussing what kind of horses the agency should buy to increase its horse patrols. All of the horses were from domestic stock at the time, and many were leased under contract.

“We said, ‘What breed best suits what we do?’ ” Graham recalled. They talked about Appaloosas, because that breed originated on the Palouse, which is part of the district. But they were expensive.

Then they considered the mustangs in BLM’s adopt-a-horse program. They were more affordable, at $125 to the BLM and $900 for the training, compared to about $3,000 for a domestically raised horse at the time. The mustangs also were rugged, with big bones and heavy feet, Graham said.

Joe McCraw, a senior patrol agent and wrangler at the Border Patrol’s Colville station, recalls his reaction when Pinkerton first suggested the mustangs.

“I thought he was crazy,” McCraw said this week while sitting atop a buckskin mustang named Zeus. He thought they might be wild and unpredictable. But after two years of working and riding them on rough terrain, he’s sold on mustangs for patrol work.

This week the wranglers and other agents are putting the agency’s 16 mustangs through simple formation drills and practicing around strange vehicles with unfamiliar noises, as part of the process to pick the best eight for the inaugural celebration. The other eight will return to their patrol stations for their regular day jobs.

Some of the mustangs have marched in parades in Spokane and around the Northwest, and at last spring’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago. But others will make their show business debut on one of the biggest stages available.

On Tuesday the mustangs and riders worked with a tracked all-terrain vehicle they’d never seen before, but may encounter in the woods in the winter. It’s unlikely that type of ATV will be in Washington, D.C., but the engine sounds much like a motorcycle, and the agents know there will be Harley-Davidsons in the parade.

Agents will also ride them in formation on the streets of Colville, and probably will take the horses to schools and day-care centers, to let them see children, and the children see and pet them.

Pinkerton jokes that the mustangs are more like pets than work horses. Ride a domesticated horse all day and take off its saddle, it will likely run away, glad to be shed of you; do the same with one of their mustangs and it will hang around and wait for you, he said.

While the Border Patrol mounts were put through their paces Tuesday, Jerry Cox, the owner of Mountain House Stables where the Colville horses are housed, was working a BLM mustang mare just a week out of captivity. It was her first day with a rider in the saddle, but she was so calm that Pinkerton predicted: “Another week, she’ll be following you around like a dog.”

The parade unit will make a seven-day trip by trailer to Washington, D.C., about two weeks before the parade. The mustangs will get two days of rest, Danielle Suarez, a Border Patrol public information officer said, then start practicing their parade routine with the agency’s other units, which include bagpipers and drummers.

The routine won’t be anything elaborate, Pinkerton said. Just a chance to show the public a horse that many have heard of but few have seen, and let them know a little about the job those horses and their riders do.

“These are truly American legends,” he said. “What can be better than having an American legend protecting Americans?”

Staff writer Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or by e-mail at

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