Mustang. The word brings Spanish wild horses to the imagination and sweeping desert landscapes shaped by the wind. Mustang. Two hard syllables that evoke images of the west as few others can.
Want a mustang of your own? Maybe named “Diamond,” or “Pepper”? These, in fact, are the names of two adopted wild mustangs kept in Spokane.
“Next to having a baby, adopting (Diamond) was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had,” said Rachael Grafmiller, of Medical Lake. “He’s extremely affectionate, stubborn as a mule, but very loyal.”
This weekend, for the first time in five years, the Bureau of Land Management is in town with about 40 horses. The bureau aims to find good homes for them through their Wild Horse Adoption at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center at the weekend-long Ride the West horse expo.
For new owners of these spirited horses, BLM will provide tips for gentling the animals through two horse demonstrations by California native Lesley Neuman.
When Grafmiller first saw Diamond, a buttermilk buckskin yearling in the very last pen at the April 2000 Spokane Wild Horse Adoption, she knew he was for her.
“My mare was getting older and I’d always heard of the adoption. I only had about $300 saved up at the time. I was curious more than anything,” she said. “But then his head rose from the alfalfa and he peered at me with large curious eyes. It was love at first sight.”
Rick McComas, Natural Resource Specialist for BLM, said that half of the horses available for adoption this weekend are yearlings. “The other half will be 2- and 3-year-olds. There are a variety of colors,” he said.
BLM is mandated by Congress to maintain public land as a thriving ecosystem, McComas explained. This job of managing for multiple animal use culminates in two or three satellite horse adoptions in Washington state each year.
“The public lands can sustain only so many animals,” he said. “Wild horses reproduce at 20 percent a year, so in just four years their numbers double.”
And with 2,300 such wild horses in Oregon, and 37,000 in all the western states combined, there are a lot of horses that need homes.
“When the population level begins to exceed the carrying capacity of the range, then those animals need to be removed,” he said.
“These horses (all from Oregon) have had all their shots, have been wormed, and had their hooves trimmed,” he said. “People find they are sure-footed, strong, intelligent and good for trail riding. They also become very attached to the person who works with them.”
McComas expects many of this weekend’s adopters to be repeat customers like four-time adopters Bob and Lea Williams.
“We adopted two in ‘96 – one in the spring of the year, a mare with foal, and one in October,” he said. The second horse was a real catch, a 10-month-old from the Kiger Herd.
“Horses from that herd are special. They are traced back to the original Spanish horses from centuries ago,” said Williams. “This small group of horses lived on a couple of different mountains in Oregon. When people discovered what they were, they became very interested.”
The year 1996 was the last year Kiger horses were still sold for the minimum bid of $125, Williams explained. But the purchase price today is still low.
“Most animals will be adopted for less than $200,” McComas said. “Bidding (still) starts at $125.”
“Getting horses this time of the year, people will have all summer to work with them,” said Williams. “By the time Pepper was 3, I was riding all over the place on him. When he was 5, my wife used him as a training horse to teach children to ride. He’s that gentle now.”
Pepper is not only gentle, he’s the winner of several Washington State Horseman Open Show awards.
“He’s won first place in the Showmanship and Western Pleasure categories,” said Williams.
This weekend Williams and his wife Lea are volunteering their time and expertise to new wild horse adopters.
“We’ll be at the fairgrounds. If people have any questions about their new horses, we’ll be glad to help,” he said.
Williams has years of horse experience to share. “I’ve been around horses since I was 2. By the time I was 9, I was breaking Shetland ponies for a neighbor,” he said.
And new owners may need help. Both Williams and Grafmiller admit their horses were truly wild animals when they were adopted.
“These horses are a different kind of animal than a purebred horse,” said Grafmiller. “They’ve been bred by the wild to be strong-willed. They have an independent spirit. You can’t break them by being mean. They respond to love, not to fear.”
Grafmiller trained Diamond by using the horse whisperer techniques. “I used the horse’s body language to talk to him,” she said. And fresh alfalfa.
McComas agreed that these horses are generally afraid. But Lesley Neuman offers help to new adopters.
“Lesley will lead two training demonstrations,” said McComas. “She’ll talk about how to begin working with a horse when people first take it home. She’ll share some techniques. She has a gradual training approach.”
And a gift.
Neuman, a graphic designer by day, said it takes about an hour and a half for horses to trust her. “Then I begin to touch a wild animal,” she said. “It’s about the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.”
Neuman said she has to change who she is “and how I think to relate to that animal. It’s almost like talking to someone who is deaf and doesn’t read lips. How do you communicate with that person?”
Body language is the key.
“If you just move slowly, and listen to the horse, he’ll start to show you how he wants to be with you,” Neuman said. “Maybe he’ll start making smaller circles around you.”
“At first it’s like taking a deer and putting it in a garage and trying to catch it,” she said.
But she believes a wild horse is well worth the trouble.
“These horses are awesome. They are real horses,” she said. “These horses don’t even have to be shoed. They are incredible hearty animals.”
Neuman explained that although mustangs are protected under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, that protection only goes so far.
“Horses not adopted after three adoptions can be sold for any reason,” she said. “The protection runs out.”
McComas said that perspective adopters must be qualified to take care of their new animal.
“They must have adequate facilities and be willing to provide all of the horses needs,” he said. “People will be required to sign a legal document.”
During the wild horse’s first year at its new home, it still belongs to BLM.
“It can’t be sold, traded, or given away,” said McComas. “After one year a person can apply for title.”
BLM sends a qualified official to certify the facility and the condition of the animal during this year.
“Once certified, BLM will issue a certificate of ownership,” he added.
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