Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mustangs of the Sandwash Basin

The Sandwash Basin is the current home to approximately 380 wild mustangs, but that will change on October 17, 2008. Located in the northwestern corner of Colorado, just above the town of Maybell, this expansive terrain has been the home to the Little Snake Herd Management Area for almost 30 years. On the 17th ,the Bureau of Land Management will begin a ten day period of gathering this herd.

As part of their management program, the BLM determines the Appropriate Management Level, i.e., acceptable number of animals, for each herd. When the herd has reproduced above that level, the BLM gathers the herd, sorts the mustangs by sex and age, inoculates the horses and sometimes, as is the case with this herd, injects the mares with PZP, a contraceptive that lasts for 2 years. Afterwards, a certain number of animals deemed appropriate for the health of the range are released back on to the Herd Management Area.

All of the 360 horses in the Sandwash Basin will be gathered; 160 mustangs will be released after vetting, and 160 will be retained and trucked to Canon City for gentling by prison inmates, and then placed in an adoption program. The problem is that there are currently over 33,000 mustangs held in adoption holding pens across the United States. Horses are not in demand as work animals as they once were. In this day and time, it is a luxury to own a horse, not a necessity.

The BLM conducts the gathers by running the mustangs into a trap with a helicopter. Unfortunately, as the horses are gathered, their family units, or “bands” as they are called, are separated. During the culling process, there is no telling which mustangs were together in a band, and so their social order as they knew it is permanently dismembered.

Such are the problems we are dealing with in managing our mustangs. There are a huge number of mustangs whose only chance for a life outside of a holding facility is through adoption. There will be an on-site adoption auction for approximately 20 of the mustangs gathered from the Sandwash Basin in Craig, Colorado after the gather is complete.

These are beautiful animals. I have spent time on the Basin photographing and writing about them. An album of photographs of the Mustangs of the Sandwash Basin is posted on this site. If you know of anyone who is looking for a horse to buy, please ask them to consider the mustangs held in the BLM Adoption Facility in Canon City, Colorado, or any other adoption facility located across the United States.

For more information on the adoption of the mustangs of the Sandwash Basin to be held on Saturday, October 25, 2008 after the gather, please call the BLM Little Snake Field Office located in Craig, Colorado: 970/826-5000.

For more information on the BLM Canon City adoption facility, please call: 719/269-8500.

For more information on the BLM program and adoption facilities located across the U.S., please go to the BLM website: www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov

Mark Lyon and Christian

During the Extreme Mustang Makeover, the competitions leading up to the finals are lengthy and extensive. As I watched the semi-finals of the Legends class of trainers and mustangs, I was spell-bound by the performances. So much talent in these animals, and buckets of hard work by their trainers!

There was one pair in particular that I was drawn to: Mark Lyon and Christian. They were so connected. Mark cracked a bull whip over his head, and shot balloons off of cones with a pistol while Christian kept his loping gait steady and smooth. But also what attracted me was Mark’s style. His handle bar mustache, straw hat held tight by a chin strap, brightly checked shirt and red boots made me smile. Not only was he an exceptional trainer, but he was having a good time!

After his run, I caught up with Mark in the barn, and we had a conversation. I asked him what it was like to train this mustang, and this was his reply: “Well, at first, we called him the Devil Horse because he was so aggressive, scared, and worried about things. Everything he did was BIG. He climbed up on my saddle horse and tried to bite him. Mustangs are bred to be agile and quick to run away from prey, but that means they’re also agile and quick enough to buck you off! After the first two weeks, things changed, and that’s when we changed his name to Christian.”

“Once I gained his trust, he was a different animal. He’s very athletic and tries so hard. As our training progressed, I realized what an exceptional horse he was. It’s like when you find a diamond in the rough. You don’t know what you’ve got until you knock the dirt off of it, and then you discover it’s the Hope Diamond! My plan was not to keep him. My goal was to be as tough and competitive as I could be and sell him. I thought he was a 6 or a 7; he turned out to be an 11!”

“What do you think of the Extreme Mustang Makeover program?” I asked. “I think it’s great.” He replied. “This program allows people that want a mustang to have one without it trying to kill them! Most people don’t have the strength and the knowledge to be able to gentle these mustangs. Once an experienced trainer has put some hours on these horses, the success rate of adoption by the general public goes much higher.”

When asked what he thought of the mustang in comparison to other breeds of horses, Mark said, “They’re everything we like about a horse. They come from all different climates and geographical areas; they’re hardier and more adaptable than other breeds, and they don’t colic as easily. They’re tough and persistent. If Christian got mired in the mud, he would try really hard to free himself, where other domesticated horses would just give up.”

Mark and Christian went on to win the Legends competition in the finals. Their performance in this event was breathtaking. Mark and Christian started with a beautifully choreographed dance using a Garrocha, which is a fourteen foot long wooden pole used by Spanish vaqueros to sort, prod and herd cattle. Then they escalated to spins, sliding stops, and shooting balloons at top speed. At one point, Mark’s saddle slipped to the side, and he fell off! A tribute to Mark’s training, Christian stood absolutely still as Mark quickly righted his saddle, finished their routine by walking through a hoop of fire on a teeter totter, and won! I was swooning!

After much contemplation, Mark decided he should let Christian go at the auction. “It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.”, Mark said. He was pleased when Christian was sold for $4,000 to a much respected trainer and one of the judges for the competitions, John Lyons. To his surprise, John Lyons gave Christian back to him and told Mark that he needed to continue to train this horse and enter the Road to the Horse competition in March of 2009. John said he and Christian should stay together, and that if Mark wanted to keep him, they would work something out.

You can go to Mark’s website, www.marklyonhorsetraining.com, and watch his winning performance at the Extreme Mustang Makeover, (I get excited all over again when I watch it!).

The Extreme Mustang Makeover

The Extreme Mustang Makeover takes place every September in Ft. Worth, Texas, where one hundred horse trainers from all over the United States volunteer to take on a wild mustang and train it for one hundred days. I had the pleasure of attending this year’s event, and I can’t remember the last time I have been in such good company. As I walked around the barn interviewing trainers about their experiences in working with the mustangs, I was humbled by the love and devotion these hard working folk felt for their animal.

Only three months and ten days after being introduced, the trainers and their mustangs congregate at the Will Rogers Memorial Center to compete and show what they have been able to teach this animal that had never been handled before. After the competition, there is an auction to sell the gentled mustangs, and all of the proceeds go back into the program. The trainers receive $500 and a wild mustang; all other expenses, and the time spent to train the mustang come out of their own hip pocket, and the goodness of their hearts. Many of them had hopes of buying their mustang back through the auction and returning home together. Most could not afford to do this.

There were three levels of competitors, the stars, idols and legends. Depending on the level of competition, the trainers led their mustang through a routine of required movements, such as walking, trotting, cantering, stopping and backing up. Many trainers had taught their mustang to lie down, bow, spin, and gallop across the arena doing flying lead changes and other fancy maneuvers.

In addition to the one hundred trainers taking on a mustang to train, another one hundred youth volunteered to take a mustang yearling to gentle and put up for adoption. Again, I was taken by the courage and love of horses these children possessed, and the boundless support their families had devoted to this cause.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation, www.mustangheritagefoundation.org , sponsors this event every year with the intention of raising awareness about wild mustangs and encouraging adoption. It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management to care of the herds of wild mustangs that live in remote areas of fourteen states. As part of their management program, the BLM conducts gathers, taking a percentage of the herds every year. If the gathered mustangs are not adopted, they are shipped to holding facilities where they spend the rest of their lives. Currently, there are over 33,000 mustangs standing in holding facilities across the United States.

I will be posting the stories of the trainers and young people I had the pleasure of interviewing. This first of which is with Mark Lyons and his mustang, Christian, the winners of the Legends Class Finals! Don’t miss this one!

To view a collage of photographs from this wonderful event,
click here.