By Casie Bazay
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, prohibiting private capture or killing of these animals. But not long after, when it became apparent overpopulation was posing a problem, an amendment was added allowing for roundup and adoption of “surplus” animals. The act has since been amended three additional times.
In the beginning, the adoption program was successful, but, today, adoptions have slowed and wild horse overpopulation and welfare has become an increasingly urgent and divisive issue among many Americans.
However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is seeking long-term solutions. As it stands, Oklahoma happens to play a crucial role in the management of our country’s wild horses. Our native grasslands are home to 24 off-range pastures—more than any other state—housing over 26,000 wild horses and burros. Oklahoma also happens to have one of only four public BLM pastures nationwide.
Mowdy Ranch, located near the town of Coalgate in southeastern Oklahoma, didn’t start out as a wild horse sanctuary. Clay Mowdy’s great-grandfather came to Oklahoma in the 1880s and soon married a member of the Choctaw Nation (Mowdy’s great-grandmother) The couple settled onto her 4,000-acre allotment. Run as a traditional cattle ranch for over a century, Mowdy and his family decided to venture in a different direction a few years ago.
“Running cattle had its ups and downs, and we were interested in trying something different,” said Mowdy. “We already had a lodge and a set of corrals, so in 2012, we put in a bid for a contract to become a BLM tourism ranch.”
Mowdy Ranch is currently home to 400 wild mares, as the BLM prefers to keep the sexes separated. And while some might think the wild horses are left to fend for themselves, this isn’t completely true. Though veterinary intervention is prohibited, Mowdy rolls out three to four round bales and feeds 640 pounds of cubes from the ground each day.
Per an agreement with the BLM, the ranch also hosts two adoption events each year, in June and October. Approximately 30 new horses, including 10 to 15 yearlings, are shipped in specifically for these events, and last year, Mowdy Ranch successfully adopted out 83 horses.
As stated previously, Mowdy Ranch differs from other off-range pastures in that it’s open to the public year-round.
“Traditionally, ranches are ‘holding facilities’ and not open to the public,” said Mowdy. “But taxpayers are basically paying for the care of these horses and want to see them.”
Visitors can stay at the ranch’s lodge, which has four individual rooms, two big bunk house rooms suitable for groups, a game room, pub, and central grand room. Polaris Ranger tours are available along with hiking and fishing.
“Our biggest demographic is women, and we also get a lot of photographers,” said Mowdy, who’s admittedly grown to really enjoy caring for the wild horses. “When we first talked about doing this, I thought, ‘Who’s going to come to see horses?’”
But that hasn’t been an issue.
“A couple thousand people come to the ranch each year,” said Mowdy. “It’s really an economic boost to the town.”
A small but steady number of Oklahomans have also become interested in adopting wild horses and burros to gentle and use for riding or companion purposes. The BLM regularly hosts online adoption events, and on-site adoptions take place the second Tuesday of each month at a facility in Pauls Valley in south-central Oklahoma. According to the BLM, Oklahomans have adopted a total of 821 wild horses and burros in the last five years.
Dr. Lori Freije, a small animal veterinarian based in Tulsa, had her first introduction to horses in veterinary school during her mandatory equine rotation, and though she was terrified of them at first, that experience changed her perspective. Freije decided she would have a horse of her own one day. After hearing about BLM adoptions from another veterinarian, Freije opted for an internet adoption in 2013, bringing home a yearling mustang filly she named Mirabelle.
“I’ve always focused on rescue animals, so I have no interest in owning a full breed anything,” said Freije. “But I also wanted to own a piece of the West and to have a companion.”
Unlike most mustangs, Mirabelle had been gentled at the facility she’d previously been housed at (Mantle Ranch in Wyoming) and came somewhat tame. For that first year, Lori and Mirabelle got to know each other and laid groundwork. Then she sent Mirabelle to well-known trainer Zeke Zacharias in Pryor to be started under saddle. Since Freije herself had virtually no riding experience, she also took lessons from Karen Davis who now runs Lazy D Ranch in Sapulpa. When Mirabelle was ready, Lori switched to taking lessons on her.
These days, Lori and Mirabelle’s favorite thing to do is hit the trails.
“On organized trail rides, people see Mirabelle’s freeze brand and always ask about her,” said Freije. “They’re surprised by how well-behaved she is. I always wonder, ‘Why wouldn’t she be well-behaved?!’”
Several years after Mirabelle’s adoption, Freije decided to adopt a wild burro whom she named Felipe, which means “friend of horses.”
“There are so many burros that need homes, too, and I wanted Mirabelle to have a companion,” said Freije.
Freije also expressed hopes of having Felipe join her and Mirabelle and tag along on trail rides one day.
Inspired by Freije’s experience, Karen Davis adopted two mustangs.
“At the time, I had recently lost two horses,” said Davis. “But I found a mustang online that seemed to be a combination of them both. She had skin tags, and no one wanted to adopt her. So, I got her for $125. A few months later, I bid on a second mare.”
Davis explained that her mares, Millie and Talulah, are different as can be. At 15’2 hands, Millie appears to have some draft bloodlines and is quite calm. She’s also much more trusting—it only took a week to get a halter on her. Talulah, on the other hand, is small (14 hands) and suspicious of humans. It took six months to halter her.
Millie and Talulah have been with Karen for three years now, and though they’re both gentled, neither has been started under saddle yet.
“Money has been an issue, so I haven’t been able to send them to a trainer,” said Davis. “But I don’t sell any of my horses. They’re with me for life.”
With wild horse adoption, there’s an obvious need for experienced and capable trainers, and, fortunately, several Oklahomans have risen to meet the challenge. One such trainer is Josi Worley of Talahina.
Several years ago, Worley came across a magazine article about the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP)—created by the Mustang Heritage Foundation and aiming to bridge the gap between potential adopters and American mustangs—and decided to give it a try. She hasn’t looked back since. In fact, Worley no longer works with domesticated horses at all—only mustangs. She typically takes in eight horses at a time and trains them in pairs since they seem to be more comfortable that way.
“I go to BLM holding facilities and pick horses for their temperament and conformation,” said Worley. “Sometimes, I have a wish list from potential buyers and will try to find what they’re looking for though.”
Worley has become such a fan of the wild horses that all of her personal horses are now mustangs, which she and her family use for mountain and trail riding as well as working cattle.
“They have such a good work ethic, they’re hardy animals, and they can outwork a domesticated horse any day of the week,” said Worley. “They also have great feet and usually don’t need to be shod.”
Worley explained the biggest difference between training mustangs and domesticated horses is that the mustangs are extremely fast learners and retain information consistently.
“Where it might take a week to teach a domesticated horse to pick up its feet, a mustang usually gives you their feet on the second or third try,” said Worley. “If you show them you’re trustworthy, it’s like a light comes on.”
When asked about advice for others interested in adopting or working with mustangs, Worley said to start with the right facilities. “You need those 6-foot fences for a reason. And don’t go in without an understanding of horse behavior,” she said.
Worley recommends reading Monty Roberts’ books and learning about his methods of working with wild horses but summed up what many who have experience with mustangs have stated: “The best thing about a mustang is the bond you form with them.”
To learn more about wild horse or burro adoption, please visit https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro.