I guess I had to write about it at some point. What spurred me was reading a letter to the editor in The Horse (a veterinary based horse magazine). The author advocated that the US mustangs should be left alone, untouched and unbothered, and this would solve the current "mustang problem." I have read countless letters to the same tune. Many cite their recent trips to the desert, saying how lush it is and how those "damn cattle ranchers" are ruining it all.
Let me start out by saying that I have a background in animal sciences, which is basically production agriculture. I don't necessarily agree with everything involved in this, and nor do I fully support everything the BLM does every time it does something, but I do believe that our public lands should be managed for the use of all. This includes grazing licenses, wild horses, other wildlife, hikers, bikers, and campers. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of acres available for grazing animals. However, this does not mean that letting mustangs run free without any sort of population control is really a viable option for maintaining this land. I say from experience that horses are extremely destructive to land. In the arid west, it takes something along the lines of 30 acres to feed one pregnant range cow. I would imagine that it takes at least this much to feed one pregnant mustang. (This, among other things, is why it makes more sense to raise cattle on the fertile prairie, where you can feed 3 cows per acre.) Even if all cattle grazing were banned on public lands, there still would not be enough grazing for an unchecked wild horse population. Sage's herd was gathered five years ago, and the population was halved. When gathered again this year, the population was back to what it was five years ago. Adult mustangs have basically no natural predators, and horses are prolific breeders. This means that most mares foal each year, and mares can foal well into their 20's.
I've also heard a lot of talk about the stresses of round ups. While I don't deny that running them with a helicopter and shoving a bunch of mustangs into a trailer raises cortisol levels significantly, I think to help the horses sometimes you have to stress them out a bit. That said, maybe there are better ways to coordinate round ups, but that's a whole different post. Yes, it is stressful to get vaccinated, castrated, put into pens, etc. Yes, I don't deny this. However, using a chute system and treating these horses relatively like range cattle is pretty much the only way to get things done. When you come face to face with an animal willing to fling himself at a seven foot fence, you see that squeeze chutes are quite a humane way to deal with mustangs. I am confident that if Sage had not been chuted into a trailer, her experience would have been a good deal more stressful.
So you can see that I don't disagree with the fact that the initial round up and segregation is a bit hair raising. But the lasting effects? I'm not sure they are so bad, or that they even exist. I can't speak for any other facilities, but the people I saw in Burns were experienced horse handlers. They fed excellent quality hay, water was always available, and once the horses were segregated into their groups, they were not messed with unless they had some problem. In fact, while Patrick and I were there, they separated colts who appeared to be having swelling issues post-castration, and while Sage's herd was brought closer to me for viewing, the wranglers noticed a sick horse and brought her in for observation. In reality, once the horses are in their new herds at the corrals, things calm down pretty fast. The horses are kept in accordance with the standard of care for horses in that area. Actually, what I think is more stressful than anything is trucking these horses to adoption events, but that's a whole other story as well.
Back to the lasting effects...Once again, I can't speak for every horse out there, but I can guarantee you that Sage is in no way traumatized by anything that has happened to her. In veterinary medicine, we are often in situations where we stress horses out a lot. But I think they have a natural tolerance and bounce back quite quickly. I'm not saying to deliberately go and torment horses, but think on this: Sage is not terrified of helicopters (they fly over us all the time), scared of people any more than she should be, extremely scared of gates and ropes, or otherwise any more affected than any horse would be who moved to a new area. She has actually settled in faster than any new horse we've ever had.
I know there are problems. Obviously, there are problems. I know that not everyone can adopt a mustang, and I know that bad things do happen to some mustangs. But the BLM has a lot on its hands. I think there does need to be intervention. I know there's a lot of complicated reproductive physiology compounding the situation, but I think things do need to be done: e.g., "consolidating" HMA's so there are fewer with more horses in each. I don't have all the answers; no one does. But sitting back and letting the horses go is not the solution. It's going to take a little bit of work, a lot of thought, and some ingenuity...and a little bit of working together from everyone!