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Live Free, Die Free - A Wild Mustang's Story

Updated: Mar 20

I adopted my first mustang June 2023. His name is Ryder and he lives here at our farm with my quarter horse, Tango. Though he is my very first mustang horse I have ever adopted, the wild mustangs of the west had already been living in my mind and heart since I was a child. I set a goal that one day I would adopt a former wild mustang and when I lost my horse Penny in April 2023 I knew that the door had been opened for that horse to come right on in.

When I decided to adopt a mustang I discovered that the Online Auction, the Online Corral for BLM (Bureau of Land Management) had already been closed for the closest Northeast pick up location and the adoption options for the New Hampshire event had already concluded. I was bummed but still determined so I called my friend Nikki to let her know what I had decided. I had watched a few documentaries the night before and was overwhelmed with determination. I called Nikki while I was in the car on my way to the grain store. While on the phone with her she told me about a local horse trainer that she knew that had adopted a mustang from the New Hampshire event in April and was gentleing him. As far as she knew, he had not been adopted yet. I lunged at the chance to connect with the trainer and inquire about her mustang. His name was Bear at the time and was just at the point of accepting a halter and being brushed. I made a date to meet both the trainer and Bear and the connection was almost instant. It took weeks of visiting Bear at the trainers facility and learning about him and his progress with being gentled. The trainer was participating in the "T.I.P." training incentive through the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the requirements for adoption was specific and measurable. He needed to be able to accept a halter, be lead by a halter and lead rope, pick up all 4 feet and safely be loaded and unloaded in a horse trailer. "Bear", now known as Ryder, seemed like a quick and easy study and his official adoption was accepted and he came home in a short couple of weeks on June 30, 2023. (for more information on Ryder please read his bio)


Out of The Wild

Even though Ryder's story sounds like a perfect tale of a successful adoption and future for him, it is not always the case for the Mustang. Ryder used to be FREE. He was wild caught from the Warm Springs Oregon HMA and from the day he was gathered from the range it was the last day he would ever truly be FREE again. He shares a story with an overwhelming 20,000 + wild horses, mules and burros that are captured by the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service EACH YEAR!

"As of January 2023, there were about 50,000 wild horses and burros in captivity, while 90,000 roam the range. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the horses and burros in holding pastures and corrals. The BLM estimates that 2,000 horses and burros are adopted each year, while the rest go to off-range holding ranches." The high cost of caring for the horses, which includes feed and maintaining their corrals, costs taxpayers around $100 million per year.

Pictured above is an Off Range Holding Facility. It is known that more than 46,000 formerly wild mustangs are being held in what are called "Long Term Holding Facilities" where older, unadoptable, returned or Sale Authority horses are kept.

The method for capturing these wild horses are:

Bait Trapping. A temporary corral is set up with bait for wild horses, such as hay. The corral may be set up in stages over a period of days to allow the horses to grow accustomed to it. When a certain number of horses enter the pen, the gate to the corral can be closed, confining the horses.

Helicopter Gathers. Helicopter gathers are an effective tool for gathering large numbers of horses and may still be used if not enough horses are captured through the bait-trapping. They are herded from a small helicopter and chased or pushed along a path to a trap area. Riders are usually present to help push horses, rope young ones or help guide a running herd into the trap.


Into Captivity

Wild caught. Torn from their family bands. Pushed into exhaustion and despair as they are literally running scared for their lives. Some horses are injured during the gather and sustain broken legs and serious life threatening wounds. Yearling colts and fillies struggling to keep up with the bigger stronger horses get separated from their mom in the chaos. Stallions that were once living in different bands are forced together into close proximity of each other causing fights and other power struggles as they attempt to keep their harems intact and safe from predators. Many will attempt to jump the high fencing to flee, others will evade the trap and circle around the area in utter confusion as to how to be reunited with their herd. The herd will be moved into the trap and the fencing will be closed behind them. Their large bodies thrashing against each other and the fence in one last desperate attempt to survive.

It is a total disruption of their natural existence.

The dust kicked up in the air whirls around in a desperate display of fear and confusion. Despite how tired, injured or scared they are, rest and peace is no longer within reach. Their lives are forever altered. The life on the open land will never be theirs again. The will never truly be FREE.

I will admit I have never witnessed these gathers in person. I have only watched from recordings from observers who sit miles away from the trap area and record from long range lenses. The images are all the same. The images are hard to watch and the desperation of the horse is overwhelmingly present in all of the photos and videos. These are wild animals. They have never been touched by humans. They have never been handfed, haltered or ridden. They are wild animals and a product of 55 million years of evolution here on this planet. In a single day, their entire evolutionary path is altered and their freedom is taken away.

Their journey into captivity does not end at the trap site. After the horses are chased into the trap site, they are pushed through tiny passageways between the panels toward the loading area, where they are then moved into trailers. The horses are moved by personnel aggressively waving plastic bags on long sticks, which scares the horses to go in the opposite direction. The trailers then haul the horses to a temporary holding facility for sorting. The travel can be extremely bumpy on rocking dirt paths. Older and young horses must struggle to stand up on flooring and moving ground they have never experienced before. Falling over in a crowded trailer with terrified horses can be certain death, especially for the young or injured. This is just part of their process into captivity.



Holding Facilities are just temporary stepping stones that each captured horse must pass through. They are sorted based on age and sex. Efforts are made to keep nursing foals with their mares but sometimes foals are left behind on the range unable to keep up with the frenzy of stronger faster horses. Injured horses are treated or euthanized. Stallions are gelded. Some mares are treated with a fertility treatment and released back into the wild. They are all given a freeze brand assigned with a number. These numbers relate to where they were captured, their age and their 4 digit id. They are inventoried, photographed and videoed and kept in their holding facility until a Internet Auction, in person event or off site adoption event is hosted.

It is true that these horses are fed, offered clean water, treatments, hoof trims and more. Some are transferred to more permanent holding facilities known as Long Term Holding. Others are moved to private facilities.

Each day, each night, they will remain confined to a fenced in area where they can eat, drink, and sleep. They are safe. They are not FREE.



In 2021 it was reported that over 8,600 formerly wild mustangs were adopted. The adoption requirements are reasonable.

Minimum requirements to adopt a wild horse or burro.

1) Applicant must be at least 18 years old.

2) Adopted animal must remain in the United States until titled. (Eligibility occurs on its 1 year anniversary.)

3) Applicant has no convictions of inhumane treatment of animals or violation of the Wild Free – Roaming Horses & Burros Act.

4) Applicant must provide a facility with access to feed, water, and shelter. NOTE: Facility refers to enclosed area such as corral, barn, stall, etc. Approval is not based on pasture fence height, but the height of the enclosed area.

5) Basic facility requirements are: • Minimum of 400 sq. feet of corral space per animal, i.e. 20’ X 20’ • Suitable materials: pipe panels, wood post, planks (min. 1.5” thick), horse fence (V Mesh or 2” X 4” square) • 5’ High facility for yearling or gentled horse of any age • 6’ High facility for an ungentled horse two years or older • 4.5’ High facility for a burro of any age • Applicant is required to adhere to the shelter requirements for wild horses and burros based on the state or region in which the animal resides, unless otherwise stipulated by the authorized officer

6) Applicant must provide a stock or horse trailer with a rear swing gate and covered top. Provided the dividers are removed or folded back, three-horse slant trailers are acceptable. Drop-ramps are acceptable if there is an additional back gate to the trailer. Two-horse trailers approved on case-bycase basis. No one-horse trailers approved.

Download PDF • 156KB

This all sounds reasonable, however, not always adhered to. All too often you see photos of mustangs being kept in unapproved fencing, put out to pasture prior to being gentled or adopted with the intent to sell.

As long as the horse is being well cared for, who cares right?

"When a wild horse or burro is adopted from the BLM, it remains the property of the BLM for a minimum of one year, during which time periodic inspections occur to ensure the animal is being properly cared for. Adopters who have not yet fulfilled the requirements to receive official title to their adopted animals – which conveys private ownership – may not sell or otherwise transfer the animals. "

I attended an Online Auction with the BLM and was preapproved to bid. I had several mustangs picked as my top priority for bids. I was outbid on one of the mustangs to a "rescue group" who intended ONLY to gentle and rehome the mustang. Let me stress that this one particular horse did not have an adopter lined up at this "rescue" but did in fact have a long term home with me, had I won the horse. Why a rescue would take away from a long term forever home will always baffle me. "Rescues" should be focused on Sale Authority horses or horses who do not have bids, in my opinion. These horses have been bounced around enough. Let's prevent the needless shuffling around with interim housing.

I was outbid by $5 on another mustang that was immediately offered for sale BEFORE THE HORSE WAS EVEN PICKED UP. I urged the woman to contact BLM immediately to forfeit her bid which would give me the opportunity to purchase him. She did not and who knows what will ever become of that gelding.

I have seen more than enough "swapping, selling and trading" of these poor mustangs on social media. I thought the quarter horse world was bad until I entered the social media world of BLM Mustangs.

Just today I read about an Ohio couple who had dozens of mustangs confiscated by authorities living in substandard living conditions, starving and in poor health.

"Bring a stock trailer and take one home!" The social media post from BLM states regarding the 80-100 animals that were once freely roaming open land. They are corralled from event to event and selling for $25-$125 to homes that are not visually inspected and vet references are not contacted. The SPCA does a better job for a cat in the shelter than the BLM does for a 1100 lb horse.

Not everyone has what it takes to gentle a mustang. Not every mustang wants to be gentled. This is not easy and can be very dangerous. Training methods in the horse world range from archaic techniques of pain and fear to gentle reward based methods and everything in between. There is no certification or qualification requirements for the damage that can be done to a vulnerable mustang horse in the hands of a bad trainer.

Nonetheless, is the mustang happier to be rehomed and domesticated versus in a stagnant feedlot?

I would guess, if I were to ask Ryder, my mustang, he would likely say he would rather be FREE.


The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 is a law that protects, manages, and studies unclaimed and unbranded horses and burros on public lands in the United States. President Richard Nixon signed the act into law on December 18, 1971, after Congress unanimously passed it in response to public outcry. The act has been amended by Congress four times, including the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangeland Improvement Act of 1978.

Download PDF • 36KB

Call it for what it was then and then try to explain it for what it is worth today.

"It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."

It's what is in the fine print that leaves this document open for interpretation and abuse.

The Bureau of Land Management will establish “Appropriate Management Levels” or AML's to help determine a healthy herd number of wild horses, wildlife and native species AND privately owned grazing livestock. The forage allocated for existing livestock grazing privileges in an HMA is subtracted from total forage availability to determine the amount available to wildlife and horses. An example of an “overpopulation” by BLM standards is in New Mexico where wild horses have federally-protected habitat on 28,000 acres of public land. The BLM sets a population of just 83 mustangs, and anything over that number is grounds for removal.

"All management activities shall be at the minimal feasible level and shall be carried out in consultation with the wildlife agency of the State wherein such lands are located in order to protect the natural ecological balance of all wildlife species which inhabit such lands, particularly endangered wildlife species. Any adjustments in forage allocations on any such lands shall take into consideration the needs of other wildlife species which inhabit such lands."

Conspiracy or not, it's not hard to come to a conclusion that grazing livestock have and will take priority over wild horses. In many documented wild horse gathers, you will often see wild horses being pushed off their native land while beef cattle or sheep can be seen grazing on the same open rangeland.


Follow the Money

I went down a rabbit hole a few months ago. During one of the January Online Auctions I bid and won a young gelding mustang. He will be coming to New Hampshire in April. I was curious where my mustang is being held so I looked it up. What I discovered was shocking.

Horses gathered from the Triple B HMA in Nevada in 2022 were being kept in a private off-site holding facility. Photos of the facility were hard to find since the private owner of the facility only permits access by members of the public 2 times per year and limits attendees to no more than 10 at a time. The horses are kept in a wide open arid desert area of Nevada with no shelter. Interesting that one of the requirements for ownership of a mustang is shelter and yet this private facility is not required to adhere to that rule. The facility is owned by a very large cattle rancher and his facility was built and designed to hold up to 7000 head of cattle. But there are no cattle within those fences. It's no surprise that his cattle are likely out grazing on the same open land those horses once were living on.

From May 2022: "CBS4 Investigates has found one reason for those roundups is due to private ranchers holding livestock permits on the same public lands where the wild horses are designated to roam free, and there aren't enough resources in those areas for the horses and livestock to coexist — causing the mustangs to lose out."

"The Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado is one of just a few designated wild horse herd areas in the state, where wild horses roam free. In 2021, nearly 700 horses were rounded up and removed from that land, and sent to holding facilities to live the remainder of their lives in captivity.

The BLM said at the time there weren't enough resources for the horses.

But just two months later, more than 2,000 domestic sheep were grazing on that same land. Public documents CBS4 obtained show the rancher who owns those sheep signed off on a report to the BLM that the sheep grazed throughout the month of November in a pasture where the wild horses are designated to roam."

I could provide dozens of more shocking details like how the guys flying the helicopters, the cowboys roping young colts, the truckers driving these wild horses to captivity are all being paid with our tax dollars and many of them have direct connections to the cattle industry. It's almost as if the cattle industry is double dipping and the wild horses are losing.



I recently saw a shaming post about how taking these wild horses off the land is saving their lives. Rare photos of sick, skinny or injured horses are projected on social media to sway you into believing that it is our responsibility to keep them alive, at all cost. The cost: THEIR FREEDOM.

Many of the videos and photos of the wild horses on the range show healthy, well fed horses. I find this example absurd.

Below is an example of a wild horse left alone to recover without human intervention.

Several years ago I noticed an injured owl. I notified my local police department and was told that there was nothing that could be done and that it would be a crime if I were to remove the wild bird. I was to let nature take its course. I retrieved the bird anyways and brought it to a sanctuary where it received treatment and was later released back into the wild.

I also came across an injured fawn in the middle of the road. Again, I was told by the local police not to touch the fawn and leave it where I found it. "Even in the middle of the street" I asked? I picked it up anyways and moved it off the road. It jumped back up and hobbled back into the road. Nature knows best and sometimes it's hard to understand.

The idea of gathering all of the infected and endangered Moose of the Northeast to save them from the "winter tick" seems unconscionable but without our intervention they may be extinct in our lifetime. I do not see any USDA or government entity jumping into the action to gather these rather large endangered moose to save them from the perils of mother nature.

Why do we feel the need to interfere constantly with our wild horses?

Why is it so hard for us to let them die free on the range?

How have we become so blind to the notion that our relationship with private livestock ranchers, special interest groups and government overreach is causing such insufferable pain to these horses?

How many horses living in captivity in temporary and long term holding facilities is too many?

Change is essential.

I would guess that if I were to ask my mustang Ryder, who lives on a 100 acre farm with everything and more that he could ever need to live a long, healthy and fulfilling life here, if he would rather live FREE in the wild or die in captivity, he would likely say he would want to be wild and FREE.

Death is inevitable. Life is so uncertain.


What is Freedom?

I can close my eyes and see the rolling hills defined by the earthly glow of the warm sun.

I can smell the sagebrush as I kick up the ground beneath me.

I can taste the fresh moving water of a mountain spring.

I can feel the warmth of the sun on my wide shoulders.

I can move my feet with infinite steps and surges of energy that compels me to move fast and nimble.

I can kick and jump like a dance to display my strength.

Fences do not confine me.

Your future does not define me.


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