CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On a snowy winter day, Kathi Wilson was riding her mustang, Snickers, in Vedauwoo recreation area when the horse moseyed off the road into the dirt.
Wilson was puzzled by Snickers’ unscheduled detour until she saw that he was avoiding a patch of ice hidden underneath the snow on the roadbed.
“My domestic horse wouldn’t have done that,” said Wilson, who ranches north of Cheyenne. “When I’m out on the trail, I want to be on him.”
Wilson is one of hundreds of people who have bought mustangs through the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse adoption plan.
Each year, BLM officials round up thousands of wild horses in Wyoming, put some of them through a training program, then auction them off to the public for as little as $125. An auction takes place Saturday here in the state capital.
The word “mustang” often brings to mind images of snorting, broncin’ bucks that can only be mounted by foolhardy cowboys.
But most wild horses, when caught, are just scared of humans. They are often gentle, and the main goal in training them is for them simply not to run away when someone approaches them, said Jeff Martin, wild horse supervisor at the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.
“They view us as predators and think we’re going to eat them, so the whole herd will run in the corner and you can’t get within 50 yards of them,” Martin said.
But with constant, patient interaction with the horses, Martin said, in a few weeks most come to view their owner as their herd leader, who will guide them and keep them out of harm’s way.
“Some of these horses bond with you really, really, really strong,” Martin said.
Mustangs, having grown up in the wild, are much more aware of their surroundings than domestic horses. They notice the terrain where they walk, and they can spot animals from hundreds of yards away.
Wilson adopted Snickers, who was caught in northwestern Nevada, five years ago. Three years ago, she sold him, but a year later she bought him back.
“They’re wonderful, wonderful horses,” said Wilson, adding that she’s considering adopting another horse.
Buying a BLM mustang isn’t as simple as writing a check at the auction site. Adopters or their parents must be 18, have no prior conviction for inhumane treatment of animals, and must prove that they have adequate water, feed and facilities for the horse. There are minimum standards for enclosures and fencing. In most cases, each buyer is limited to purchasing four horses.
Only after caring for a horse for a year — which can cost upward of $1,000 — can the owner receive a title of ownership from the federal government.
Wilson said people also have to spend time with their adopted horses to build trust.
“They’re not going to get calm all by themselves sitting in a pen,” she said. “They also look to you to be a good leader, so if you’re a good leader, then they learn to trust what you’re asking them to do.”
Saturday’s auction will be held at the Riata Ranch east of Cheyenne starting at 10:30 a.m. In addition, other wild horse auctions are held throughout the spring and summer around Wyoming, including in June at the Mantle Ranch in Wheatland and in May and August at the Honor Farm in Riverton.