Although horses originated in North America roughly 3.4 to 3.9 million years ago, they became extinct on this continent during the final stages of the Pleistocene epoch, some 7,600 years ago. Some, however, had survived the Ice Age by crossing the Bering land bridge to Asia. They became ancestors of Equus caballus, the original species of today’s horse. Early Spanish explorers, who reintroduced horses to North America, also brought with them a non-native ungulate species, cattle. Escaped horses—and those “liberated” by native Americans, especially the Comanche—drifted up through the American Great Plains, into cattle ranching lore, and into our hearts.

Wild Mustangs on the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, California. Photo by Ken Amorosano

But unlike the cattle industry, which fuels an American appetite for beef that shows no signs of ebbing, the horse’s utility has diminished with the advent of planes, trains, and automobiles. And although E. caballus meets the two key biological criteria—1.) Did it originate here? 2.) Did it coevolve with its habitat?—that biologists use to define species native to North America, most state and federal agencies have saddled E. caballus with a non-native species label, and persecuted as such. Because of this, America’s wild horses must not only compete with an encroaching human population for room to roam and with cattle for grass and water, but also with all native fauna and flora, down to the last blade of grass. Cattle have their advocates, as do wildlife, but who speaks for the horse? Meanwhile, since wild horse herds can double every four years, the competition for resources escalates like an out-of-control wildfire spurred by the wind.

In the 1950s, Velma Bronn Johnston determined to take action against the slaughter of wild horses and burros, earning her the moniker “Wild Horse Annie.” Her grassroots campaign resulted in a 1959 law prohibiting the use of land- or air-based motorized vehicles to chase down and kill horses and burros on all public lands, which became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 would place the management of these animals on public lands under federal jurisdiction. So far, so good, right?

Not exactly. Along with managing the mustangs, the Bureau of Land Management oversees cattle ranchers’ grazing rights and the protection of native species on the millions of acres the federal agency oversees. Biological estimates showed that Western rangelands could support 26,000 wild horses and the BLM tally was roughly four times that number, half on the range and half in holding pens. Clearly, they needed to round up some help. They got it.

A competitor at an Extreme Mustang Makeover event. Photo by Becky Papa

The Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Extreme Mustang Makeover

Paula Carr’s champagne-bubbles laughter belies her claim of being in her seventies. “We were guinea pigs for the BLM back in 1979,” she tells me, the “we” referring to herself and husband Randall. “As a child, I had always wanted a horse, but money was tight so Daddy bought me a burro instead. I learned to ride—bareback—on that burro, and how to take care of him. I met Randall, an accomplished Quarter Horse man, while attending Vanderbilt University, and we married shortly thereafter.

“We were just an itty-bitty farm in Cross Plains, Tennessee,” she continues. “When we attended that first BLM meeting where they were soliciting private ranches and farms to serve as adoption facilities for wild horses and burros, the room was filled with wealthy Kentucky horsefarm owners and other luminaries in the equestrian world. I told Randall that we didn’t have a chance. We were ecstatic when we learned we’d made the top five. When the BLM staff visited our property and chose us,  I asked how we got chosen and the BLM agent replied ‘because you don’t know anybody; our phones have been ringing off the hook with politicians from city mayors to U.S. senators lobbying for their well-to-do friends.’ ”

Freeze brands in the BLM Alpha Angle Code on the left side of the neck identify mustangs gathered on public lands. The brands utilize a distinct code, detailing the horse’s age, location of branding, and identiification code.

The BLM chose wisely. Since Randall had lived in Cross Plains (population 1,719) all his life, neighbors pitched in to help build their facility, the Carr Wild Horse and Burro Center. To date, they have helped facilitate more than 29,000 wild horse and burro adoptions. The Carrs were inducted into the Wild Horse and Burro Hall of Fame in 2005, and both serve—she as chair of the board of trustees and he on the advisory board—of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the organization that produces Extreme Mustang Makeover.

Extreme Mustang Makeover, held in 10 cities in 2016, may not place the most horses of any of MHF’s programs—that would be the Trainer Incentive Program (TIP), its sanctioned program to facilitate trainers placing wild horses with adoptive families. And its glitzy Mustang Million competition, with a total purse of $780,000 ($624,000 alone for the Legends Division) placed 562 horses with new owners in a single 2013 event. Extreme Mustang Makeover, however, indisputably generates the most awareness. With the concept of “100 mustangs, 100 trainers, and 100 days to prepare,” MHF launched the inaugural Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2007 to resounding acclaim.

In 10 years, Extreme Mustang Makeover has produced 65 national events in 45 cities located in 21 states. To date, more than 2,000 trainers and adopters have been involved and best of all, more than 3,200 mustangs have been placed in adoptive homes. MHF calculates that the savings to the BLM’s wild horse and burro management program is in excess of $112 million.

Kyla Hogan, MHF’s marketing director, has just returned from the Idaho Extreme Mustang Makeover when I catch up with her. “It’s one of our smaller events,” Hogan says, “but all participating horses were adopted, so we achieved our goal.”

Held at the Ford Idaho Horse Park in Nampa, Idaho, this year’s event disbursed $25,000 in prize money among the 16 adults and 14 youth participants, as well as placing all of the horses.

“These were Idaho horses rescued from a wildfire, which made it even more meaningful,” says Hogan. Youth horses, she continues, are adopted by a parent or guardian prior to the event and are not entered in the adoption auction.

“Trainers in the Extreme Makeover program are given 100 days to prepare a wild horse, and participating horses are placed in an adoption auction immediately after. It’s often really difficult for a trainer to part with that horse,” she says.

Hogan knows. Byron Hogan competed in a total of four events in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011… but somehow, missed 2009. “We married that year,” she says, smiling. “He’s now MHF’s program director—probably the only job that could stop him from competing.” (Foundation employees cannot compete in their own fundraising events.) However, Hogan adds that trainers can certainly bid on adoptions themselves, and even apply their 50 percent sales commission and/or prize money toward their auction bid.

The largest of the 10-city Extreme Mustang Makeover events is the September Fort Worth event, which in 2015 awarded nearly $50,000 in prize money in the adult competition, and placed 48 mustang geldings.

Despite the ongoing—and successful—progress made by this organization and others like it, America’s wild horse populations find themselves increasingly under the gun.

At times, literally.

A competitor at an Extreme Mustang Makeover event. Photo by Becky Papa.

Bighorns Mean Big Bucks

In Wild Horses as North American Wildlife, authors J.A. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., and P.M. Fazio, Ph.D., posit:

The non-native, feral, and exotic designations given by agencies are not merely reflections of their failure to understand modern science but also a reflection of their desire to preserve old ways of thinking to keep alive the conflict between a species (wild horses), with no economic value anymore (by law), and the economic value of commercial livestock.

And increasingly, the economic value of wildlife, to boot.

Texas’ Big Bend region holds a special place in my heart. And having been proffered a shaggy, doe-eyed burro in lieu of a horse as a youngster, as was Paula Carr, so do burros. In 2007, The Big Bend Sentinel reported that about 70 burros had been shot, killed, and left to rot at Big Bend Ranch State Park. Upon learning that the “culprits” were high-ranking Texas Parks and Wildlife officials, I was disgusted … but not surprised. I had left the agency’s employ a few years prior, and learned then of its plans to reintroduce desert bighorn sheep to BBRSP, in hopes of luring deep-pocketed hunters willing to pay upwards of $150,000 to display a ram’s head on their den wall. Not wanting the so-called “non-native” burros to consume the desert’s scarce forage and water, the agency hoped to exterminate them quietly before bringing in the sheep. The ensuing public outrage, as well as the agency’s then-promise to seek adoption avenues and other non-lethal means, seemed to put an end to this practice.

Competitors show their accomplishments during mustang makeover events around the country.

But when TPWD began to release bighorns at BBRSP in 2010, they surreptitiously resumed the burro killings, resulting in yet another public relations nightmare for the agency, which once again promised to seek non-lethal removal means. I’d had enough. Not having a large enough platform available to publicize this myself, I called on Jake Silverstein, the editor of Texas Monthly at the time, and urged him to look into it. (For Texas Monthly’s in-depth report on this issue, see “Home on the Range?” by Nate Blakeslee, April 2012.)

Perhaps the best lesson to come out of Texas’ unfortunate mismanagement of “Sheep vs. Burros, Rounds I and II” is as a warning to other state and federal agencies that such actions cause long-term tarnish to their reputations—which affects how people vote and thus how their agency is funded. Thankfully, when the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge sought to reduce the wild horse and burro populations there, its project leader Paul Steblein took his cues not from TPWD but from the BLM, calling upon the Carrs and their network to aid in transporting and finding homes for the Sheldon mustangs and burros.

The vision of mustangs charging across an open range, nostrils flaring and tails aloft is branded into our DNA: a vision as all-American as the noble bald eagle—notably an imperiled species listed as “endangered” as recently as 2007.

A century ago, more than 2 million wild horses roamed the Western range. Today, fewer than 35,000 remain. We hold in our hands the choice of whether a vestige of this great symbol of the American West remains or vanishes completely. What will you do to help save America’s wild horses?