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Mustang Sanctuaries: Saving Wild Horses – an option for horse lovers by H. Alan Day!

Monday, April 29th, 2019 | Filed under author

Mustang Sanctuaries:  Saving Wild Horses

by:  H. Alan Day

For decades, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been scratching its head, to the point of going bald, over the conundrum of what to do with our country’s overwhelming surplus of wild horses.Currently, more than 55,000 wild horses live on the open range, but that range can only sustain about 27,000 horses. Another 35,000 wild horses live in off-range pastures, but those pastures are reaching capacity.

On March 4, the BLM put out a call for private landowners interested in providing quality care for 200-5000 wild horses.This plan may prove to be a viable and sustainable way to ease overpopulation while giving horses good homes and putting a smile on the faces of wild horse advocates. What’s more, this plan has a proven track record.

In 1988, I pitched this exact idea to the BLM. I recently had purchased a 35,000-acre ranch in South Dakota and was casting about for an operating plan. At that time, the BLM had 2000 excess unadoptable wild horses locked up in feedlot prisons. It occurred to me that I could give those horses a fine retirement home on a sea of prairie grass.

The BLM took a shine to the idea, but insisted that I lobby Congress to get a bill passed giving the agency permission to contract with me. Senator Dennis DeConcini from Arizona helped me get approval for our country’s first government-sponsored wild horse sanctuary. Within the year, semi-trailers trundled down the ranch road delivering a total of 1500 wild horses. I was the caretaker of that herd for four fabulous years.

Would I recommend that someone with land and a love for horses and adventure apply to be a wild horse caretaker? Quicker than a hawk dives for a field mouse.

But here’s the rub. The BLM contract stipulates, among other things, that the horses have little human contact, that they be moved regularly to fresh pastures, and that they be monitored. What the BLM fails to mention, however, is it’s darn difficult to move and monitor animals that have a deep-seated fear of human beings. It is we the people who have chased them off the range with helicopters, split up their families, forced them onto trucks and into captivity. No wonder they humans more than anything. Had I not befriended the wild horses, those four years on Mustang Meadows Ranch might not have been so spectacular.

When the horses first arrived on the ranch, a crew of cowboys couldn’t get closer than half a mile before those horses would bolt. Somehow I had to reverse their training in fear. I needed to teach those horses that I was their friend, not their enemy. I had to work with them gently and kindly, win their trust so that they would follow me across the prairie and through a gate onto fresh grass. I developed a program that I called “herd behavior modification training.” Monty Roberts would later call it “horse whispering.”

The cowboys on the ranch thought I was nuts. Three times a day, we got in a corral the size of a football field with one hundred horses. The races would start. Back and forth those frightened animals sprinted until they figured out we weren’t going to harm them. Pretty soon, they started following a cowboy on horse around the corral, then through the gate, then through the lane to the pasture. The entire training took about a week. By the time spring rolled around and we had to move the entire herd to summer grazing, all the horses had graduated from school. Of course, one question remained: Would the training stick?

As it turned out, it did stick. When we moved the herd across six miles of prairie, including through gates, not one horse bolted. Imagine leading 1500 wild horses at an easy gallop, the closest ones about eight feet behind you. I’ll never forget the sound of the horses grunting, the feel of the land vibrating. It was the highlight of my ranching career.

Without a doubt, private wild horse sanctuaries can be a win-win for wild horses and horse lovers. With more sanctuaries in place, perhaps the BLM can concentrate on ways to keep the free-roaming wild horses from overpopulating the open range. Then maybe, just maybe, the Wild Horse and Burro Program will become as manageable as a trained herd of wild horses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  H. Alan Day, a retired rancher, is the author of the award-winning memoir “The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Horses.” He also is the brother of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Email:

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A great story from Michael Johnson.

We love the missives of Michael Johnson, author of HEALING SHINE and THE TRIALS OF JOE BEN BLACK, CONFESSIONS OF A ROPE HORSE.  Michael is a true friend of Horse and Man.


Michael Johnson


Let me be perfectly honest here…I have no idea.  At one time, I knew all about “fixing” horses.  Then one day, I finally realized no one was telling my horses how smart I was.

No false modesty here.  I just realized what I thought I knew wasn’t real, and none of this is meant to say I know now.  But don’t give up hope just yet.  I think I’m making progress.

Just a little.  My intention is to share what caused this progress with you here, and my fondest hope is that somehow the words helps you…

     Here’s a critical problem that has much to do with our interactions with horses.  When we first encounter that creature, we always (only) ride a horse that our dads, mommas or grandads have ridden many times.  Those adults give us a few instructions and off we go.  Since that horse knows how to impel on cue, turn, neck rein, and stop because of his long prior association with humans, when we ask him to do those things for us, he does them!

After a time, we cannot help but think we are quite the little horseman – (word describes both male and female.)  Then comes the day later in our life when we get our own new and different horse.  He may be familiar with humans, or have no prior interaction at all, but either way, he is new to us and we are new to him.  And we forget our parents haven’t ridden him all those hours before.  That’s when the trouble starts. 

     If you are like me, there is no way this “trouble” could be my fault.  After all, we learned how to “ride” a horse at an early age, for goodness’ sake.  So when I would ask my friends (who had real knowledge and skill) some question about my troubled horse, first they would look away, and then rather reluctantly –as if they didn’t want to hurt my feelings – start talking to me about me!  That was just so irritating.  First of all, it was obvious this person had failed to understand my question.  I wasn’t talking about me – I was talking about the goofy horse causing all my problems!

    Then one day after my friends kept talking to me about me (making me even more irritated) I experienced what we might call a painful psychic jolt.  “Oh,” I said with sort of a sinking feeling in my stomach, “it’s not them, is it.  It’s me.”

     And my friend let out a long sigh of relief and said, “Yes.  Yes, Michael.  It’s not them.

It’s us.”

   “If you would work on your horse, you will find you will have to work on yourself.”

                                                                                                    —  Ray Hunt

As life went on, I began to notice something.  I noticed that it seems some people can reach us more than others.  Some can reach students and some can reach horses, and some have the gift with working stock dogs.  I love those people.  After being around them and watching them for an extended time, I became aware of a different trait they share…

     My wife, Sherry, has a unique way of engaging students in her college classes.  When I ask her, “How do you do that?” she responds like this…

     “Well, uh…I don’t know exactly.  I mean…well, I try something and if it doesn’t work, well…I try something else…oh, I don’t know.  She pauses searching for a way to express her thoughts and says, “I just try to do the right thing, I guess.  I mean after all, what else would work?  I have to listen to the students to see what they need from me to learn what I want them to learn.”

     When I ask my friend Kenneth – a skilled horseman – “What will we do with this horse?” he responds like this… “What will we do?  Hmmm…I don’t exactly know,” he says.  He sits there a minute thinking, then he says something like, “We have to go look at him.  See if we can see him telling us anything.”

     Then there’s Bronc, the person that Kenneth and I often go to for guidance about horses.  You ask him any question about a horse and his first response is silence.  Then after a time, he says something like, “Well, I don’t know exactly the best answer to that question.  I mean it depends on several things.  Can you tell me more about him? 

We need to learn how he sees things.”

  Notice anything just a bit odd here in those responses?  None of these people (and this is true of so many others I know) seem to “know” what to do.  When asked, “How do you do this?” all use some form of “I don’t know” or “I’m not quite sure” to respond.  It’s not that they are hiding information, but rather they have difficulty expressing their answer.  They don’t consider themselves experts and there is no vanity or ego in them.  Instead of “telling” us how to do something, instead of “knowing”…they are seekers.  

And they want us to seek along with them.

  At this point dear reader, you may well be thinking, “Michael changed the subject in this column.  He started off talking about our difficulties with the horse, and now he’s talking about “seekers.  This is confusing.”  I think it is, too.  Confusing, that is. 

But my purpose is not to split from one topic to another, but rather for one to flow into the other.  It is confusing, and the reason for that is…if we would really help our horse, at times how we do that can be quite confusing.  The path to real partnership is not what we think…because we are not aware of what we are thinking.  An example…

     Recently I’ve been riding Blue and Joe Ben Black preparing for spring and coming  ropings.  Blue has been a pleasure.  Light as a feather and responds to the slightest cue.  Joe Ben on the other hand, has been a real pain.  When I execute some turn with him, his head feels like a wheel barrow full of concrete – sooo heavy.  I felt frustration and impatience.  “What’s the matter with you?” I kept asking.  His answer was to snort, swish his tail, and shake his head as hard as he could.  This went on for several days.

(I think you can guess my “thinking” during this period.)  Then, I remembered…

     Standing in the round pen with Bronc and Blue when Blue was so young – almost 15 years ago now.  “His head is just so heavy,” I said.  “I have to pull him around with all my strength – plow him around like an old mule.  What’s the matter with him?  His head is just so heavy.”

Bronc looked away with that look on his face that says, “I have to be careful here not to embarrass Michael.”  After a bit Bronc said, “His head is not heavy, Michael…

your hands are.”

     I quit pulling on Joe Ben.  I tried to make my hands as light as I could like Bronc taught me years ago.  In two days, all the concrete came out of Joe Ben’s head.

It wasn’t Joe Ben.  It was me.

 Some will say all this is too soft.  “Don’t have time for that soft stuff.”  I think men fear this approach not quite as macho as they need it to be.  But there were two who thought this softness a better and even stronger way.  Those two are Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

     A number of horse trainers (both male and female) use words like “control” or “respect” frequently and see that as paramount to obtain.  Dorrance and Hunt, on the other hand, use other words like this…

Tom Dorrance – “I’ll be the lawyer for the horse and he will win 99% of the time.”

And he says this, “You have to get the horse on your side.”

And Ray Hunt says this…

   “My belief in life is that we could all get along if we tried to understand each other.  You meet a lot of people in life, but real friends are rare and precious. But every horse can be your friend if you ask this of them.  You can ask the horse to do what you want, but you have to

ASK him.  You offer it to him in a good way.  You fix it up and let him find it.  You do not make anything happen… any more than you can make a friendship happen.”

    I don’t claim to understand every word Mr. Hunt said in that piece, but I believe every word.  This crusty old tough fellow…who would guess he could say something so beautiful?

He wanted us to help the horse.  I do, too.  They give us something in return when we do that – when we help them, when we bond, when they help us do something we didn’t dream we could do.  They give us joy.

                                                                                  — Michael Johnson


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