by Suzanne Bush
"I'm like the world's worst farmer," Tom Muth of Lawrenceville, PA says. "I can't get rid of any of my livestock. The only way they get off my farm is they have to die of old age."
That's good news for Luna Bonita, a Mustang yearling Muth is training as part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover's new Mission 007: Yearling Edition. Muth is one of 230 trainers who have been given 100 days to achieve several training benchmarks with their Mustangs.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) created the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the Yearling Edition competitions to demonstrate the beauty and trainability of these wild horses. Prospective trainers are chosen by lottery, and are given either an adult (three or four-year-old) or a yearling. These Mustangs represent a fraction of the estimated 30,000 wild horses that roam freely on the open range in the West, and an equal number that the BLM is maintaining in feedlots and sanctuaries.
In September, trainers and Mustangs will convene at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, TX and compete for cash prizes. There's a $50,000 purse in the adult Mustang competition and a $20,000 purse in the yearling division. According to the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the Mustangs will be judged on conditioning, groundwork and a "horse course" requiring the horses to maneuver around obstacles found routinely in trail and recreational riding.
Paul McGuire, of the BLM in Moore, OK, says that there are 387 Mustangs in the competition this year. The ultimate goal is to find homes for these horses that have been removed from the open range by the BLM, in order to ensure the health of the horses and the viability of the range. "What we've found is when you involve individuals working with training and gentling these animals, you increase the visibility of the Mustang's value and worth. That's the purpose of this program: to showcase the value and versatility of the American Mustang."
Another, more urgent objective of the Mustang Makeover is to illuminate the heartbreaking dilemma that confronts everyone who cares about these horses. "The BLM has responsibility for managing 260 million acres of public land in the western United States," McGuire says. "The BLM manages this land under a multiple use mandate, reflecting a wide variety of public values. Maintaining wild horses as fixtures of the western landscape is one of the values. Public land is used for recreation, for livestock grazing, for timber, for energy resource development. Many areas are managed to preserve their scenic beauty…managing wild horses must be done in concert with all of that."
The BLM currently has about 30,000 horses that they've removed from these public lands—in order to protect the habitats and fulfill the mandate to manage the land for numerous constituencies. Feeding and caring for those horses costs taxpayers close to $50 million a year. "It's come to a virtual tipping point where the cost of managing animals in holding is beginning to infringe on the BLM's ability to manage horses in the wild," McGuire says.
That tipping point has pushed the BLM to look for other ways to reduce the wild horse population, including euthanizing horses. McGuire says that euthanasia is an option that is legally available to the BLM, but it is not one that they would choose lightly. They've attempted to limit the herd size through fertility control. "In many herds, that's not a practical option. The principal management tool is physical removal. We wind up with x thousands of horses in our possession," he explains.
Even before the Mustang Heritage Foundation created the unique Mustang Makeover competition in 2007, the BLM had an outreach program aimed at finding people to adopt wild Mustangs. "In recent years, demand has not been able to keep up with the number of horses we have to remove," McGuire says. "We have nearly as many horses in holding as we manage on the range."
Like millions of Americans, Muth reveres the wild Mustangs as symbols of freedom, as well as creatures of soul-stirring beauty. "I do a lot of traveling in the west and see the wild Mustangs all the time." He said that he was heartsick at the thought that the BLM might have to resort to euthanasia as a means of controlling the population.
He has been around horses all his life, and recently has been exploring training techniques that he believes have brought him closer to a genuine understanding of horses. "I've been in this Parelli natural training program for about seven years and my son and I had just returned from a competition in Ohio," he says, "my son asked me, now that I have all these certifications, what are you going to do with it?" He said that he believed that something would come up.
Within days of that conversation with his son, Muth saw an article about the Mustang Makeover in a magazine, and he entered the lottery, never thinking that he would actually be chosen to train a wild horse. He picked her up in June, and immediately named the yearling Luna Bonita, which means "pretty moon," in Spanish. "She has a quarter-moon on her forehead, just a perfect quarter-moon," Muth says.
Luna Bonita is proving to be a star. "She's doing fantastic. She's probably one of the smartest horses I've ever worked with. She catches on extremely fast," Muth says.
The shy yearling that he first loaded onto his trailer in June has blossomed in the safety of Muth's barn and pasture. "One of the things I've noticed is that once she decides something, it's almost like she flipped a switch, and decided that I'm not dangerous. Once she gets something and understands it she's got it."
Susan Watt, who does program development at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, says that Muth is experiencing one of the keys to Mustang survival. "If you were out in the wild and your mother told you to pay attention or that mountain lion is going to get you, you pay attention." She says that these animals have survived because they have developed instincts that help them evade danger, and rely on leaders. There are 500 horses living on the 11,000 acre Sanctuary, which was created by Dayton Hyde in 1988. Watt says that the plight of the wild horse is a burden that she and her colleagues live with every day. Programs like the Mustang Makeover, she says, should be celebrated.
"Those horses are given a chance. They're given some training. It is so honorable and heroic, because it's giving these horses a chance to have a life." She says that not all wild horses can be trained, though, and that is a substantial part of the dilemma. "A female wild horse running out on Federal ground in Nevada might live to be 30 years old and she might have 27 babies. You're talking about a species of animal that can reproduce themselves annually. It is a daunting job to control them."
While breeding at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is controlled and the horses are protected, the reality is that on the Federal lands the situation is far more complex. "Part of the conflict is that the West has been in a terrible 10 year drought, and the watering holes are drying up," Watt said. "Even if there were no animals, the grass would be dying. If there is only x amount acres of grass, who is entitled to it? Is it the rancher who has the leasing option, or is it the Federal government? Who owns the grass? Is it the cattle, the Federal government, the antelope, the horses?"
Paula Morin, author of the book "Honest Horses," writes that "For the first time in recorded history, perhaps, the majority of men and women in America no longer have a direct, sustained contact with, or relationship to, the land." That huge experiential deficit makes it hard to separate emotion from reason in the debate, but it doesn't excuse anyone from participation in the debate. "Horsemanship involves philosophy, ethics, art and science. Whether one raises horses close to home or admires them at a distance, their welfare demands our attention."
Back at Muth's barn, Luna Bonita is busy learning new things and teaching her trainer a thing or two about Mustangs. "She can do anything. Anything you ask her to do, she'll do it," Muth says. "She can be led easily. She turns right and left just by pressure. You don't even have to touch her. It's like you just think about what you want her to do and she reads your mind. She's a pretty incredible horse. I've had her about seven weeks and she's learned things that it's taken domestic horses years to learn."
He says that she constantly surprises him. "When I was training her to load in the trailer, I spent about an hour working with her, and when she got that concept, it was like a light bulb turning on. I could open that trailer door, and let her out anywhere, and she will trot right over to it. You don't lead her onto the trailer, you just show her the open door and she'll walk right in."
The BLM's McGuire says that after last year's inaugural Mustang Makeover, it was clear that the horses were not the only creatures that were transformed. "Forty-five percent of the trainers actually took the horses home themselves," bypassing the option to allow the horses to be adopted, he says.
Muth believes that the act of taking responsibility for the Mustang, or any creature, changes every participant. The Parelli method, he says, focuses on partnership. "Instead of having a horse that you've trained, it turns them into a willing partner." That perspective is hard for some people to grasp, but for Muth it has been an exceptional experience, and it gave him the insights he needed to help Luna Bonita flip that switch from wariness to trust.
As an advertisement for the versatility of these wild horses, the Mustang Makeover seems to be wildly successful. But for someone like Muth, who was moved to action by his concern for the animals' welfare, the Mustang Makeover has a deeper resonance. What he has invested in Luna Bonita is his own heart, and she has invested in him as well. Linda Parelli, writing about the training method her husband Pat created, explains the transformation that can occur through the sort of investment Muth was willing to make. "You learn about yourself, you learn about communication, about leadership, about truthfulness, about consequence and responsibility. You learn about love and imagination. The horse becomes the animal that tells you the truth about yourself in all these categories."
Watt, of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, says that America's wild horses are far more than icons, and they demand our attention. "The reality is there is a problem here, and we have to come up with a solution. Humane treatment is what we need to stress here. These animals are worth saving. They're worth fighting for. They have value, and they do give back. They were put here on earth for a reason."