When people hear that wild horses, aka mustangs, are rounded up en masse over treacherous terrain by helicopters, forcefully separated from their tightknit family bands that took years to form, and then processed like cattle—castrated, branded, and shipped to long-term holding facilities, where they will spend the rest of their lives in captivity—they are shocked. When they learn this is a government program costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year, questions fire at a rapid pace: Who are the horses hurting? Why does it cost so much? Aren’t mustangs protected? How can we do this to a symbol of freedom?

These questions only begin to get at the complexity and confusion over what is happening to America’s wild horses, in Colorado and in other Western states. The Bureau of Land Management, the agency in charge of overseeing the wild horses, calls it population management. Horse advocates call it the “mustang wars.”

When it comes to the mustangs, the political gets personal quickly. The story began as a partnership—loyal cavalry mounts and companions in westward expansion—but it has become a story of industrialization, manifest destiny 21st-century style: corporate cattle, gas and oil, mining. The issue reveals deeply ingrained attitudes, much like the classic Rorschach test and its abstract inkblots. The subject of the mustangs exposes core beliefs about the environment, animal rights, and government accountability. How one feels about the government’s management of the wild horses ultimately says more about an individual’s ideology than about the mustangs.

On September 25, 1980, BLM’s land and development director, George Lea, announced the creation of the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range. He dedicated a permanent plaque to the woman who championed the mustang cause and was central in passing laws to protect the wild horses—Velma Johnston, who became better known as Wild Horse Annie. “It is both fitting and delightful to dedicate to her an area where proper management of the wild horses and burros is the primary goal,” Lea said at the time. The ceremony included a performance by the choral group from Grand Junction High School, singing “This Land is Your Land.” The scene was typical of the changing West: The crowd was a mixture of cowboy hats, jeans, business suits, and the steady drone of a nearby drilling rig.

Today the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range encompasses 36,113 acres of rugged canyons and plateaus where wild horses roam the sage-, rabbit-brush-, and pinyon-juniper-covered hills. It is a successful model of wildhorse management. Other herd areas in Colorado have not fared as well.

When Wild Horse Annie was alive, her relationship with the BLM was not one of congenial cooperation. When Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM did not champion her cause; she had to take her battle to Congress and to the people, all the while ignoring death threats and packing a pistol. And advocates claim the BLM has not lived up to the spirit or the letter of the 1971 law, which states: “Wild free-roaming horses and burros are the living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.... It is the policy of Congress that they shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death....”

The conflict between wild-horse activists and the BLM has risen to a fever pitch during President Obama’s first term in office. Colorado’s Spring Creek Herd Area in Disappointment Valley, near Norwood, has been the site of an ongoing battle. Embedded at the center of the dispute is documentary filmmaker James Anaquad-Kleinert.

It’s not easy to track what’s going on with the wild horses; they live in desolate, rugged areas of the West. To get a deeper understanding of the issue, Anaquad-Kleinert has been filming the Spring Creek Herd since 2007. His journey has brought him up close and personal with both the wild horses and the BLM management. His short film, Saving the American Wild Horse, was released on the Documentary Channel in 2007 and is now a feature film, titled Wild Horses & Renegades.

If you go to BLM events that are open to the public, it’s easy to spot Anaquad-Kleinert: He’s the guy holding a video camera like it’s an extra appendage. Anaquad-Kleinert, 47, grew up in Wisconsin. He was the all-American boy, dreaming of becoming an athlete. He was a competitive Olympic-level skier who later dabbled in extreme sports. His athleticism and daredevil spirit are good qualities for a documentary filmmaker.

Like many people in the mustang wars, Anaquad-Kleinert came to the wild-horse issue more by circumstance than by conscious choice. He was living in Jackson, Wyoming, crafting a piece on Wyoming wranglers when he documented a wild-horse roundup. “I was shocked,” Anaquad-Kleinert says. “The footage is undisputable. It shows how hard they pushed those horses. They ran them for miles. They were sweaty and exhausted, overheated. What I saw changed my life.”

The scene haunted the documentarian. He knew he had to investigate. David Glenn, a Colorado horse advocate, introduced Anaquad-Kleinert to the Spring Creek Herd. Glenn took him out to see the wild horses, and it was love at first sight—or more like mutual respect at first sight. Anaquad-Kleinert and his camera faced off with a majestic, monarch lead stallion. The stallion charged toward Anaquad-Kleinert and puffed out his chest. It was a mock charge, but one with intent: The stallion was communicating, This is my family band, be respectful. The Spring Creek Herd gave Anaquad-Kleinert a specific case study to document the plight of the mustangs.

Over the next five-plus years, Anaquad-Kleinert immersed himself in the issues, documenting two more roundups that left Spring Creek Herd with dangerously low numbers. According to the BLM’s data, before the 2011 roundup there were 83 mustangs in the herd; 39 were removed and 8 died (7 were roundup-related deaths), leaving only 36 wild horses on the range. What has happened at Spring Creek goes to the core of wild-horse advocates’ complaints— excessive roundups that leave mustang populations too low to maintain healthy, sustainable herds. The issue is complex, but critics always point to the numbers. Anaquad-Kleinert’s film makes a strong case for these mismanagement claims.

According to the research of Dr. Ernest Gus Cothran Jr. of Texas A&M University, one of the nation’s leading equine experts, a healthy herd, where inbreeding is not an issue, needs to maintain numbers between a minimum of 120 and 150 horses of breeding age. Seventy percent of the BLM herds are below this number; the Spring Creek Herd falls well below this benchmark, which doesn’t take into account that 7 of the remaining 18 mares in the herd were given a fertility drug to lower the number of reproducing mares in the herd.

Besides genetic viability, a healthy herd also has to be behaviorally functional. Karen Sussman, executive director and president of The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (whose first president was Wild Horse Annie), has spent the past 12 years studying herd dynamics and behavior. At her conservation center in South Dakota, Sussman has studied three intact herds, totaling more than 300 mustangs.

Sussman has been in the unique position to observe the behavior of herds with vastly different histories. Two of the herds, the White Sands Herd and the Gila Herd, were rarely rounded up; her other two herds, the Catnip and the Virginia Range, were repeatedly rounded up. Sussman explains, “This has given me a wonderful baseline of healthy behavioral standards for wild horses and the opportunity [to] compare the behavior of healthy social herds with herds whose family bands have been disrupted by roundups and thrown into chaos every few years.”

She admits to being shocked by the differences in behavior. The herds that were rounded up frequently did not form strong family bands with good mentorship to teach acceptable social behavior and respect. A mustang family band is an intimately connected group of horses that have bonded together for protection and companionship; the core members of the band, the lead stallion and the mare, normally stay together for life.

“What I observed,” Sussman says, “were mares just eight months to a year old, coming into their first cycle, and they were being bred by young rogue stallions. I would see breeding at one, two, three years of age. This increased the fertility rates in these herds. The mothers were immature, with no role models; they simply walked away from their foals when they were just two or three months old, sometimes even at birth.”

“In a healthy herd,” Sussman continues, “the mares don’t leave the harem and have their first foal until they are four or five. They never abandon their babies. And stallions stay in the band they were born in for several years. Stallions in behaviorally healthy herds don’t become harem leaders until they are 8 to 10 years old.”

“Roundups destroy the family culture of wild horses, leading to dysfunctional behavior,” Sussman concludes. “This is why indiscriminate helicopter roundups are so destructive to both healthy herds and a healthy range. We have to protect the integrity of the family band. That’s the heart and soul of mustang culture.”

Besides herd size, critics also point to the reduction of herd management areas. Under the 1971 law, BLM gave wild horses 40 million acres of public land to live on. Over the past four decades, these lands have been reduced by 15.5 million acres. Originally, 303 herd areas were supposed to be maintained for wild horses and burros; 111 of those herd areas have been zeroed out, meaning all the mustangs have been rounded up and permanently removed. Currently, according to BLM numbers, 33,000 wild horses roam the public land and 46,900 are in government holding facilities, costing taxpayers nearly $36 million a year. Giving back some of this land to the horses would immediately solve the overpopulation and cost issues.

In most herd areas, horses are outnumbered by big game and cattle, so the damage they might inflict on the range is small by comparison, yet they are often singled out by the BLM as the main culprit—hence, the roundups. This makes advocates suspicious. When Anaquad-Kleinert points out the small numbers of Spring Creek Herd, it defies explanation.

What gives? James believes the answer is simple: It has to do with big business. In Colorado this means claims for gas, oil, and uranium mining. And in America, no one is surprised to hear that big business influences government policy.

As a cautionary tale, Anaquad-Kleinert points to the Naturita Wild Horse Management Area that neighbors the Spring Creek Herd Area. All the Naturita mustangs are gone; they were zeroed out in 1980s when the area became the site of intense uranium mining, leaving contamination that lingers today. The Naturita mustangs had a different fate than those at Little Book Cliffs, where a vibrant herd of 140 roams on land that is the site of resource development—but not one that has the look of a toxic Superfund site.

In response to these claims, the BLM takes the official stance that the 1971 law does not stipulate a set number of acres guaranteed to wild horses. Their specific explanations for the decreased acreage include: population growth in the West, conflict with other resource values, and water issues that make management infeasible. The BLM also says it actively monitors the health of the herds by sending genetic samples to Dr. Cothran.

In a recent interview with Dr. Cothran, he confirmed that he had received samples from the Spring Creek Herd both in 2000 and 2007. “In 2000,” Dr. Cothran explains, “the samples were just below the level needed to maintain a viable genetic herd, and in 2007 they were at a level to be considered critically low.” With this information from its own science expert, the BLM went ahead with roundups in 2007 and 2011. In response, BLM public affairs specialist Deanna Masterson explains, “We introduce horses from other herd areas about every eight years to ensure genetic viability.”

When Stefanie Reinhardt was just 10 years old, she heard you could get a mustang for free. She tried to convince her dad, but he said a wild horse wouldn’t be a good idea right now—maybe when she got older. But the seed had already been planted.

Growing up, Reinhardt was surrounded by horses. She got her first pony, Doc, when she was two. She had horses all through high school and competed in shows. After college, to make extra money, she trained horses until it became her real job.

A fan of what she calls “horse-geek TV,” Reinhardt, who lives in Almont, Colorado, cites the since-cancelled Extreme Mustang Makeover as one of her favorite shows. “When I saw the show [on RFD-TV], I knew I had to do it. They say training a mustang is the ultimate challenge.” At 37, Reinhardt finally felt up to the test. She auditioned and was accepted as a contestant in the 2008 competition in Fort Worth, Texas.

Extreme Mustang Makeover, which will hold its 2012 Colorado competition June 8 through 10 in Fort Collins, is an example of the BLM’s successful adoption program, which partners with private organizations to find good homes for horses they’ve removed from the range. The rules for the show were simple: The BLM randomly selects a horse from one of its holding facilities; a contestant picks it up and has up to 100 days to train the horse before a competition. At the contest, the horse is auctioned off to the highest bidder; the trainers receive 20 percent commission on any winning bid over $200. The idea is to show that mustangs are trainable and make great companion horses. “I have to say,” says Reinhardt, now 42, “I didn’t think I’d fall in love with this horse and want to keep it.”

When Reinhardt and her husband, David Villanueva, drove down to a holding facility in Oklahoma to pick up their horse, they began to have second thoughts. She got horse number 9056, a blood bay 14 hands, 3 inches tall and about 950 pounds. “They released him from his pen and he came running out. He skidded sideways and fell under the panels, jumped up and ran down to the end of the shoot, crashing into more panels. It was crazy. Once he was in the shoot, he tried to leap over the eight-foot gate. It was clear my horse was crazy. I was so worried that he was going to hurt himself. When we finally got him in the trailer, he started trying to dig through the bottom of the trailer, pawing and thrashing. As we were driving out, we passed a couple of people and they were like, ‘Good luck with that.’ Then after about five minutes, he completely settled down for the rest of the ride.”

After the Reinhardts returned home, the mustang tried to scale their panels; he bloodied his knees and face. Then in the morning, he kept trying to roll on the dirt, but his knees were so battered from the shoot he couldn’t get down. He finally found a way by rolling on his shoulder to rub against the dirt. This calmed him, and Reinhardt realized the problem: He came from Oklahoma, which is humid; Colorado is dry. He was itchy. That turned out to be Reinhardt’s saving grace. “He would let me scratch him, and that’s how we bonded.”

She named him Doc, after her first pony. She took things slow with Doc for the first few weeks, doing a lot of groundwork. “We started to become really close, and as the show loomed ahead, I dreaded the idea of giving him up.”

Doc changed everything. He became the leader of Reinhardt’s horses, who could be quite mean to each other; they would often bite and kick. “Doc came in and took over. He’s the benevolent leader. He walks in with this air about him and owns the place. He just looks at a horse to move it off the hay. He’s never mean. He has tons of wisdom. I’ve heard that wild horses are more functional because the family structure in the wild develops healthy social behavior. He’s smarter than any domestic horse I’ve ever known.”

One of Reinhardt’s favorite stories centers on her electric fence. One morning she went out and Doc was gone. She was heartbroken. He was wild, she thought; he was never coming back. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you just go out there and call him?’” She looked at him as if to say, Are you kidding? He’s not a dog. She gave it a try, and sure enough, Doc came trotting down the driveway.

They soon discovered Doc’s secret: He figured out the electric fence, finding a place he could lay down and crawl under it. None of their other horses had figured this out. Doc would let himself out so he could run around the yard and graze, then put himself back in the pasture for feed time.

Reinhardt didn’t ride Doc until day 45. “He never did anything wrong, didn’t buck or bolt. On one of our first trail rides, we ran into a mountain biker and dirt biker, and had no trouble. On a domestic horse, you would have been through the trees hanging on for dear life.”

As the first day of Extreme Mustang Makeover got close, Reinhardt’s anxiety about losing Doc became more intense. She borrowed money from three different clients so she could buy Doc back. “I was a nervous wreck. I was fearful I wasn’t going to be able to afford him.”

Reinhardt and Doc did okay in the competition, finishing in the middle of the pack. They did the basics: walk, trot, canter, side pass, back through poles, a little jumping. Doc knows lots of tricks now.

No one was more surprised by the scene than Reinhardt’s husband. “He’s been to horse shows, parades, and rodeos. He thought it was amazing. In the two days of the event, he didn’t see a single horse kick a person or another horse. He didn’t see a single horse pull back against its lead rope; not a single rider got bucked off. You see all these things at horse events. And here there were 300 horses, and they were all so calm. When they were being rode [four years ago], guys were starting up chainsaws, shotguns, cracked bull whips—things that would make horses go bonkers.”

Most importantly, Reinhardt got to keep Doc. She was able to buy him back at a bargain price. Most of the adopters must have felt the same way: At least 75 percent of the trainers bought their horses back.

“My horse made me change my mind about the American mustang,” Reinhardt says. “But to see the effect that the mustangs had on their adopters—it really proved that these horses are amazing, and they are perfect for a lot of people.”

The mustang wars bring up opposing political and personal values—for example, the conservationist who believes in preserving wild spaces versus the resource developer who believes the main function of public lands is for the production of gas and oil, mining, and cattle grazing. Or the animal rights activist versus those with a “man on top” worldview, where man has the right to use animals for his own purpose without concern for the animal’s suffering. It also challenges our political beliefs: a deregulation, laissez-faire attitude versus a pro-regulation philosophy that promotes safeguards over profit.

Change is happening, however. In response to criticisms about helicopter roundups, the BLM has put out bids for more humane, on-the-ground capture techniques. But the mustang wars show no sign of a ceasefire, and the questions remain: If you have a strong belief, what can you do to confront the powers that be—in this case, big business and big government? And can one person’s actions make a difference? For Wild Horse Annie, James Anaquad-Kleinert, Karen Sussman, and Stefanie Reinhardt, the answer is almost certainly yes.

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