Once you've decided to adopt a wild horse or burro, how do you choose the right one?
Here are some things to think about:
How good are your horse-gentling skills? We know the horse is scared, but what's your Fear Level?
Are your skills & confidence up to handling an adult wild horse? The minds of a weanling and a 3-year-old horse are not all that different, but being inside a small pen with a large one is very different from being with a weanling! Watching someone else work with a wild horse is one thing: Finding yourself inside a gentling pen for the first time with a large wild horse can be downright scary!
Or are you more comfortable with a weanling or yearling or 2 year old?
Many youngsters are pretty easy - "just looking for a friend." Others can be plenty challenging, but their smaller size is less intimidating than a larger animal with the same behaviors and mindset.
Do you have a gut-level preference? Some people just love those babies, others prefer adult horses.Many people prefer to adopt an adult horse, thinking that, due to its size and maturity, they will be able to ride it right away. This may or may not be realistic or advisable, however. Despite the success and popularity of the 90 and 100-day "Makeover" contests, most adopters would be well-advised to put off saddle training for at least a year after adoption, using that time to become familiar with the horse and teach it ground skills.
Young mustangs - weanlings, yearlings and 2-year-olds - are the best choice for most people. Young mustangs usually gentle down and accept training quickly. Plus, they are just so gosh-darned cute! However, even the youngsters are wild, and some of them can be challenging.
Many experienced adopters feel that three to five years old is perfect: the horse is still young enough to accept training easily, yet mature enough to have all the mental and physical advantages of a natural upbringing in a fully functioning wild herd. And, once gentling has been accomplished, the horse is big and mature enough to move right into saddle training.
WILD HORSES ADOPTED AFTER THE AGE OF 5:
A horse becomes mature somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7. Mature horses can do just fine! But do expect them to take more time, and you need to make sure each step is thorough before expecting more. The mature mind has many advantages, but a disadvantage to a would-be gentler is that the horse is more self-confident, and often less motivated to joining up with you. But with time, patience, and proving yourself trustworthy, most mature horses will come around.
Horses Over 10:
Some people dispute the commonly held theory that older mustangs are too difficult to gentle and should not be adopted. Not so, they say. Any horse will, with time and patience, learn to trust people and to bond with you. Older horse are usually slower to gentle, but if you are patient, most will come around eventually.
However, a horse who has spent many years in a wild herd is mentally a far different animal from the 0-4-year-olds most of us get - wiser, and more committed to self-preservation as he or she interprets that. One needs to go more slowly, and to accept that it will take a lot longer to gentle and train an older horse. An older wild horse is the equine equivalent of a Black Belt - Be sure you know to read the horse and to remain safe.
For most adopters, a younger horse is a better choice. For beginners, a young Mustang is the best choice.
If you want to start riding right away, please consider:
Very few people will be able to ride their new wild horse within the first several months, or even a year or longer. There are occasional horses who just gentle down and accept training very quickly, and a good trainer can usually get a wild horse "green-broke" under saddle within a few months.
Many of the Extreme Mustang Makeover trainers have their horses well-started under saddle by the end of the 100 days, and there are several prison training programs that produce quality horses in 120 days.
But in the case of the Extreme Mustang Makeover contestants, these are generally professional trainers or very experienced amateurs.
Both the contestants and the inmate training programs are able to put in long hours every day. People who have other jobs and responsibilities usually don't have that much time to devote to it, and even if they did, wild horses benefit from not being pushed too hard, too fast. Most will do well with one or two relatively short training sessions a day, followed by the rest of the day for "soak time."
Even if your horse seems docile, it is not in either your horse's or your own best interest to rush things. If you rush, skip steps, and end up having a big wreck, both you and the horse will suffer a huge setback - mentally even if not physically. Do it right the first time - take the time to get each step solid before proceeding.
If your top priority is to ride right away, get an already-trained horse.
ADOPT A SADDLE-TRAINED MUSTANG:
If you live in the West, there are several correctional facilities with good wild horse training programs. Inmates put in long days, 5 days a week, so a horse coming out of one of these programs has had a lot of training. Originally 90 days programs, most are now 120 days, which results in a much more saddle-ready horse for the average adopter.
Good programs include Warm Springs Correctional Center Wild Horse Program in Carson City, Nevada; Canon City, Colorado; Riverton, Wyoming; Crabtree Prison in Oklahoma; Hutchinson, Kansas; and Gunnison, Utah, Henderson Correctional Facility in Arizona, and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility's Wild Horse Training Program in Sacramento, California.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation's many "Extreme Mustang Makeover" and similar contests are another source of saddle-trained contests.
The Mantle Ranch in Wyoming, trains horses for the BLM. This is a family operation, BLM's only "Cottage Contractor."
Another option would be to get your horse gentled an halter-trained through the Mustang Heritage Foundation's TIP program, and then arrange for the TIP trainer to continue through saddle training (this would be outside the TIP program, so you would have to pay for the saddle training portion).
The last option would be to find an already saddle-trained Mustang for sale through normal horse sales channels.
To some people this isn't an issue. Other people have definite ideas about gender in equines.
Mares are often more "cuddly" and affectionate than males. Many Mustang mares are relatively unaffected by their hormonal cycles, and are just as reliable and steady, and capable of performance as geldings. Sadly, mares outnumber males in BLM holding pens by a significant percentage, due to the widespread belief that mares are harder to deal with.
PLEASE NOTE: THE WILD MARE YOU ADOPT MIGHT BE PREGNANT.
If she has been in captivity less than 11 months, you should consider that she very likely IS pregnant. Do your best to gentle her right away (or hire someone who can). A wild mare with a new foal is one tough customer - be ready!
A pregnant mare is not a good choice for a first-time adopter, although it happens commonly. If the mare is not gentled by the time the foal arrives, the mare can be very protective of her new foal, and become hard to deal with. Far too many mares are turned back to BLM or dumped at the auction, because the foal is easy and the mare difficult.
Don't do that! Get the help you need and make a commitment to your mare, if you adopt one.
Male horses come in two models: stallions (studs) and geldings.
Wild Studs are reported by many to be far more tractable than domestic stallions. This is due to the socialization inherent in wild herd structure - a wild horse who acts like a jerk is not tolerated by the others in his band. Wild studs do have normal mating urges, however. It is generally a good idea to get a newly-adopted wild stud gelded as soon as possible. Most horses available at BLM adoptions have already been gelded.
Geldings are the choice of most horse owners. There is an old saying that "Mares and stallions are good for making foals, but the only good working horse is a gelding."
The BLM will either geld a stud horse for you, or provide you with a voucher to help offset the cost of gelding, once you get the animal home.
WANT TO BREED MUSTANGS? PLEASE RE-CONSIDER:
Even though your Mustang stud is beautiful and would no doubt sire beautiful foals, please look at the overall horse market before choosing to breed Mustangs in captivity. As of this writing, there simply is no market for young, untrained domestically-bred horses of any breed, except perhaps in rare instances of highly proven performance pedigrees or highly sought unusual breeds, combined with aggressive marketing. Please don't add to the problem of "The Unwanted Horse."
Remember, there are plenty more where your horse came from! Mustangs DO NOT need to be bred in captivity in order to "save them from extinction!" They reproduce at a 17 - 22% rate each year in the wild - that is why they are gathered!
Mustang genetics are interesting to study, but one thing is certain: There are no "rare genes" needing your domestic breeding to preserve!
CONFORMATION and HEALTH:
Unless you are consciously taking on a rescue horse (and this is a wonderful thing to do, don't get me wrong!) you will probably want to learn enough about conformation (skeletal structure, etc.) to choose a horse who has sturdy legs and feet, and an overall structure that will allow a pleasant smooth ride, and will not cost you big bucks down the line in vet bills due to constitutional or structural issues. Luckily most wild horses have already been pre-selected by Mother Nature to have strong, sturdy legs and feet.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH:
In evaluating the conformation of wild horses in the adoption pens, you need to "read between the lines."
Don't be distracted by a poor coat, mud-caked feet, or a "hay belly" on a youngster. Look for the underlying structure and use your imagination to see what the horse will be after a few months' good care and nutrition.
Conformation for Purpose (The Right Horse for the Job)
Think about what you want to do with your horse, and choose accordingly. A good dressage horse is built differently from a good cutting horse. A reining horse needs differing conformation than a carriage horse. A good barrel racing horse is built differently from an endurance horse.
If you have a specific discipline in mind but don't know what is needed for your chosen discipline, visit shows and talk with people. (Be aware that they'll probably also turn up their noses at your mention of a mustang - but consider that their problem, not yours!)
If you don't have a set discipline in mind, then just choose a sturdy, sound horse who appeals to you in other ways.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT HORSE FOR THE JOB
There's a Mustang For Nearly Everything! What do you want to do?
If you aspire to compete in Dressage, you'll want a large, elegant-looking horse. A large, well-developed front end (shoulders & neck) are especially important, as well as long legs with an elegant, long stride.
By contrast, Working Cow Horses are shorter, for easy mounts and dismounts, with large, well-muscled hindquarters for quick take-offs and agility. Attitude, temperament, innate "cowiness" and willingness are also important.
Likewise, if you're into cutting, team penning, or general ranch work, you'll need a horse built for that type of work. If you plan to show your horse, you need to choose an animal with exceptional conformation. Contrary to popular myth, such excellent individuals abound in the wild horse populations.
Barrel racing, trick riding, and other speed events require, well, SPEED and "Heart". A horse built for sudden take-offs, and short bursts of high speed - similar to a cow horse but usually larger and longer-legged - is desirable.
Reining horses need to be agile and very sensitive and reactive - not for the average rider, but great if you know what you are doing and can ride them.
Hunter-Jumpers are tall, with long strides, long necks and deep, sloping shoulders. Wild horses from some of the Cavalry Re-mount areas or other areas where Thoroghbreds were known to have been released, are good choices for this sport.
Trail horses need strong feet and legs, sure-footedness, and an even temperament that does not spook easily. An even temperament, sure-footedness and sturdiness are more valuable on the trail than flash or style, although having a comfortable gait is a major plus.
Points to consider in evaluating good conformation for general riding
ENDURANCE horses need to be strong and durable, with lots of stamina, drive and "heart" to keep pushing on despite adversities. And, of course, strong feet and legs are a must. For Endurance, look for large feet, short pasterns, good angulation to the hind legs (not upright) and a horse that is downhill (a bit higher at the withers than the croup). Range born mustangs are used to traveling 15 - 20 miles every day in the course of just getting enough to eat and drink. This makes them ideal candidates for the sport of Endurance.
All-Mustang DRILL TEAMS are enjoying an increased popularity. Drill team horses can include any type of horse, so long as it is well-trained and agile. Of course, flashy coloring helps!
HORSES FOR DRAFT OR CARRIAGE PULLING:
Excellent feet and legs are the primary consideration, as well as powerful musculature for draft pulling, or elegance and high-stepping gaits for carriage work. Domestic horses bred for carriage pulling often have flatter rumps, which facilitates a longer stride.
A companion horse can have any size and shape - but if your main goal is a "buddy" for an existing horse or a "pasture ornament" - choose one that appeals to you enough to keep a commitment to it.
And, depending on your circumstances, choosing for good health and easy maintenance might be a consideration.
Wild Horse Temperament
Temperament is probably the hardest thing for most people to evaluate in horses being presented for adoption, whether at a holding facility or a weekend adoption. The stress of being confined in a small pen with other horses who may be strangers to one another sometimes makes good horses look bad.
Another variable is how long the horse has been in captivity. Although still quite wild, horses who have been in the holding facility for several months will be much less "crashy" and skittish than horses fresh off the range.
Horses who have been born at a holding facility, or spent years living at one, may have lost much of their natural fear of people. Such horses often appear to be tame to the potential adopter. Please understand that they aren't gentled - they just aren't afraid any more. These horses present their own challenges - often needing more work in teaching manners and respecting personal space - more like a domestic horse who has not been trained but is used to people.
It is important to keep such animals at a safe distance until they are gentled enough for safe handling. This is contrary to most new adopters' focus on getting that first touch.
There are a number of widely-quoted benchmarks for judging temperament: Look for a kind eye, look for large, clear eyes, not tight, slit-open ones. However, horses at adoptions are stressed, and may not exhibit big, kind eyes, although the horse will develop this countenance after settling in to the new home, being treated well for a period of time, etc.
A better benchmark is this: Watch how the horse interacts with others. (And even this is not totally valid at adoption sites, due to the stress of being in a new place, being in a small pen with unfamiliar horses, etc.)
If you want a quiet, easy-going horse, choose one that manages to avoid most skirmishes, one that does not seem overly upset by things that upset the more excitable horses, one that is neither the main aggressor nor the main one being picked on, and one who seems sociable and well-liked by the other horses.
A horse with many scars and blemishes should not necessarily be ruled out, as it may be due to human harassment, injuries during capture or transport, predator encounters or a host of other reasons, but it is a "red flag" that just may indicate that this fellow just might have an Attitude!
If you want a horse for endurance or similar discipline that requires tremendous "heart" choose one of the more animated, even feisty ones.
Do understand that horses at adoptions are stressed. It seems unreasonable to expect them to stand around, calm and serene, with big soft eyes, under the circumstances. Their facial expressions will change 100% once you get them home and they start to feel safe and comfortable.
CHOOSING A MUSTANG TO ADOPT BASED ON COLOR
Nationally, about 5 to 10% of wild horses are of colors or patterns other than bay, brown and red.
For that reason, it is better to look for a good horse with a good mind and serviceable conformation than a certain color.
Historically, the classic colors of red, bay, brown, and black were the colors favored by Cavalry Remount programs (because they are harder to see, especially at night). Classic, uncomplicated coloring has also been favored by most domestic breeds during the period when the Great Basin was settled, and the pinto patterns specifically were discriminated against during this period.
Classic solid coloring may even have an evolutionary advantage, since they may be harder for predators to see.
A good horse is never a bad color.
That said, color may matter to you.
You may feel that, if you can only get this one horse, it had better be the horse you've dreamed of all your life. One's Dream Horse is usually a certain color or color pattern, perhaps a palomino, a shiny Black Stallion, a dapple gray, or a flashy pinto. Or you may be attracted to the exotic "primitive markings" on duns.
Since your ability to commit deeply to the horse is THE prime ingredient for success, I consider a color priority to be legitimate. If you have a color preference, simply admit that you do, and don't beat yourself up over it.
On the other hand, as you get to know your new horse and to develop a bond, you are likely to stop noticing the color. If you can get past color and just choose for conformation, movement, and other qualities, such as "kind eye" or heart connection" you are more likely to get a better horse.
I see so many struggling adopters who chose their horse on flash, but the horse is not really suited to them. I also think many people go for color, simply because they don't know how to choose, and the "horse of a different color" stands out in the pen.
Your Gut-Level Connection:
The most important thing of all is for you to feel a strong commitment to your animal, because that's what it's going to take. No matter how "practical" or "rational" a choice is, your adoption project will not be successful if you cannot, in your heart, commit deeply to it.
So, after considering all the practical matters:
CHOOSE A HORSE THAT SPEAKS TO YOUR HEART.
Katie Barrett fell in love with this 12-year-old when she visited Litchfield BLM corrals to adopt, and ended up buying him (he was Sale Authority, being over 10 years old). It took much longer to gain his trust than it would have with a younger horse, but here he is shown, doing his first ride.
The horse above was trained at the Carson City prison program, and is now Carson, shown below getting ready for a parade.
A pregnant mare or a mare who has just had a foal, can be a force to contend with. This is something to consider when adopting a recently-gathered mature mare. Sadly, many mares end up being cast off after their foal is weaned, because the foal is easy to handle but the mare is still wild. Don't do that!