It has been a small eternity and then some since I have written anything for this blog. That can only mean one thing:
Time to make people mad.
I am not joking about that. I fully expect that this is going to upset people. I’ve made my peace with that. But just like Elvis can’t help falling in love with you, I can’t help but process my feelings through the written word.
Once upon a time there were tens of thousands of free-roaming wild horses. They belonged to all of us. They belonged to absolutely no one. They spent their lives going where they pleased, choosing their mates, forming families, facing the elements and seeking out a life all their own.
One day that ended.
The rhythmic thump thump thump of a chopper’s blades overhead drove them into traps. Dust flew everywhere, coating their eyes and noses. Betrayed by their own personal Judas they were shut in by metal bars, separated from one another and thrown into the belly of a fire-breathing dragon on wheels, surrounded by metal above & below. The scent of sage replaced by the scent of diesel exhaust. Panicked bodies of horses they didn’t know pressed against them at all sides.
Then comes the processing. Pushed out of a semi and into a squeeze shoot. Poked with a needle, mouth yanked open with a cruel device, buzzing clippers clearing the way for the hiss of a brand icing its way across the neck. Once that’s finally over with it’s time to be thrown into a dusty, barren pen. Sure there’s plenty to eat and drink but there’s nowhere to roam. There are other horses but few, if any, that are members of that old family now ripped apart.
The social structure of the former bands, be they family or bachelor, has been stripped away leaving this hollow shell of what once was there. The young can no longer rely on the old for their wisdom & comfort. The elderly have nobody to protect and teach, no warm bodies to huddle against when the driving winds are especially fierce. The stallions, for what little time they will remain stallions, are permanently separated from what used to be their life’s work: the mares they fought and bled for. The pregnant mares will be left to eventually give birth on full display, surrounded by hundreds of eyes bringing their young into a world they themselves don’t entirely understand.
It’s a sad thing.
Horses are amazing, adaptable creatures. The stresses, the changes they face? All those can be overcome but for all they will come to accept the new normal it doesn’t change the fact that any happiness from the moment they hit the trap forward is just a band aid over all that they lost.
And here’s the fun thing: all those horses trapped in holding pens? They still belong to each and every one of us, and yet none of us. Most facilities are closed to the public. The pride and spirit of the West, symbols of American freedom forever locked away, hidden in their little boxes and all in the name of progress. Time to mold them, reshape them into productive members of society, into something that can be used, something who’s value is decided by what they can do for us.
We civilians have no more control over their fate than the mustangs themselves do. Yet at this point they are still our horses. Ours but not ours. Now there is only one way, one hope of seeing and enjoying them once more.
It’s a beautiful and an ugly word, isn’t it? So much time is spent gushing over how wonderful adoption is. It doesn’t matter what species you’re talking about, whether you’re taking in a horse, a dog, or even a human child. It’s all words about how important it is and how kind a person one must be to make room in their home to help in such a way.
It makes it easy to gloss over the fact that adoption is equally about loss. If we lived in a perfect world, adoption would not exist, not even as a concept in our minds. There would be no need for it. We wouldn’t have to worry about the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the downtrodden. Yet here we are. And there the Mustangs are, who have become all of those things.
It was 4:30 a.m. on a Friday when I arrived at the Rock Springs short term holding facility. By 5:17 (but who’s counting) I sat my butt down to create the line for a 9 a.m. wild horse adoption event. If this sounds crazy that’s because it is. The temperature was in the 20s. Now granted that felt downright balmy after the last two weeks living in Nebraska, but still. It was freaking cold. Cold enough that I could only manage half my can of spaghetti-o’s before the temperatures congealed the rest together into a sad, frigid sludge. The sun wouldn’t come up for another two hours and there wasn’t much to do besides fret and pray. But mostly fret.
You see, there was a specific horse that I was aiming to adopt. Photos were posted on a private Facebook page proving that horse was going to be one of the ones available on this day. It was a horse I knew in the wild, one that I had formed a connection with – that special spark that I’m convinced Shakespeare himself wouldn’t be able to explain. That weird flash that we all instinctively know and understand when we feel it. Every wild horse is special and every encounter feels a little bit like magic, but sometimes there’s just that little bit of extra binding it all together.
Two weeks before the roundup I promised that little horse I would do what I could everything I could to help. It felt gross making that promise. For all while I was desperately hoping that something, anything would happen to keep the entire band safe from the helicopters. This too is a feeling so many of us know all too well. It’s feeling so very, very small, alone in an endless sea of sage knowing that all the wishes and hopes in the world can’t stop the inevitable. It is having to live & accept the knowledge that you are completely and utterly powerless. It’s watching the world decay all around you and yet holding your chin up and pretending you can’t see the rot.
Back at the gate, it felt a tad silly. I still didn’t really know what I was doing there so early, but trusted my friends who cautioned me that yes, it really was going to be necessary. My friends were most certainly right. By 6:30 a.m. a couple more people joined. From that point forward a steady stream of incoming trailers began to park on the side of the road. By 8 a.m. we had a full-blown madding crowd on our hands.
Honestly? It was a jovial affair. There was joking, horse stories to swap, and the shared burden of the cold temperatures. People were ready and eager to bring home a horse. There was no talk of their former lives before the roundup, though. It wasn’t that such commentary was shot down so much as it was ignored. It was as though even the thought of these horses existing outside of this place, before this moment, made people uncomfortable.
BLM employees started showing up to get everything set up and ready on the other side of the fence. Kathi & Monica worked their butts off and were so kind and wonderful helping me get my application approved. And DJ? Shout out to DJ because that man is good people right there. It was orderly, it was smooth. We got our instructions right before the gate opened, now holding up a laminated map of where to see the horses and where to fill out the adoption paperwork.
In any other circumstance it would be a fun day of meeting new people. A good forever home with a loving adopter is the best hope any of these horses will get at this point, so isn’t it wonderful that so many people are willing to do just that? Yet as the seconds started to count down, as more and more people continued to arrive my heartbeat quickened and nausea rose in my gut. I couldn’t explain why, not yet, but the only thing running through my head was a stream of the same words over and over. This is wrong. Something about all of this is very, very wrong.
The gates opened, everyone through in orderly fashion per the first come, first serve rule the BLM had so clearly laid out and, well… Turns out rules didn’t really matter so much in my case. Cheaters gonna cheat. Special connection or no, the horse I sought was not coming home with me.
This isn’t really about that horse. It hurt. It hurt more than I had expected it to. But that’s the kind of hurt that we all are going to experience in our lifetimes. I don’t need to write pages and pages of words to process that grief – as it is, it’s merely round two of a grief I’d already faced back in October when even the raging Wyoming winds weren’t enough to stop the determination of the BLM to take and take and take.
No, there’s more to it than that. Let’s keep digging.
The Red Desert is a big place, and from what I could tell from the photos I only knew 6 or 7 of the horses that were available. Knowing a horse before you adopt them is not a requirement by any stretch. Many, many wonderful Mustang owners will never have the ability to see a horse in the wild, let alone see the horse they adopt beforehand. I would never, ever judge someone for adopting via an internet auction or a desperate Facebook plea to get a horse out of a kill buyer pen. However, there is a degree of practicality when one decides to bring home a new family member that can be 30+ year commitment.
There is the physical side if you intend to train a horse to ride or drive – conformation, size, how they move. I would argue what’s even more important is what’s going on in their minds. Watching how a horse interacts with the others in the pen, getting a feel for their personality, where they naturally fall in the hierarchy gives critical clues to how they would integrate in their new home. It can tell you what some of the horse’s strengths & needs may be when working with them.
With that thought piercing through the litany of You failed, you failed, I can’t believe you failed dancing through my skull, I stepped out of the line and swung round to the row of five pens that housed the horses that were being offered. My fingertips were buzzing by that point. I was simultaneously trying to keep calm and carry on but also pinpoint why everything felt so wrong when outwardly the first fifteen minutes were going like clockwork.
There were about 6 other people back with the horses, all of them the “plus one” folks there to help adopters. These helpers weren’t allowed to stand around for the paperwork in these pandemic times. So few. Where were the adopters themselves? Getting a copy of the application form that proved you were allowed to adopt only took but a minute.
I watched the available horses for a while. The energy and overall atmosphere had them hyped up, trotting in circles together, all huddled in the back of the pens where the humans weren’t. There was a seal bay filly I liked the look of and a pinto who seemed calmer & more relaxed than the rest, but I couldn’t convince myself to walk back to the line to request either of them. That churning wrongness in my gut was only getting stronger. I suddenly knew that I could not stomach being an active participant in… whatever it was that was happening all around me.
Resigning myself to a long drive home with an empty trailer and a Canon City adoption in my future I came up for air. Now able to turn my attention to something that wasn’t a horse I looked around the wide aisle and… seriously, where the heck was everybody? I was standing in the center of an aisle surrounded by pens of horses at an event where the sole purpose was to adopt a horse and nobody was looking at the horses?
Before the gates opened there were a veritable throng of people – it was enough to make you feel claustrophobic. On top of that, many of those people were TIP trainers or “storefront” people who were told they had to wait an hour to choose their horses to allow the adopters more time to decide.
So where the heck was everybody?
I headed back to the front to locate a friend and to make a quick run to my truck to trade my adoption paperwork for a camera. Sure enough, I rounded that corner and everyone was still just standing there, waiting in a line at the table where you selected your horse. Taped to a hay bale were pages of tag numbers, dozens of them now crossed off indicating that horse had been adopted.
Camera in hand and a couple bites of granola in my gut, I passed the line of people, still long and holding steady, and returned to the pens. It was almost a relief to see there a few people actively looking at all the horses & trying to write down tag numbers (lookin’ at you Daniel Boone, keep on the keepin on). By that point the most colorful horses had all been chosen. It stood to reason that people who missed out on the flashy ones would have to start looking a little closer at what was left.
Still, the numbers weren’t quite adding up in my head. If nothing else, I figured that surely there would be adopters standing out there, seeing the horse they adopted with their own eyes for the first time, gazes filled with pride and excitement. There wasn’t any of that. I didn’t want to be a total pretentious jerk, even in my own mind, so I wondered if that’s just how these things go. This wasn’t my first rodeo and I’d been to adoption events like this in the past but maybe I missed something at those? Maybe this is always the norm and I’m the weird one?
And here is where I must confess that I stumble, dear reader. For this is the part in our tale where my mind truly started to unravel all of those threads that had been twisting and writhing in a big jumbled knot in my mind. The realization was an ugly one. I am all too aware of how I may come across from this point on. I can envision that someone may read this and think me petulant and whiney, spinning a sob story like a bratty child because I didn’t get “my horse”. Or that I am judging people for letting color and (to a lesser extent on this day) build dictate what’s important to them in a horse. That I am being unfair or implying that all you internet adopters out there are bad because you didn’t spend time with your horse first. Heck, maybe even that I am “one of those people” because clearly us wild horse advocate types are always looking for any bone we can pick with the BLM.
That last one was pure sarcasm, by the way. But none of them are true.
I didn’t meet a single person that I disliked that day, BLM or civilian (granted I was avoiding specific BLM employees). Everyone with the public seemed really nice. Their intentions seemed good enough. None of them struck me as blatantly being the type to take advantage of the $1,000 incentive and ship the horses off to slaughter the second they could. The BLM employees were kind and helpful and as efficient as they could be under the circumstances. They cared and continue to care about the well-being of the horses remaining in their holding facility and what happened to them after they were adopted out.
It wasn’t the players; it was the game. That terrible game that we are all forced to play. It doesn’t matter if a person is pro-BLM or a wild horse advocate: anyone wanting to do a little bit of good for a captive horse has to fall in line and volunteer as Tribute. For this is a game designed to bring out the worst in people. It thrives on greed, covetousness, jealousy, and strife all while dressing the whole affair up in a pretty little package so you can pretend that it’s really about kindness, mercy, love, and compassion.
That wrongness? That question that would not stop plaguing me had a deceptively simple answer:
These weren’t horses at all.
They looked like horses. They smelled like horses, moved like horses. But they were trophies, all of them. Commodities. Tools. Toys. Prizes to be acquired. Carve another notch in the bedpost because hoo boy look at the shiny.
These horses’ stories didn’t matter. Where they come from, who their true family was… that was no longer relevant. They’d been reduced to little more than objects now. Each one completely interchangeable. As though taking home a living, breathing animal requires little more thought than choosing a Build-A-Bear. There was no need to go back and look at the horses that were available, don’t be silly. A photo on the internet can tell you all you need to know.
And in that is a paradox. There are two seemingly opposite things can both be true at the same time. I was trapped in the middle of a feeding frenzy that also happened to still be an event filled with mostly decent people trying to do a good thing. Greed and love mixing together so well you can’t tell them apart. It can be both a flush of happiness that horses are finding homes and a deep lingering depression that nobody gives two shits about what the word home used to mean before the roundup.
In this way, I discovered it’s possible to be disgusted at absolutely everything without being disgusted at anyone at all.
A total of 3,190 horses were removed from the Red Desert over a two-year period. Sixty-eight were adopted last Friday. That amounts to about 2% of what was taken from us.
Of those removed in 2020, 34 are dead
The HMAs that contribute to the complex are popular enough – and perhaps more importantly colorful enough – that it is likely they will have a higher percentage of horses adopted compared to some of their brethren in Nevada, Utah, and the other states.
How many of those horses will end up in good homes vs. how many will end up in the slaughter pipeline? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. I would put forth that the true number of BLM adoptions since 2019 hasn’t increased one iota. Not really. What has increased is people pocketing their $1,000 incentive money and then profiting even more by selling unlucky horses to a slaughter the moment they are legally able to do so.
And what about the horses who aren’t adopted? What about all those horses in holding right now that are too old, too small, too brown, have legs that are just a little bit funny or heads that are just a little too big?
Do those horses cease to matter? Is it really okay to stand by and watch people pat themselves on the back for “rescuing” a horse that never needed to be rescued in the first place? To feel good about that one bit of success while your new horse’s brothers and sisters fade away behind tall fences and locked gates? Can we continue to stomach that this is all okay, that it’s normal for people to lie and cheat, to scrap against one another over silly qualities and features that never made a bit of difference when they were still free?
And turning that mirror back on myself: how do I rectify the pain I feel inside over the loss one horse when, really, I lost thousands? How much weight can I really pin on a horse who likely only saw me as a blip on the radar, if they remembered me at all? How can I go out and hug my own horses and pretend that everything that happened to them way back when was okay? How can I scroll through 42 pages of horses on a spreadsheet and force myself to be numb to the reality that all these magnificent, fierce creatures have become nothing more than numbers in an Excel document? Numbers branded on their skin before they’re dumped in a dusty pen, doomed to have their lives forevermore controlled by two-legged overseers.
Perhaps one other paradox, then: This story? Their story? It can still be a little bit about one horse and at the same time still be about thousands. Ghost horses, all of them, disappearing and fading away as if they never were. Spectres of their presence whispering on the driving winds of the desert.
Apparently those 86 horses were worth something. They were worth long drives on bad roads. They were worth standing in line for hours in the cold. Heck, they were worth lying and cheating for. Whatever a person’s motivations, on that day we all decided they were worth playing the game for.
They aren’t your horses anymore.
For whatever they may be worth to people, they weren’t deemed worthy. The Red Desert horses weren’t considered worthy enough to keep roaming free. The Red Desert horses weren’t worthy enough to be granted permission to keep living their own lives in the way they chose. The Red Desert horses weren’t worthy of a single moment of a guilty conscience chiming in to consider what they had lost in order for an adopter to gain. These Red Desert horses will never get to know anything but what we humans will allow them to know.
And really, how could they possibly be worthy of any of that? Their true worth and value doesn’t fit too well in this modern world of ours. If we recognize that, us humans wouldn’t be able to own them. Wouldn’t be able to break them. Wouldn’t be able to show them off to our friends and family on Facebook. Wouldn’t be able to take them to competitions that point out what great animal trainers we are.
They’d get to continue to belong to each and every one of us and yet absolutely no one.
But we couldn’t have that.
What value could there possibly be in that?