Horse News

National Treasures: Groups Hope to Save Auction-Bound Wild Horses

Source: By Danielle Endvick, as published in The Country Today

“We did lose eight horses to slaughter last time…”

photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

A dressage show is hardly the first place you would expect to find a horse that once roamed wild in the Badlands.

But that’s just where Michigan native Samantha Behn could be found this summer with her horse, Arrow.

Her neck slung low, Behn’s bay roan patiently awaits her turn in the show-ring.

“People notice her, how mellow she is,” Behn said. “A lot of them don’t believe it when I say she was wild.”

Five-year-old Arrow was born in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, where more than 200 wild horses still roam today. The mare was sold as a weanling in a 2009 auction to help control herd numbers.

Bidders will once again have the chance to take home one of the national treasures at a Sept. 28 auction at Wishek Livestock Sales in Wishek, N.D.

Park volunteer Marylu Weber, who has helped track and identify the wild horses since 1999, said roughly 115 head, mostly 3 years old and younger, are expected to sell.

“No one really knows when the horses first came into the area, but we think they’ve been wild for probably 150 years,” she said.

Bob Fjetland, president of the North Dakota Badlands Horse, said some believe the horses can be traced back to Sitting Bull’s own stock.

“They really are representative of the turn-of-the-century ranch horse,” he said.

“Back in that era, the local ranchers really admired the traditional Indian pony for its speed and stamina, but the farmers needed a horse that could work the fields all day, drive the wagon to town and do all the multifaceted things that were required of a ranch horse,” he said, noting the horses also exhibit influences of the Thoroughbred, Morgan and draft horses of the time.

“It ended up in a horse that’s got great bone, great feet, is well-muscled and, through their development in the wild over time, only the strong and the smart survived,” he said. “It really is a great all-around horse.”

Weber said DNA testing has also indicated Spanish influences.

The horses are not as small as traditional mustangs.

“They’re very well put together,” Weber said, noting heights average above 15 hands.

The herd is known for its array of colors.

“Roans are prominent,” Weber said. “Some of them are really unusual. They’re such striking bold colors — really something to see.”

Wild heritage

From the moment he stumbled upon the wild horses, also known as Nokotas, Fjetland knew he had found something unique.

“I’d had the usual, the Quarter horses, Appaloosas, Arabians, but I always seemed to be looking for something more,” he said. “No doubt about it, this was the horse for me.”

One of his favorite wild horse watching moments took place last summer as a mare and her days-old foal navigated a deep drywash gully in the park.

“The banks were 10 feet tall, fairly narrow, not totally vertical, but fairly steep,” Fjetland recalled. When the mare shimmied up the bank, her foal sure-footedly followed.

“I said to myself ‘That’s what makes these horses different,’ ” he said. “By the time that baby’s a few weeks old, it will have done more physically than a domestic horse does in its lifetime.”

Population control

Held every few years, the roundups are part of ongoing efforts in population control on the 20 bands that roam the park, Weber said.

Though the auctions have been criticized by some who would like all of the horses to remain wild, Weber said they are a necessary step.

“I think often people don’t understand that the park is completely fenced,” she said. “The horses only range in the park, and because there are other large ungulates like bison, elk, deer and pronghorn that have to feed in the park — and a lack of large predators — they have to be managed.”

Fjetland said the park staff recognizes that roundups alone are not the answer to managing the horses.

“The park has been very, very proactive in considering matters of birth control,” he said. “In 2009, in conjunction with the University of Colorado, they implemented the first round of a birth control program.”

The university will initiate a second round this fall.

“One of the things we as a group are really advocating is the idea of doing smaller low-stress roundups,” Fjetland said.

Due to the park’s terrain, the horses traditionally are rounded up with helicopters.

“Ideally we’d like to be able to bait and trap … to pull some of the weanlings out in the fall of the year when they’re most marketable,” Fjetland said.

Weber said smaller roundups held more frequently would allow the park to bring bands in rather than the entire herd.

The right facilities

Weber, who bought two of the park’s horses in the last sale in 2009, stressed that buyers must remember the horses will be fresh off the range.

“If people are considering buying one of these horses we want to make sure they have the right facilities and some experience or at least someone who has experience with horses to help them,” she said.

“These are not like domestic horses,” she said. “If someone has the skill and the facility to do it carefully and gently, they gentle down to be wonderful horses, but it’s important to understand how much you have to go through just to be able to touch them, to pick up their feet, to put a halter on. In some cases it can take months.”

Six-foot-high fences are recommended for anything at least a year old.

A call for help

Several groups, including The Cloud Foundation and Legacy Mustang Preservation, have joined together to raise funds to help prevent any of the park’s horses from going to slaughter…(CONTINUED)

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8 replies »

  1. This is a terrible thing, and I pray all the horses can be saved. However, I find the section about population control encouraging. Management in a fenced, sanctuary-type environment is essential. Infrequent roundups that result in large numbers of wild horses and burros being brought in at once overwhelms people’s ability to rescue them and find good homes. It also denies many people the unique relationship with horses born in the wild, because they don’t have the skills to get them to a place where they can be handled. Just taking them to a trainer often results in a “lazy” owner, who thinks a wild horse has suddenly become domestic. They don’t create a firm foundation for progress, and constantly reinforce it. As a result, the horse often reverts and ends up “unwanted” on Craigslist or some other place Kill Buyers troll. Bait and trap, annual, fertility control DONE PROPERLY (the BLM’S big failing!), taking fewer at the right age, “starting” them toward a useful future, showcasing their versatility … the right combination of factors will lead to good outcomes for the wild ones of TR and other places where active management is necessary.


    • At the last sale from this park the horses were brought directly to the sale from the wild. It was a very tense sale. One man bought a mare and put her into his trailer and and returned to the sale leaving her alone. She died and I would venture to say from shock, fear, loss and grief. I do hope this will not happen ever again.

      I do not believe any of us have the answers until we have studied our wild ones where they live. Doing this is getting to be a harder thing as more interference from man continues. We need time and to begin to know them through studies that will define them and show us what they need. the answers are with the horses and we need to unlock them and then and only then, will we ‘know what to do’ about our wild ones. We need recovery time, too.

      MORATORIUM; 10 years of peace, study, recovery and discovery.


  2. This is about a petition to stop oil drilling in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park! This is an out of the way park and I fear the oil companies want to set a precedent to have extractive industries invade our National Parks that have resources they want. This is our land just as our public lands and there is a Stop Fracking On Our Public Lands Petition also.
    Dear Marilyn,

    Thanks for signing our petition, “Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell: Protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Elkhorn Ranch.”

    Can you help this petition win by asking your friends to sign too? It’s easy to share with your friends on Facebook – just click here to share the petition on Facebook.

    There’s also a sample email below that you can forward to your friends.

    Thanks again — together we’re making change happen,

    Dakota Resource Council


    Note to forward to your friends:


    I just signed the petition “Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell: Protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Elkhorn Ranch” on

    It’s important. Will you sign it too? Here’s the link:




    • Is this park the same one where these wild horses come from? I did sign the petition – sure hope it does some good. But don’t have much faith in Sally Jewell.


    • Thanks for providing the petition…signed and will share. Our parks belong to the American people and should be protected for future generations, as well as; our beautiful wild horses!


  3. Mar, I agree – no faith! But if we MAKE them know we are still here & complain enough about how they do things – at least its something. Theres no way they should be drilling in the parks – just read an article about a Texas town that now is without water because the fracking companies plus the drought had completely drained their well. Its possible this was not recent, either. Why cant we stop this ruination (is there such a word?) of the land and the eradication of the wild animals who live there?


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