by Carol Walker as published on Wild Hoofbeats
On Friday, I headed to the Bureau of Land Management wild horse corrals in Rock Springs, Wyoming for a wild horse adoption event. It was 8 am and the temperature was 18 degrees. I knew it was an adoption like none I had ever attended when I saw dozens of trucks and trailers lined up by the side of the road. A huge group of people crowded together in front of the gate, waiting for the gates to open at 9 am, all wearing masks. I had attended adoptions here and at Canon City in Colorado following the Checkerboard roundups in 2014 and 2017. This was very different. Why were there so many people? It looked more like a sale at a department store than a wild horse adoption.
My primary goal when I planned to go that day was to photograph as many of the over 600 wild horses at the corrals that had been captured and removed from their homes and families forever in October and November of 2020. Just like at those previous year’s adoption, I wanted to get the word out about these horses in hopes that they would get a good home, and I was especially focused on the older horses, often the ones no one wants. I was told by staff at Canon City that my efforts and those of other photographers who posted photographs of the horses really aided in many more horses being adopted. I was eager to do this again. A week before I had spoken with adoption coordinator Monica in Cheyenne about the event. When I asked her would we be able to see all the horses at the facility I was very surprised to hear her say probably not, because of COVID and that I would need to speak to the facility manager Jake the day of the event. This did not make sense to me since everyone would be wearing masks and it was a huge outdoor facility. I immediately called Jake and left a message on his voicemail requesting that I be allowed to see and photograph all the horses at the facility. He never called me back.
When the gate opened, the huge group of people surged forward to head to the three tables to fill out paperwork to adopt a horse and to get their $1000 incentive set up. There were individuals, TIP trainers, (trainer incentive program) and TIP trainers with Storefronts that allow them to take up to 20 horses. I was the only person who headed to see the 89 1-5 year old wild horses in the pens that were being offered on Friday and Saturday for the adoption. This was extremely odd. First of all, the only way that people would have known which horse they wanted and their individual tag number to fill out on the required form is if they had visited the private Facebook page to see those photos and get those numbers. The photos of the horses were not on the BLM website. There was no mention of the private Facebook group in the Press Release about the adoption or on the BLM website. Also, at the previous events I attended, every horse in the facility was available to be adopted or sold if over 10, with the usual exceptions of health issues or mares with newborn foals. But the mares had not foaled yet. And I was not allowed to see them.
I asked several staff members if I could go see the over 500 wild horses that were not being offered for adoption that day. I ended up with three different excuses for saying no:
- There are too many people here it will scare the horses
- There are not enough staff they are busy
- The Boss said no
None of these were the COVID excuse. So at this point I am the only person looking at the horses – the big mob was all at the tables. There were at least 5 – 7 staff and volunteers wandering around watching me, following me, and checking on me. One of them could have been spared to walk me over there – and they would be able to keep an eye on me. And we would not have scared the horses. I can only assume that the Boss that said no was Jake the facility manager, but it could have been from higher up in the BLM hierarchy. I was then told I could schedule an appointment to see the horses on a Thursday or Friday in the future after the adoption and those appointments were filling up fast. I said I lived over 5 1/2 hours away, and I am here right now.
I walked around photographing the horses I could see. There were fillies, colts, and then there were pens marked not in the adoption which contained males not yet gelded, males gelded too recently to be allowed to take home immediately, and a pen of very nervous cryptorchids which are male horses who have one or two testicles that had not descended so they would not have a simple gelding procedure but would have to have a much more dangerous surgical procedure that does frequently end in death for wild horses in holding facilities, especially if those surgeries are done by veterinary students.
The last two pens that I was allowed to walk by were a pen with horses set aside for a BLM staff member, and then a lone gorgeously marked pinto that no one seemed to know why he was alone in that pen. It was very hard for me seeing horses that I knew, that I had last seen with their families in the Red Desert who are now in these pens.
Later some few people walked by to look at the horses – some of whom were frustrated because someone else had taken the horse they wanted, and they were having a hard time seeing the tag numbers on the horses. The flashy colored horses were snapped up right away. If people adopted a horse they had to load and take it immediately that afternoon. There was no casual watching the horses move, spending time watching them, going back and forth to make a decision. It felt really wrong, and I was really concerned for the horses that were adopted. The big difference at this adoption was the Adoption Incentive Program, which began in May 2019. In this program, anyone who is approved to adopt a wild horse can get $1000 per horse from the BLM. That means an individual who takes 4 horses will get $4000 and a couple could get $8000. They get $500 after two months, and then the other $500 would be given within two months after they received the title to the horse after 1 year.
When the adoption program was originally set up, it cost $125 to adopt a horse, and the adopter only received the title after 1 year. That is what I paid for my mustangs. The idea behind this was to discourage people from adopting to sell them at auction to make money because the cost to feed and house the horse would make it less likely for the adopted to be able to make money on the sale. Now that deterrent was removed. Hundreds of wild horses are being dumped, sold at auction to kill buyers as soon as those adopters had gotten their money. This is a transparent method to empty the corrals of wild horses that are so expensive to house and keep – over 50,000 of them in 2019 when the program began. There are simply not enough sanctuaries to take all these doomed horses. And the idea of seeing the Red Desert horses that I have known and loved over the past 5 years of spending time with them in all the seasons possibly ending up at slaughter sickens and grieves me. Adoption is not a solution, it is a last resort. We always hope that they go to good people but a “forever home” is not a given. Wild horses belong in the wild, in their homes, with their families. They are not “saddle horses in waiting.” They are uniquely equipped to survive in the poorest of lands, which is where they have been pushed to and they do not just survive – they thrive. They bring me and many many people all over this country and all over the world great inspiration and joy just being themselves. They are are valuable in and of themselves, unique, sensitive, sentient beings who deserve to live their lives free. They belong to all of us in America. They are not interchangeable like potatoe chips, they are not commodities, they are not nuisances nor are they pests. It is a great gift to be able to spend time with them, one I am thankful for every day.
The Bureau of Land Management needs to stop rounding up wild horses. They need to stop filling the corrals. They need to manage these horses on our public lands. They need to remove the Incentive program. They need to allow the public access to the horses that are currently in holding facilities. If they stop filling the corrals they will not need to employ extreme measures to empty them.
In 2018 the BLM removed 1442 wild horses from the over 700,000 acre Red Desert Complex. 25 were released, 10 died during the roundup. The BLM only stopped because the holding facilities were full. In 2020 Cattoor Livestock came back and they rounded up 1970 more horses. They released 197 and 10 were killed. Since the roundup 24 more have died in the Rock Springs corrals and the corrals at Canon City where over 1200 of the horses are being held, a facility closed to the public. At the time these horses were rounded up, the BLM posted on the website devoted to the roundup: “the corrals receiving the horses from the gathers will not be taking requests from the public to hold specific horses.” The vast majority of these horses I will never see again. They are irreplaceable, and I will never forget them.
Here is a video I recorded the day before the adoption, from the overlook area at the Corrals: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLabUnth6co/