On Saturday morning, I drove to the Walmart in El Dorado, Kansas to go on the tour provided by the Bureau of Land Management of one of the largest Long Term Holding facilities for wild horses in the country. With 4400 wild horses on 32000 acres, Bob Buford’s Shadow 7 Ranch is known to the BLM as the “Teeterville Complex.” There were lakes and plentiful waterholes and very green grass, almost so green it hurts your eyes, completely unlike the arid, sparse range that these horses are used to.
Over 200 members of the public signed up for the tour, and there were more BLM staffers than I have ever seen in one place before, including from Washington D.C. Lily Thomas and Joan Guilfoyle, new Chief of the Wild Horse and Burro Division. Many of the people on the tour had never seen a wild horse, but there were also people wearing mustang club t-shirts.
While on one of the 5 huge air conditioned buses, we were given explanations about wild horses on the range and the need for holding facilities, and shown excerpts of the shiny new BLM Propaganda DVD “The Story of America’s Wild Horses and Burros.” We were also told that the main problem facing wild horses was overpopulation. There was absolutely no mention of cattle or sheep on the range, who vastly outnumber wild horses.
At least they did not include portions of Lili Thomas’ video where she claims that wild horses are far better off in long term holding than in the wild, and that the BLM is “removing them from stress” – in case you missed this gem, here it is: http://www.thehorse.com/Video.aspx?n=behind-blm-pasture-gates&vID=578
Some of the rhetoric made it seem as though the horses in this facility would never leave, no longer eligible for adoption, but live out their lives in idyllic splendor in the rich grass fields of Kansas. But I did ask and clarify that the 10 and older horses could be sold without limitation, and were at risk of ending up who knows where – at risk of being slaughtered. Paul McGuire from Oklahoma told me that only 1000-1500 horses were sold per year from long term holding, but when I had an opportunity to speak to Bob Buford myself, those figures seem low. He told me had had just sent 200 to a couple of different states, and this last year had sent 1700 to Hutchison Correctional Facility. He told me that the mortality rate is about 3 – 4% and the horses can live to 25 or even 30, which is a good 5-10 more years than in the wild.
35 million dollars from American taxpayers is spent every year keeping these wild horses in short term and long term holding facilities, instead of leaving them free on the range. Many more millions are spent each year rounding up and removing them from their homes.
With 5 buses, you can imagine that wild horses might not be easy to get close to, and you would be right. We started in the mare pastures, with horses being segregated by sex, as in all the holding facilities. At the first stop, as people piled off the buses cameras in hand, the horses ran, stopped, moved around, and got further and further away from all the hullabaloo. Some of my closer images were taken out of a tinted bus window.
We got off the buses two more times, and were treated to a large group of mares curious enough to run a big circle around the vehicles. Then we headed to a huge machine shed for lunch, mercifully not being treated to a long lecture by the BLM – they though better of it given the heat and so many people packed into the building.
After lunch we headed for the gelding pastures in another part of the ranch. The geldings seemed far more skittish than the mares, and every time we saw horses they ran. They also were in much smaller groups, and we saw two or three horses together as well.
Bob Buford attempted to get a group of geldings to come closer with the help of 4 wheelers, but the wild horses were smart enough to get away, and keep going.
During the tour, I was very aware of the absence of one of the most vital parts of wild horse society – family. It was odd seeing groups of mares all by themselves – they formed in large groups, very unlike the usual small families of 2 to 10, with the stallion, mares, youngsters and foals. It is a beautiful, sterile environment, and reminded me more watching of a group of ranch horses than wild horses.
The horses seemed to be in good condition, and many people asked me about their feet, which I was not able to get a good close look at, but zooming in on the photos showed wear and tear that looked like in the wild.
After this, the decision was made to head back to Walmart and our cars, including mine with my “Save America’s Wild Horses” magnets on the side – I received quite a few thumbs up on this. The BLM stayed to answer questions, and I was happy to get on the road heading toward home, and my three adopted mustangs.