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Wild horses, burros get adopted, not dragged away

On a rainy day outside Rock Springs, folk and families give permanent homes and shelter to six horses, three burros captured on BLM land.

Wild horses await adoption at the BLM corrals near Rock Springs. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

ROCK SPRINGS — They came from Nevada and were a bit smaller and thinner-boned than their Wyoming cousins. They might not have been perfect for a mountain elk hunt or a week’s pack trip into the Thorofare, but for a teenage barrel racer — just right.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management put 40 captured wild horses and 10 burros up for adoption outside Rock Springs last week. After a half day of viewing, inspecting and selecting, six horses and three burros were cut from the herds and shooed through chutes and runways into trailers that would take them to their new, permanent homes.

Brothers Jake and Trevor Hicks brought their families up from Mountain View, looking for a yearling each. They planned to train and add them to the ranch’s working herd, to be used for hunting and packing.

At just $125 each — with the potential to earn $1,000 from the BLM for keeping and humanely caring for the animal for a year — adopting once-free mustangs has been a good deal for the Hicks brothers.

“They tend to be smart, sure-footed … compact. I think they’re awesome.”


Last time they took a horse home, “in 10 days we were riding her,” Jake Hicks said.

Brad, Tammy and Paige White drove from Evanston to look, but couldn’t immediately decide on taking a horse home. After a break for lunch, they were back smiling, filling out adoption forms that described their new horse’s corral space, shelter and water.

The adoption event drew cowboys Nate Stubbs and Enoch Chatwin up from Arizona, looking for the “the biggest you can get” and the ones with the least amount of human influence. They would gentle and train the animals themselves to be used for herding cattle, riding trails.

That the horses were untouched was paramount. “We don’t want anybody else messing with our horsemanship,” Chatwin said.

Wyoming tough

Operating under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM seeks to limit Wyoming’s wild horse population at 3,795 or fewer across 4.7 million acres. The agency currently estimates the state’s wild horse population at 10,264, almost three times the BLM’s upper goal.

Nationwide, the BLM counts 58,952 wild horses and 14,568 burros — 73,520 animals — where the agency’s “appropriate management level” calls for 26,785. As populations increase, the agency gathers, or rounds up, wild-running bands and corrals them for gentling, adoption, sale or auction. Some are released back to the wild, others are destined for captive life in a BLM pasture.

Trevor and Jake Hicks, brothers from Mountain View, discuss business at the BLM wild horse and burro adoption in Rock Springs. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

At Rock Springs, the corrals hold up to 800 horses, some there only for a stopover during cross-country transport.

A small crew — Remo Dansereau, the knowledgeable “D.J.” and others — sees the bands through the weather, pitching hay daily. The corral workers “all have a deep passion for horses,” BLM spokesman Micky Fisher said.

Last week about 70 people walked among about 10 corrals that separated horses and burros by sex, age and other factors. Each animal wore a rope collar from which dangled an ID tag.

Clipboards wired to corral fencing listed some particulars for each animal, including original home ranges: Last week’s adoption featured the collection from Nevada.

“They tend to run a little smaller,” Dansereau said. Wyoming horses gathered from the nearby Salt Wells and White Mountain herds have better feed and water, said Pat Doak, a photographer who advocates for adoption and shoots pictures for new owners.

Some adopters look for color, or want an animal from a particular herd, or a horse they might have come to know when it was in the wild. Horses from Salt Wells in southern Wyoming have flaxen tails and manes. The McCullough herd east of Cody boasts color. The McCullough rainbow includes blue, red and strawberry roan; gray and palomino; bay; brown; black; sorrel; chestnut; white; buckskin and pinto, the BLM says. McCullough fans have named individuals — Taboo, Top Gun, Jigsaw, Thor, Tempest and so on.

“I think it’s a great program, having seen the joy it brings to a lot of families,” Fisher said. At Rock Springs, adopters also get a Doak picture or two.

“It does make the horse more special,” the photographer said.

All her horses are pretty

Some horses have been gentled, halter-started or saddled-started, at the Mantle Ranch outside Wheatland or by inmates at the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.

“They’re really nice horses, great for recreational mountain use,” said Mark Atkinson, a lifelong equestrian, professional wilderness packer, trail rider and hunter who adopted three horses from the Honor Farm. “They tend to be smart, sure-footed … compact,” the Lander resident said. “I think they’re awesome.”

Lander’s Kelsey Wicks has four BLM horses she uses to restock NOLS wilderness expeditions and teach riding. She came to the adoption and auction programs while working at NOLS’s Three Peaks Ranch outside of Boulder almost a decade ago.

Children from Green River named their newly adopted horse Rocco even before he was shooed into the family’s trailer at the BLM wild horse and burro adoption near Rock Springs. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“They seemed like really smart and athletic horses in general,” she said. Those gentled at the Honor Farm give owners a head start in training. “All are still young and early in their learning progression,” Wicks said.

When adopting, she looks for a Goldilocks temperament: “Athletic and energetic but not too spooky or hot … something that doesn’t want to nap all day long.”

Personality is apparently only one factor. “Friends do accuse me of only liking pretty horses,” Wicks said.

The BLM and its contractors freeze brand the gathered mustangs, indelibly coloring an animal’s hide and hair on the neck. In addition to in-person adoptions, the BLM operates an online adoption corral that includes videos of the animals.

A 3-year-old gelding — horse no. 0104 — for example “is un-touched with no training,” the site advertises. The BLM gathered the energetic 15-hand bay from the Twin Peaks herd in California. He stuck his tongue out as he pranced back and forth in front of the camera last month. Fully 180 people viewed his particulars as the deadline for adoption loomed. Horses and burros that are sought by more than one party are auctioned, some animals bringing thousands of dollars.

Horses that are older than 10 years and have not been adopted after three attempts can be sold, although the agency won’t knowingly let them go to slaughterhouses or to those who would resell them to such facilities.

The BLM can’t find homes for its wards, but it’s still responsible for them and holds 60,887 in pastures and corrals. The entire program cost the agency $157 million in 2023.

With virtually no natural horse predators and an ability for a band to double its size in four years, the BLM’s responsibility for range health weighs against letting herds expand and run unfettered on semi-arid, sagebrush lands. Adopter Atkinson, who has a professional awareness of ecological health, saw one site used by too many wild horses. “It looked impacted,” he said.

The size of the horses, rounded up in Nevada, disappointed Enoch Chatwin, who drove up from Arizona to adopt a horse. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The Wild Free–Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 requires the BLM “to protect and manage wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of the public lands.” The law acknowledges that wild horses are “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” 

Wild horse advocates accuse the agency of inappropriately favoring livestock grazers, rounding up horses in brutal helicopter-driven stampedes and sentencing some to long-term warehousing. The BLM treated more than 700 animals with fertility control last year.

The BLM lists injuries and deaths from roundups and seeks to maintain “healthy horses and burros on healthy public rangelands,” the agency says in its information pages.

“It is law for us to do this,” BLM spokesman Fisher said. “A lot of the attention is naturally on the gather part. I would love it if there was more attention on the adoption side.”

Wicks respects the BLM’s efforts, she said. “I think they’re constantly trying to figure out how to have these horses adoptable, available for people to find them.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.