Wild horses are intelligent.
That's the first thing out of the mouth of anyone who has adopted one when asked what they're like.
Wild horses, sometimes called mustangs, are feral animals that come from horses let loose by the Spanish three hundred years ago or maybe by a destitute farmer during the Great Depression. Utah is one of only five states with herds one of only three with animals that go back to the Spanish and occasionally they have to be captured and adopted out to prevent overgrazing.
This weekend at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center in South Jordan from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., adopters who have trained their horses will show them off and compete in both English and Western style events. It's the 10th and biggest year for the Utah event, sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program and one of only about eight events like it in the country.
"This show is fun," said Gus Warr, program leader. "It's a chance for people to show off what they've done with their horses."
Just as more hunting licenses are given when deer populations increase, the BLM has "gatherings." Herds grow about 15 to 20 percent a year, so every few years the gatherings are held and the horses stored at short-term facilities in Herriman or Delta until the young ones are adopted or the older ones sent to sanctuaries in the Midwest. Adoption rates are down in recent years, forcing the program to use 60 to 70 percent of its annual budget on caring for these horses in storage, Warr said.
Anyone can adopt a wild horse for a $125 fee, but training them for work or recreational use is not for everyone.
Craig and Janene Linnen of West Haven said they spent about 10 hours a week for over a year training their horses. They have two mares, one of which recently birthed a filly, and they call the experience "thrilling."
"You're not just dealing with a horse, but a wild animal. They start with that 'fight or flight' mentality," Janene Linnen said. "But there's a thrill in taking something unused to human handling and turning it around and making it into something."
Some horses can be ready for a saddle in a few months, depending on personality and the commitment of the trainer, Warr said.
Admiration for the mustang earned it federal protection in 1971 and motivates people like Richard Sewing to keep looking after them. Sewing is a Washington-appointed member of an advisory board that counsels the BLM in its efforts. He's also a member of the National Mustang Association, an advocacy group that strives to improve conditions for herds in their ranges, like creating additional water holes in drought-stricken areas.
Sewing said he's seen wild horses figure out the latches on their corrals and let themselves out. Once while hunting in Chloride Canyon near Cedar City he ran across an isolated herd that has developed blindness through inbreeding. The horses ran from him in single file because the blind ones were following "buddies."
"Don't let anyone tell you they're not smart," he said.
Mustangs are also tough. They usually win long-distance stamina races and have better hooves than quarter horses.
They're also loyal and very teachable, Craig Linnen said. After three years he decided to take his mares back to where they were captured for a visit. He said they shook with excitement and recognition at being home, but never tried to bolt and didn't fight getting back in their trailer.Rising fuel and feed costs are discouraging many people from owning horses, Warr said, driving down the price of domestic horses. Wild horses are no longer a great bargain, making it hard for him to find adopters. He's hoping that events such as this one will show people how much fun these animals can be and will highlight the need for people passionate about mustangs to get involved and help care for them.