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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Robyn Van Valkenburg shows off Champion, a mustang from Divide Basin, Wyo., Friday, May 24, 2013, at Van Valkenburg's house in Bluffdale. Van Valkenburg has been working with Champion for the past month working to train him to be a good, rideable horse.
A wild horse is a wild horse. They live and die in the wild—that is their natural habitat. I think any of us would rather live and die in our own home rather than in incarceration. —Paula King, director of communications for the Cloud Foundation

SOUTH JORDAN — Mustangs pulled from the wild could gain a better chance at a stable life than the one it left behind when a two-day auction gets underway Friday to place formerly wild horses with new owners.

And it just might be the start of solving a national housing problem for horses.

“We are very concerned and stressed about the fact that we don’t have much capacity remaining to hold any excess animals that might need to come off the range,” Gus Warr, Wild Horse and Burro Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, said.

“(Not) getting those animals adopted limits the opportunity for us to remove excess animals that might be potentially causing impacts on the rangelands.”

The population of wild horses and burros living on public lands has grown from about 25,300 to about 37,300 since 1971, according to the BLM. Thinning the herd is part of a BLM program to keep the number of horses just above 25,000 to manage rangelands.

But about 50,000 wild horses and burros across the nation, including 2,200 in Utah, have already been rounded up and currently occupy BLM holding corrals. When the program started, approximately 6,000 to 8,000 animals were being adopted per year nationwide. But with recession impacting horse ownership, that number has dropped dramatically; last year only 2,500 were adopted, Warr said.

Enter 19-year-old horse trainer Robyn Van Valkenburg.

Only a few months ago she mounted a wild mustang — now named Champion — and the horse can canter without a saddle or bridle. A video shows the progress.

Van Valkenburg and six other trainers plan to showcase the potential of the adoptable animals in the Wild Horse and Burro Festival's Trainers Challenge on Friday and Saturday, one of several events the BLM has organized to facilitate its primary means of managing wild horses and burros crowding holding facilities: adoption.

“We’re trying to balance wild horse and burro land use with our multiple-use mandate as an agency,” Warr said. “We have to look at all the players on the public lands.”

Program controversy

Paula King, director of communications for the Cloud Foundation — an organization devoted to the preservation of wild horses on public lands — said the population issues across the public range-lands and holding corrals could be resolved in other ways, apart from roundup, which she said can be stressful and harmful to the wild horses and burros.

She said horses should not be taken from public lands in the first place to be kept in holding corrals. Instead, reversible infertility drugs could be administered to the animals and protection of their wild predators like mountain lions could reduce the hose populations on public lands.

“A wild horse is a wild horse,” King said. “They live and die in the wild—that is their natural habitat. I think any of us would rather live and die in our own home rather than in incarceration.”

Warr said although BLM programs have been actively engaged in fertility control, it’s not enough, and the difficulty of the program makes a population decrease through infertility drugs complex to grasp.

“We have administered thousand of doses of fertility control to mares that have been released back onto public lands,” Warr said. However, as the drug is only good for one to two years, the animals are often difficult to access, and other factors like short time frames of when the drug can be administered make fertility control a difficult program from which to render results.

Thus, BLM officials turn to adoption events like the Wild Horse and Burro Festival to provide more space in its holding facilities. Out of the 2,200 animals being kept in BLM’s Utah holding corrals, 40 will be up for adoption during the next two days. Programs like the Trainer’s Challenge aim to give events higher adoption success rates by showing the public the animals' potential.

"My goal is to get (Champion) adopted, and I want to showcase all of his talents," Van Valkenburg said. "He's a friendly horse and he's a good boy. He just needs a home."

The Trainer Challenge

Sarah Telford will also be a part of the Trainer Challenge to demonstrate the abilities of mustangs.

“If you just give them a chance they can do so much,” Telford said. “When we show people this and we can give these horses their new homes, then…it helps spread the word of how amazing these mustangs are, and it’ll give other mustangs a chance.”

Many animals living in BLM holding facilities have yet to find a home. Warr said about 32,000 of the wild horses and burros pulled from public lands currently reside in sanctuary-like, long-term pastures where they typically live out the rest of their lives. The rest are held in short-term facilities until they either adopted or transferred to long-term facilities.

“I think it is wonderful that people are training the mustangs to make them more adoptable, and my experience is that domesticated mustangs make wonderful companion, riding, and sporting animals,” King said. “(But) the main point is that no matter what the BLM does, the majority of horses rounded up end up in holding facilities, an uncertain future.”

It’s a shame that so many BLM mustangs are not recognized for their potential, Van Valkenburg said. "It's hard for me to see the horses just sit there when somebody could be out there riding that horse in the mountains, and that horse could have an awesome life.”

The horses competing in the festival's Trainer's Challenge were chosen out of BLM's herds of wild horses based on their conformation and intelligence. They were then matched with BLM-approved trainers in the Trainer Incentive Program from the Mustang Heritage Foundation, Van Valkenburg said.

"These are prime horses," she said. "They're not just pasture pets."

If the sales go well, there's no guarantee the traier Incentive Program will continue. Government cutbacks in funding combined with drought and hay prices have impacted BLM's ability to support the program so the Mustang Heritage Foundation will be placing the Trainer Incentive Program on hold.

Warr said sequestration has also impacted BLM’s adoption programs, forcing the cancellation of two adoption events so far this year along with other programs that could facilitate more room within holding facilities.

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“All of the animals in our corrals are going to be taken care of, that’s a number one priority, but all the activities around that tend to suffer,” Warr said. “The rangelands are taking the brunt of the effect. If we can’t remove the horses, those mouths are taking the grass and the water.”

The Wild Horse and Burro Festival begins at noon Friday at Salt Lake County Equestrian Park. The 40 specially selected wild horses and burros available for adoption can be viewed beginning at 8 a.m. in the covered outdoor adoption area north of the indoor arena.

All "ungentled" wild horses & burros will be available for adoption on a first come, first served basis. Cost is $125 with a second companion horse available for $25.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com