A short distance east of the Grand Valley is the Little Book Cliffs Horse Area, a 36,000-acre public use trail area and home to an estimated 165 wild mustangs. The horses roam in bands – family units – over rocky terrain of ridges and canyons, and through natural parks of sagebrush and juniper. They graze these public lands, seeking water where they can find it, staying close to one another for community and safety. These herds of stud, mares, and their young share the arid habitat with bands of bachelor stallions and other wildlife of the range: the elk and the bear, the raccoon and the rattlesnake, the grey fox and the golden eagle, the bighorn sheep and the mountain lion. These horses, however, are a wild breed unlike the other inhabitants of the range.
The wild mustangs are descendants of once-domesticated horses of Spanish explorers that later bred with other freed horses; they are wild in the sense that they are feral, ownerless. Roaming the Little Book Cliffs range are blue and red roans, sorrels, grays, blacks, and bays, as well as paints, palominos and even some appaloosas. Many of the horses, while free-roaming, are relatively accustomed to seeing humans as photographers, hikers, and horseback riders often frequent the area’s trails. The mustangs also encounter Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land managers who monitor the area, as well as volunteers from Friends of the Mustangs, a nonprofit that works to protect and preserve the wild horses.
Under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM is responsible for the “unbranded,” and “unclaimed” horse populations in the United States. The federal agency is responsible for maintaining an “ecological balance to the range,” by determining the appropriate number of horses the area can healthily sustain. As of March 2017, horse and burro numbers exceeded their “appropriate management level” ideal by 26,715 nationwide. The BLM is required to remove these excess horses in order to “protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.” The Little Book Cliffs is one of 177 BLM Herd Management Areas in ten western states.
Managing the herd is labor intensive, requiring many hands-on horse-lovers from the BLM and horse advocacy groups like Friends of the Mustangs. The Friends group, comprised of members with extensive equine experience, has been nationally recognized for its support and vital role in the day-to-day Little Book Cliffs herd management. Friends name the mustangs, watch them grow, and advocate for their welfare. Activities include checking and repairing both natural and tank water sources, repairing fences and trails, and herding strays back onto the BLM’s herd management area, in addition to aiding the primary management strategies: genetic diversity, fertility control, and adoption.
The introduction of horses from other herd management areas ensures that the gene pool expands and diversifies to reduce inbreeding, producing a healthier stock. To control population, fertility control is implemented by injecting mares with contraceptive vaccines. And, when necessary, after extensive monitoring of range and animal conditions, the BLM and Friends of the Mustangs physically remove the wild horses.
ADOPTING A WILD MUSTANG
Removing the horses from the range begins with “a gather,” or round-up, where the mustangs are herded or lured into a corral. Selected horses are removed from the range and transferred to a holding facility such as the Wild Horse Inmate Program in Canon City, Colorado. There the horses are “processed” (vaccinated, wormed, marked), and trained – saddle-broken or halter-broken – for public adoption. Friends members assist in the adoption event, and sometimes even adopt mustangs themselves. For Friends volunteer and Steadfast Steeds co-founder Tracy Scott, it was a life-changing moment when she and her husband Blaine Scott, a Grand Junction pastor and life coach, adopted a wild horse of their own.
The Scotts were moved to do more than save a wild horse. In nearby Glade Park, the couple established Steadfast Steeds Mustang Sanctuary, a non-profit with a mission “devoted to showcasing America’s wild horse as a ‘living national treasure’ in a publicly accessible environment.”
“Everything at Steadfast Steeds has its roots in meeting Ditto,” Tracy says of the pregnant mustang mare she adopted. The adoption of Ditto (renamed Izzy) and her foal led to the founding of the retreat center for both horses and people. If not for the rescue, Ditto would have been destined to join more than 45,000 “off range” or “unsold” mustangs across the country who are relegated to holding pens, Midwestern pastures, or sold to other countries for slaughter.
With a 360-degree view of the sky, the sanctuary property includes thirty acres of pasture for thirteen socialized horses and a band of six wild mustangs, plus a 12-acre activity area where visitors come for “Wild Horse Expeditions” to interact with the socialized mustangs. Through guided interaction, participants learn self-awareness, communication, and resilience. With Tracy taking the lead in the ring, Blaine applies horse power strategies for people seeking help with stress management, family support, and senior care. He helps caregivers manage burnout, provides spiritual guidance that fosters hope, and aids those in the grieving process.
The Scotts hope to create relationships between people and horses, raise awareness of the wild mustangs’ plight, and encourage adoptions of the wild horses – a core motivation for Steadfast Steeds. Their services include assisting and advising those with newly adopted mustangs to help cultivate a successful placement. They adopt out their own mustangs and are a foster family home for other wild horses, gentling them in preparation for adoption. It is their dream that wild mustangs are “set free from the bondage of holding” and “allowed to realize a new freedom, a new family and a familiar way of life.”
For Tracy Scott the experience of Steadfast Steeds Sanctuary is more than saving mustangs and self-awareness, it’s about the human/animal bond: “When a wild horse touches our heart, our heart touches theirs’.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Steadfast Steeds Mustang Sanctuary
1411 S. 16 ½ Rd
Glade Park 81523
Friends of the Mustangs