Saving Wild Hearts

Mustangs and wild horses have been an icon of the American West for centuries. They have been part of the landscape since the 1500s, when the Spanish began their expeditions on the continent. Horses played a pivotal role in the American expansion into the West. They were a symbol of freedom but now the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is rounding them up and removing from the open range.

The BLM estimates the population of wild horses roaming BLM land numbers 50,000 mustangs and burros.  The bureau’s goal is to lower the wild population to approximately 25,000 by removing horses from the wild and enlisting them in adoption programs or selling them at auction. With 47,000 wild horses already in captivity controlled by the BLM, the persistent introduction of newly captured mustangs continues to push the bureau’s ability to care for and monitor the animals under their supervision.

The only reasonable solution to this problem is for outside programs or individuals to adopt these wild animals – a process often easier said than done. Thankfully, non-profit organizations such as Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue exist for the purpose of educating the public of the issue, gentling these mustangs and ensuring they find a suitable home.

Lifesavers, the largest horse rescue in the United States, based on the number of horses in their care, is headed up by Jill Starr. Its mission is to rescue wild and domestic horses from dire situations including hundreds of mustangs saved from death by neglect or slaughter.

Clay McDermott, head trainer for Lifesavers, spends most of his time working with rescued mustangs on their ranch in Lancaster, California. They currently have about 300 horses on site. McDermott’s main focus is working with wild horses, gentling them so they are able to be eligible for adoption. McDermott practices what’s called Natural Horsemanship. This school of thought suggests that a good rapport with the animals is fundamental to effective training. Natural Horsemanship requires communicating commands through body language and foregoing established techniques which often involve excessive and unnecessary force.

“These are the most honest animals you could ever work with,” McDermott said. “You have to center yourself. You have to figure out where you are in your head before you even approach, cause they’ll put you in your place, real quick.”

Having worked with horses since he was 8 years old, McDermott says Lifesavers was an easy choice for him.

“Lifesavers is a natural extension of the ideology I already believe in,” said McDermott. “They save these horses from abuse, neglect and slaughter. That’s a cause I want to dedicate my life to.”

With mustang populations continuing to grow, and the BLM facing elevated pressure to remove wild horses from public land to create space for private cattle to graze, there is no quick or easy solution to this developing issue. However, Lifesavers and McDermott are working on finding a solution to the complicated problem, one horse at a time.