Southern Illinois plays central role in federal government’s wild mustang adoption efforts

Trainer Russ Mayer slides a saddle over Lucky’s back. As the stirrups thump his side, the wild horse signals his uneasiness by stamping his right foot against the barn floor.

Mayer has only ever attempted this once before.

“Wow. Steady,” Mayer whispers gently. “Good boy.” Lucky settles. Mayer climbs on a metal folding chair to acclimate the horse to someone standing above him. Next, he pushes his body weight through his hands and onto the horse’s back to simulate the weight of a rider.

Lucky isn’t having it. He bolts out the barn door — mane flapping, hooves pounding dirt. He’s startled, but a beauty to behold on the move. “He’s just not quite ready,” Russ says. They are in agreement on that. Lucky bucks, and lets out a frustrated neigh. Mayer approaches him. “It’s OK boy,” he says, in a fatherly tone. “We’ll get there.”

Lucky’s come a long way already. “He’s going to be great,” Mayer says.

Property of the U.S. government, he was roaming the wide open spaces of the Nevada Wild Horse Range up until 10 months ago. Last August, he was corralled into captivity, likely by helicopter or bait trap, and then transported more than 1,600 miles from his home to a holding facility in Southern Illinois.

When Mayer brought him home in March, Lucky had never been touched by a human, let alone had one call him a funny name, or try to climb on his back.

Now, Mayer is working to teach Lucky a few skills — a process known as gentling — in hopes that will make it easier to find someone interested in adopting him.

If it works, the horse will earn his name.

Lucky is one of thousands of wild horses and burros that have been removed from western public lands and placed in off-range pastures and corrals.

It’s part of a complicated, decades-old government program intended to manage and protect the herds, and preserve the public rangelands where they live.

Wild horse advocacy groups such as the Mustang Heritage Foundation are part of the network of government officials and nonprofits seeking to find good homes for the horses that might otherwise starve on public lands, or spend years in a crowded corral. Members of the Mustang Heritage Foundation, Mayer says, are the “tree huggers” of the wild mustangs: They want to save them all.

It’s a tall order.

Decades ago, the wild horse population was seriously threatened. Beginning in the 1950s, Velma Johnston — “Wild Horse Annie” — led a 20-year campaign to expose the mistreatment and unchecked harvesting of wild horses for commercial purposes, such as slaughtering them for dog food. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” requiring the government to take a much larger role in maintaining the herd and protecting the animals from “mustangers.”

Nearly 50 years later, the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, says the nation’s wild horse and burro herds are “chronically overpopulated and increasing exponentially.” In its current form, the Wild Horse and Burro program is “unsustainable,” the bureau says.

As of March 1, the bureau’s latest available data, there were nearly 88,000 wild horses and burros roaming wild on government-managed lands, about a 7 percent increase over the same month last year. That’s about 61,000 more animals than the bureau says is ideal to protect the health of the animals and maintain the rangelands. This increases the risk of animals lacking access to adequate food and drink, and disturbing the wildlife populations that share the land.

More than 48,000 others are being held in off-range pastures and corrals. The one in rural Franklin County that first opened in 2007 is where Lucky was housed until he went home with Mayer. It’s a small facility, but it plays an important role in adoption efforts.

As of May, 205 horses and burros were housed at the corral on Sheep Farm Road in Ewing, Illinois, according to the bureau’s online datasets.

The only facility east of the Mississippi River, it’s strategically located to help introduce more people in the eastern half of the U.S. to mustang adoption.

“It’s a great program. These horses need to find homes,” said Melody Gentry, whose late husband, Walt Gentry, became the facility’s first manager when it opened in 2007.

The Gentrys adopted their first mustang in 1990, but they didn’t stop there. In total, they’ve taken home about 30 mustangs. Gentry said many misconceptions about the temperament and trainability of mustangs for trail riding exist. But she maintains well-trained wild horses are as calm and surefooted as any domestic horse.

“I have a great deal of trust in my horse, and I’ve never been hurt,” said Gentry, a long-distance trail rider whose right leg has been amputated. She encourages people to give adoption consideration.

The Bureau of Land Management holds sale and adoption events at the Ewing facility one weekend of most months, and welcomes appointments on other days. The animals are also trucked from Ewing to satellite sale and adoption events across the broader region.

But finding homes for the horses and burros isn’t easy. During the 2018 fiscal year, the government sold or adopted fewer than 5,000 animals. At the same time, they removed another 11,000 from the public rangelands.

That means a staggering number of horses and burros still need placement. To that end, for the first time since Congress passed the 1971 law calling for federal protections for the animals, the government is offering a $1,000 incentive to anyone who adopts an untrained wild horse or burro. The money is delivered in two installments of $500.

The Bureau of Land Management announced the program in March.

“We created this incentive program to try to get more animals adopted,” said Martha Malik, a public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Northeastern States District, which includes Illinois. “The adoption rates are low, No. 1, because of the economy … The economy is still not good. It’s getting better, but it’s still not good. There were times, around 2005, when 100 animals would be taken to an adoption site, and we’d leave away with zero in our trailer. We don’t have those days anymore.”

The federal government’s new initiative is not without skeptics. Laura Leigh, president of Wild Horse Education, a Reno, Nevada-based wild horse advocacy organization, strongly supports efforts to increase adoptions.

But she’s concerned, given other signals from the current administration, that it’s part of a broader effort to reduce the wild horse and burro population by any means necessary. The government pays about $50 million annually to hold the animals in off-range pastures and corrals. Over the course of his tenure, President Donald Trump’s budget requests have proposed reduced spending for the wild horse and burro program, noting its total budget of more than $80 million is quadruple what it was in 2000.

The White House has suggested “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals” could help reduce the population to more managable levels. These are not new suggestions, but they are controversial.

If Congress agrees to lift years-old restrictions, that could lead to an increase in “kill buyers” who transport the horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, Leigh said. Leigh and other advocates say the federal government refuses to acknowledge how the privatization of public land over many years has aggravated the equine population dilemma by placing the interests of ranchers and the oil and gas industry above protecting public assets.

“The race for public resources over the last two years is on like no other time in history, and the horse interferes with the ability to reap private profit off our land, period,” she said.

The bureau says on its website that it has been and remains policy not to sell or send any wild horses or burros to slaughterhouses or “kill buyers.” But Leigh said the government does not track what happens to the animals once they are sold, and therefore can’t back up its claim. With adoptions, the certificate of title is not transferred until the individual has owned the horse a year.

Malik, the bureau spokeswoman, acknowledged that some animals may have fallen into the hands of people without the best of intentions over the years. But that’s far from the norm. “Based on my experience and my knowledge working in the program, there have been few instances where that has happened, very few,” she said.

The old red barn where Lucky spends his days is located along a rolling blacktop road in rural Makanda, nestled in the Shawnee National Forest. The pristine 19-acre property includes a pond out back where the horses take a dip when the weather heats up.

It’s about halfway between the western frontier where Lucky once lived, and the nation’s capital, where policymakers must contend with what to do about the growing numbers of unlucky horses left behind.

For the time being, this is Lucky’s oasis. When Mayer brought him home, the horse was lethargic from a virus. Mayer brought a veterinarian to the house to look at Lucky. While examining him, the vet said to the horse, “You’re lucky to have a home here,” Mayer’s wife, Joyce, recalled. That’s how he got his name.

It’s obvious Mayer has formed a bond with the horse, which stands 15.1 hands (about 5 feet) tall and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Lucky will let others pet him, but only for a second, and only if he’s anchored next to Mayer, his security blanket.“It’s like a child that’s been abused,” Joyce Mayer said. “They are traumatized during captivity and transportation, and then kept in a holding facility without a lot of space to roam like they’re used to doing.”

It takes time for them to warm up to people. And the right attitude. “My husband is a very patient man,” she said.

Mayer said he’s confident Lucky will find a good home. He’s already received several calls from people who are interested. He encourages others to consider the experience of taming a wild mustang. It’s a great opportunity, he said, to own a living icon of the American west. Mayer adopted his own mustang — Lakoda — a decade ago, and she quickly transformed into a gentle giant. He describes it as one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life.

“It doesn’t take long,” he said, “and they go from wild to mild. They calm down and they are absolutely great partners, great trail partners. They’ll do anything you ask them to do.”

The next adoption event at the Ewing off-range corral will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday, July 12-13. For more information, call 866-468-7826.