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Know this about wild horses: older really is wiser.
Just ask Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) in Lantry, South Dakota. The ISPMB maintains four wild horse herds, and over the past decade, has witnessed how Bureau of Land Management (BLM) round-ups and selective removal management methods have wreaked havoc on herd dynamics.
Tearing apart the social fabric of a wild horse herd (or band) not only displaces entire families but has a devastating effect over time on its structure. When harem stallions are separated from their mares during frequent gathers (every 2-3 years), and are released again to the wild after the selective removal of animals ages five and younger for adoption, such stallions often lose some of their mares to younger stallions. “Over time,” says Sussman, “without the guidance and wisdom of older role models, a herd’s once-evolved educational structure deteriorates.”
Over the last decade Sussman and the ISPMB have observed that young mares, without the benefit of a wise and stable harem stallion to fend off bachelor stallions, are becoming pregnant at very young ages. “Yearlings are now being bred when, in stable herds, fillies are not bred until they are three or four years old. With younger and younger mothers there is a higher incidence of foal abandonment and death.” Sussman has seen recruitment rates (or fertility rates, as BLM refers to data tracking increases or decreases in an equine population) explode from a fairly consistent 10-14% a few d ecades ago among stable, multi-generational bands (according to the National Academy of Science) to more than 20% in h erds today.
“Any time a herd’s recruitment rate goes up, we are looking at problems. We’ve destroyed the older, social order,” Sussman claims.
FOUR HERDS, ONE BIG LESSON
Sussman’s conclusions are based on equine behavior speaking for itself. The ISPMB oversees four vastly different bands of wild horses: White Sands, Gila, Catnip, and Virginia Wild Range herds.
Sussman refers to the White Sands herd, which ISPMB began overseeing in 1999, as one of the “healthiest, behaviorally-functional herds, and among the last to be removed from its natural range.” Thanks to local range riders who were fond of the horses, the White Sands herd remained relatively untouched or manipulated by outside management. “For almost a decade, this herd was never gathered, removed, or harassed. They lived as truly wild horses.”
In 2000, ISPMB took in 30 wild horses from Arizona, christened the Gila herd. In 1996, US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had declared this band the last wild and “free roaming” horse herd in America; less than four years later, the BLM declared the horses feral “problem animals” responsible for tracking weed seeds onto farmers’ alfalfa fields, and recommended that the horses be collected for removal. ISPMB stepped in.
In marked contrast to these relatively untouched wild bands, the Catnip herd (under U.S. Fish and Wildlife management until 2004, when the ISPMB took over) was “dysfunctional and displaying totally different behavior. This herd had a nearly 100-year-old history, but had endured constant onslaughts of eradication.” The result was a herd without a single animal over the age of 10. “There was very little band structure, no harem stallion to protect mares, and the young mares, sometimes no more than yearlings themselves, were terrible mothers. Babies were having babies and the result was that birth rates exploded and younger mothers walked away from their foals and left them to die.”
“The Catnip herd,” Sussman continues, “were dysfunctional because they lacked the socialization and education set by older, wiser leaders. When the BLM breaks apart harems every two or three years it results in a constant upheaval of the social structure.”
Sussman hopes the fourth and most recent herd to come under the ISPMB aegis, the Virginia Wild Range herd, will be released back into the wild this year. “We know disruption has occurred in this band in the past, but it has been running free for at least six years, and while the mares have been penned separately, they tend to be older and so far, have all proven to be good moms with their foals.”
Selective or “gate” cuts (which indiscriminately trap entire bands rather than specific animals or ages/genders) create problems “because not everybody bands up the same afterwards,” Sussman notes. “When you separate older stallions from mares, it creates disruption because it opens up the opportunity for younger (age six and under) stallions to take over, and young stallions have no socialization or wisdom to teach band structure. Young bands epitomize an all-out grabbing for mares. Over time, this leads to destruction of hierarchy and social order.”
Sussman adds, “We can no longer separate stallions from their own band, nor try to co-mingle stallions. Mustangs cannot be managed like livestock. They need to be managed like a wildlife species. We need to stop selective or gate cutting and gathering, and instead, collect horses through water or bait trapping (using protein blocks as bait), or focus on capturing bachelor bands rather than herds of multi-generational families. It’s better to bait/trap individual young horses and be more selective in our removals.”
Sussman concludes, “It is critical to never remove a herd stallion from its harem, or to remove older mares. These are the older horses that teach younger ones how to behave and survive. In comparison, a stable herd, with an established leader, is like a classroom taught by a Harvard professor. Everybody benefits from his wisdom. But when you disrupt that order, what’s left is the equivalent of a sixth-grader trying to teach a bunch of first-graders: everyone is left vulnerable by inexperienced leadership.”
ENTERING THE DOMESTIC WORLD
Maryland trainer Caroline Rider, who has worked with the East Coast’s most famous wild herds, the ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague islands, asserts it is the responsibility of humans to educate themselves on how to prepare both positive and productive environments for wild horses.
“The way I see it,” offers Rider, “is these horses are our responsibility. We take them out of their natural surroundings and introduce them into our human world. And when we do this, we often forget that they have instincts and deep levels of self preservation that inhibit them from trusting until we know how to communicate on their level, and in a language they understand.”
In looking at the role people play in the socialization and integration of domesticated horses, Rider, referring to the Chincoteague stallions she has retrained, says, “I see it time and again where people have horses with all sorts of stress and anxiety issues, aggression, and even depression, and the owners either don’t know how to read it or don’t now what to do about it.”
“Most of the horses I see are either misunderstood, or out of control due to a lack of discipline and social order, meaning, in the wild, they have behaviors within the herd dynamic that communicate what is acceptable behavior (i.e., in the best interests of the herd) and what is not. We must understand that we need to provide social structures in their new environment that support their need for friendships, pecking orders, social structure, and safety. If these needs are not met, they will revert to their instincts, fending for themselves emotionally and physically.”
“In the end,” says Rider, “all horses want to feel safe, comfortable, and to form healthy (not aggressive or domineering) relationships.”
For a mustang, whether still free in the wild or entering a new domestic world, a consistent social structure is the surest way of ensuring a healthy, productive, and long life for this icon of the American West. Anything less is but a pit stop on the way to a short and doomed fate.
L.A. Pomeroy of Northampton, Massachusetts, has been an equestrian photojournalist, award-winning publicist, and member of American Horse Publications since 1992, working with the U.S. Equestrian Team, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Equisearch.com, and Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, as well as heading development and marketing for zoological institutions in New England. She enjoys trail riding in her native Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, collecting/researching equestrian art and collectibles, and making life better for the animals that share this planet with us.
One example of the critical role older, wiser mustangs play in the overall survival of their band is a mare Karen Sussman named Diana (on right), after the Roman goddess of the hunt. Being hunted, by man, was something Diana had become all too accustomed to, having grown up watching others in her band killed off by gunfire. Her wellbeing, and that of others in the herd, depended on shrewd survival skills.
Sussman estimates the dun mare with one white sock was born in the wild around 1984. “Out of all the horses I’ve known, she truly hated humankind.” Diana was the oldest mare of the Gila herd, and had learned to avoid gunfire by taking the herd out to feed and find water only at night. By day, she would drive them into the densest possible tree groves as shelter against a rifle’s crosshairs.
“She died in 2006 with peace in her heart. In her final years, she got past her hatred of humans and would walk up to our tourists’ trucks, although she could always tell the difference, by color and sound, which ones she recognized or still distrusted.”