As I am hiking up the 'horse highway' (horse made trail) I hear a snort. I stop and listen. I hear a whinny and know we must be close. Seconds later hoof beats. I glance up the trail towards the top of the hill and I see them. Three mares gallop through the trees to the right as their stallion watches us from the left. I grab my camera and manage to snap a photo of a mare's backside. I am elated! I just saw a wild mustang and I even got a picture! Little did I know that once I finished climbing the hill I would see another dozen mustangs and get some awesome photos. We would even be invited by the mustangs to respectfully stand within fifty feet of them to enjoy their presence.
Beckie Diehl, Friends of the Mustangs (FOM) Historian and Event Coordinator, has driven us up to the Little Book Cliff Wild Horse Range outside of DeBeque, Colorado. During the hour and a half drive she has been enthusiastically answering my questions, telling me everything about the mustangs and recalling her favorite and most memorable experiences with them. She pauses often when she tells me her stories; I think to take herself back to these special moments. She visits them at any opportunity up until the snow makes trekking up the mountain impossible. She tells us about a few nights that she has had to sleep in her car because of an unexpected rain storm and reminds us to always be prepared.
Not even a broken foot kept her from the mustangs. She hobbled around on crutches while building trails for the horses because it needed to be done. Ms. Diehl reminds me of an adventurous Grandma and these mustangs are her grand-babies. There are over 140 mustangs in the Little Book Cliffs and she can identify all by color and markings and name each one.
The FOM was established in 1982 and is a very unique group. Over the last thirty years they have built a close working relationship with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As a result of this close relationship, FOM members are able to do more for the mustangs and are able to help the BLM with management of the bands in this area. In addition to riding the fence lines looking for areas to repair, maintaining running water tanks from natural springs and marking trails for those interested in visiting the mustangs, they also help the BLM with gathers, hold adoption events and a few members are even trained to administer Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) to manage the population.
As an owner of several mustangs herself, Ms. Diehl invited me to the FOM Annual Open House so that I could also see what these mustangs are capable of. When the need for a gather arises, some are taken to long-term holding facilities while others from this area are taken to Canyon City for the Wild Horse Inmate Program. Canyon City brought 24 wild horses and burros to the FOM September adoption event and 21 of the 24 found homes! At the Open House I was given the opportunity to interview "Wild Horse Lady" Marty Felix and Jim Dollerschell from the BLM.
Mr. Dollerschell, who took his position with the BLM in 1987, explained to me that it is important there be no political agenda and that they are "managing for wild horses - not to get rid of them." Since 1977 there have been eleven gathers in this area and their ultimate goal is to manage the mustangs so that gathers aren't ever needed. To keep the close working relationship with the FOM, Mr. Dollerschell said that it is important that they have the same goals and maintain trust between the groups. To reach their goal of never needing gathers they must monitor and help to maintain good range conditions for the mustangs. This allows the mustangs to sustain themselves without interference. They must also work to keep the population manageable with administration of PZP while keeping healthy genetics; as this becomes a concern with a smaller population. Jim Dollershchell wants the community to know that partnerships are what make management of the mustangs successful, "the BLM can't do it on our own."
"Wild Horse Lady" Marty Felix goes on to explain that the birth control program is 94% successful. The effectiveness really depends on the mare, for some, the PZP lasts longer while others may be pregnant the following year. "Why should they be a baby factory if they don't have to be?" Ms. Felix advocates that the PZP provides the mares with a better quality of life. She has been working with the mustangs for 39 years now and recently had her 65th birthday. "I'm still roaring around on my ATV, I just don't know for how much longer," Ms. Felix will continue her work with the FOM for as long as she is able. With her tenacity I am sure she will still be making her own trails with her ATV for many years to come.
My experience with the wild mustangs of the Little Book Cliffs and the opportunity to talk with Friends of the Mustangs and the Bureau of Land Management has reminded me what this is really about - being pro-horse. It is important not to take one particular side or the other. By that I mean supporting the management of mustangs by the BLM or choosing to support that the mustangs be left alone all together. We must support the survival of the mustangs and realize that some management is needed for sustainability. Trust and close relationships for the common objective is what gets positive results.