Nobody needs a mustang, but the United States of America owns thousands of them.
Some roam the dun-colored hills outside the indistinct suburbia that shrouds Reno, Nevada, out past the legion Banks of America and Starbucks and Home Depots, past the dreary model homes at Shadow Ridge. Misty gray sky smudges it all together before the houses thin, then turn to trailers, then disappear as they give way to mountains that frame the Palomino Valley.
That poetic name fits poetic land. A dozen miles away from gaudy neon life, this part of Nevada speaks for a vast silent geographic majority, thinly populated by scrub grass, cold enough for snow in May.
Tesla’s Gigafactory sits to the east, a looming threat to gas-powered muscle cars like the Mustang GT that sidles up to the fence at Palomino Valley’s National Wild Horse and Burro Center.
One of the horses on the other side of the rails notices its approach. The horse casts a wary eye, lifts his head to examine this other Mustang and the animal noises that come from its chuffing V-8.
DON'T MISS: Wild horses, part one: The misfits
In a not so wild West, mustangs have become luxury objects only a few can afford. They no longer make sense as transportation, or as work machines. Protected since 1971 by federal statute, the mustang’s numbers have tripled in just a few decades.
The open range can’t sustain them all, so the federal government gathers them and then houses them on slivers of Bureau of Land Management property snipped from the corners of the millions of acres the agency administers.
Here at Palomino Valley, wild horses lose their freedom, in exchange for a chance at better, if more confined lives.
The walnut brown horse that pokes his head through the barbed-wire fence doesn’t know where it is, or what will happen next, but it has food and water, and other wild horses to follow.
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Jeremy Wilhelm at Palomino Valley’s National Wild Horse and Burro Center
Jeremy Wilhelm reported for duty at Palomino Valley in 2013, before his beard had grown long and streaked with gray. In an instant, thousands of horses became his wards, and he became their protector—their case worker.
Jeremy grew up in Deming, New Mexico—”a city kid who played basketball,” he recalls. His great-grandfather started a livestock show and rodeo in nearby El Paso, Texas. Jeremy worked summers for him, and went from zero interest in the rodeo to working with one of the rodeo horsemen. After school, four years of service on the USS Seattle, and two deployments to the Middle East, he came back home, and bought and trained his first horses. Then he heard about Palomino Valley, applied, and got hired by the BLM.
The BLM houses wild horses and burros on ranches scattered across the West. Here in Palomino Valley, they put up animals that come in from the range lands of Nevada and eastern California, a swath of 27 million acres that’s five times larger than Los Angeles. Palomino Valley is the largest publicly operated facility of its kind in the country, home to more than a thousand wild horses at any given time.
A century ago, millions of mustangs roamed the West. Through the 1950s, ranchers slaughtered the nuisance horses at will until only about 20,000 roamed free. In 1950, the mustang stood as a symbol of the vanishing West, much like the Mustang today stands as a symbol for the vanishing appeal of gasoline.
Thanks to the tireless work of Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston, wild horses and burros have been protected from slaughter since 1971. Wild horses and burros have been able to breed, almost unchecked, for nearly 50 years. The horses have few natural predators. Competition for food has receded; livestock grazing is down 30 percent on federal land since 1971. Herds can double in size in five years.
Birth control isn’t simple. An effective vaccine only lasts about a year, and horses must be located and darted and tracked. Wild horses are skittish and frightened of humans and machinery by nature; they’re prey animals.
“Our eyes sit on the front of our head,” Jeremy says. “That makes us predators, so they're automatically afraid of us.”
Today, about 80,000 wild horses roam BLM ranges. The BLM may have 100,000 horses to handle by next year.
This west is no longer wild; it’s case-managed.
Wild mustangs on the Nevada range
Wild horses trust other horses by instinct, but at Palomino Valley there is a Judas among them.
The BLM gathers wild horses as often as they can, to give some horses a chance at adoption. They depend on the herd mentality of the wild horses to lure them. In a gather, the BLM sets up a corral in the desert and sets the trap with food or water. Trained pilots in helicopters swarm overhead and urge the horses toward the corral at a safe gallop.
When the horses approach a hidden gate at the mouth of the corral, gatherers release a Judas horse, one trained specifically to lead his kind right into the trap. When enough make their way inside the temporary fence, gatherers swing the gates shut, by hand or by remote.
It’s a slow process, and it sometimes doesn’t work if the horses roam over a wide range, or if other food and water can sustain them. Ideally, the gathers select the most adoption-friendly horses, young and strong, while leaving older horses on the range to live out their days. But overpopulation means selective gathers are a luxury.
Gathers can be traumatic and stressful to animals who don’t understand or recognize what’s going on. They distrust humans by nature. They don’t know anything but the herd and the land. Even the fences can induce stress in the wild horses and burros—animals that may already be malnourished.
“Horses really don't know what a fence is,” Jeremy says.
But because the horses are with the herd, they settle down quickly into temporary holding pens. After feeding and watering, they’re walked, in groups of three dozen, on trucks for the trip to Palomino Valley, which is a destination sometimes hundreds of miles away.
Horse in the squeeze chute at Palomino Valley
They come to Palomino Valley’s unloading ramp, and move into a holding pen, then into a smooth-sided metal-lined path that slows down and funnels horses until they eventually fall in line, single file. At the end of the line, a squeeze chute applies hydraulic pressure to hold the horse in place while it’s measured, freeze-marked with a sort of horse VIN number, tested, treated for diseases or medical conditions, and vaccinated, the first steps on the road to adoption.
Horses come in from the range suffering from overpopulation. They’re skinny, bloated from eating cheatgrass and other invasive plants with no nutritional value. They can damage the land by eating too much grass, leaving it open for more invasive growth.
Their blood is tested and genetic tests determine if it will be healthy, and to some degree, its lineage. It’s often difficult to assert their genetics: Spanish horses bred with horses brought from the eastern U.S. as the nation grew to the west. Pull a hair, and any Palomino Valley horse might have the DNA of any of a number of breeds. They’re mutts; they’re true Americans, if in reality a less romantic notion of the Wild West.
“Most of our horses are descended from domestic horses that are released by ranchers or by homesteaders who came out here,” Jeremy says, the horses “that built America.”
The next step sorts horses by gender. Mares and colts are kept together, while geldings and studs are separated out. Palomino Valley is one isolated place in the federal bureaucracy where sex and age discrimination isn’t overlooked or tolerated, it’s openly encouraged.
Palomino Valley fences keep hundreds of horses ready for adoption
The stress of a gather dissipates quickly. The wild horses get food and water. Then they begin to re-knit their community. They form bonds with other horses, humane connections that reassure them during captivity, until they’re placed.
It’s like high school, Jeremy says. Horses need to integrate into their new surroundings like a transfer student. Some are class clowns, some are wallflowers. They’re driven by food, drink, and sex, like humans. Some horses take immediately to others, some protect other horses from bullies.
Sorting by sex eliminates most of the potential for clashes: even among the studs, fights are few. Still, most studs end up being gelded at the facility.
In the few weeks horses are held at Palomino Valley, they fatten up and primp for adoption. Staffers feed them grass, then gradually blend in alfalfa for its protein. They bulk up quickly.
Some steal snacks from visitors. People stop by the ranch’s fence and offer love in the form of food.
“There's a lot of people will stop and throw literally like 20 pound bags of carrots over the fence,” Jeremy says. “Once the horses have been here a little bit, anytime somebody pulls up they're like, ‘Oh, we're going to get treats!’”
In the wild, horses can live 20 to 25 years if they can find enough food. Many die in the winter, when harsh conditions hide food sources, but even in summer those get stretched.
In captivity, horses can live for 30 years or more.
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Tags mark the horses and burros up for adoption at Palomino Valley
Adoption is the best-case outcome for the mustangs, once they’re nursed back to a healthy weight.
The BLM ranchers take them to county fairs, put pictures on the Internet. Palomino Valley puts a lot of effort into adoptions to make room for the next animal. It is, in essence, a no-kill shelter.
Adoption favors pretty, big horses with colorful hides. Some have the flair of Arabian horses, with dainty tea-cup mouths, horses with almost Disney-esque features. Some are draft horses, with bulk and muscle. Some have the characteristics of Spanish horses said to have migrated up from Mexico after the colonial wars: darker horses with thicker manes, somewhat thicker features.
The differences are subtle, like those between a base Mustang and a GT, he says.
Most of the horses at Palomino Valley don’t have names. They won’t roam the land long enough to acquire one. They aren’t trained, either. Most adopters are families with land or with a ranch, where the horse can be trained for work or pleasure. They know mustangs do well in those roles.
“There's definitely a mustang following,” Jeremy says. “They prize the mustangs because they see them as sometimes more intelligent or more sure-footed when they're riding on trails.:
Gathers tend to also bring in horses that can’t be adopted, though. Those that don’t find a home may be sent to farms across the country where the government pays to have them boarded: in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, on ranches with lush Midwestern grass and acres of open pasture to roam.
Adoptions are down drastically, though, off two-thirds since the early 1990s. With assistance from a partnership with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the BLM placed about 2,000 horses last year. It took in more.
Palomino Valley houses hundreds of burros and mustangs just a dozen miles outside Reno
Nobody needs a horse.
Mustangs are living symbols of America. They connect us to our origin myth. On wide-open grassland ranches, they’re far less romantic burdens. They are costly line items.
Today, ranchers use ATVs and other mechanized equipment to do the jobs formerly held by horses and burros. A $60,000 tractor will last for 50 years, and with the right attachments, can do just about any farm job that needs to be done.
A horse costs $825 to adopt, but eats up money every day in maintenance. Oil changes are cheaper than bales of hay.
What can a horse do that a tractor can’t?
A horse today seems like what a gas-powered muscle car might be in a few years. A hopeless anachronism. A pet hobby. A dying breed.
Gathers and adoptions cannot keep up with the mustang population boom. So many have been foaled since 1971, they are no longer endangered but they are at risk in a different way. Various congressional bills have tried to authorize the sale of wild horses in a way that would not protect them from being shipped off to slaughter.
It’s yet another reason BLM facilities such as Palomino Valley aren’t popular among animal activists. Palomino Valley has been picketed and protested. In 2009, activists firebombed the Oregon Burns Corral.
The BLM maintains it’s assuaged opinion, by making gathers public, by opening facilities such as Palomino Valley open to the public. It investigates new birth control methods in the hope that one day, gathers won’t be needed.
Until then, the quandary remains and wild horses live in limbo on Nevada scrubland.
The BLM estimates the mustang population will rise to 120,000 horses by 2020. It pegs the lifetime cost to support the 46,000-plus horses it’s removed from BLM lands at $1 billion.
At some point, the BLM will have to decide how to handle the ethical dilemma of overpopulation. It has proposed $1,000 for anyone that adopts a wild horse, and has floated the legal possibility of euthanasia. Should the mustangs be sold for slaughter—or should they be left to starve or die of thirst in the wild?
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Will work for treats
Jeremy has no easy answers, just a small squad of volunteers that saves the mustangs they can. More than a dozen volunteers come to Palomino Valley to help out. Two are horse people, and teach about wild horses in schools. The rest have zero horse experience when they arrive. Their ages range from 13 to 75 years old. They clean water tanks and shovel manure. They get no pay.
“It’s kind of their zen moment,” Jeremy says with the wry smile of someone who’s shoveled their share in life.
Two other volunteers do get paid, but in alfalfa. BLM employees can board a horse for free at Palomino Valley. Jeremy boards two, and they have names.
Homer’s his thoroughbred Appaloosa colt. One of the hundreds of horses sired by Secretariat after his Triple Crown, Homer had been worth $750,000 at one time.
Homer came to Palomino Valley the hard way, like the rescues that roam with him. Badly abused as a pet, he had been loaded into a horse trailer in Las Vegas. His owner unhitched the trailer somewhere in a cluster of foreclosed homes already dead from neglect and left Homer to die, too.
Jeremy brought him to Palomino Valley to live next to a mare he bought for $125. She’s Shelby, named after the Mustang, probably the closest he’ll get to owning one.
He didn’t even own a car until recently. He drove Ford and Chevy pickups, fifth wheels that pulled trailers for his horse rescues. Like the mustangs he tries to place in new homes, a real muscle car would have been kind of impractical.
Now that Jeremy has the time and room for a car, he has other responsibilities. He has kids big enough to ride in a back seat. He kept his horses. He gave up his trucks. He drives a Subaru WRX.
For two months, Motor Authority crisscrossed the U.S. in an automotive icon seeking stories about the Ford Mustang's place in American history. These are our stories from the road about its owners, its history, and its status as an evolving symbol of our relationship with cars in America.