It Takes a Village

When people are first learning about wild horse society we tend to over simplify when describing a band as one stallion, one lead mare, any other mares he might have, and their offspring. Colts are kicked out of their natal band at age two to prevent inbreeding, and mares will also begin the process of leaving their natal band at that age for the same reason. A stallion’s greatest goal is to be a band stallion, a mare will be lead mare someday. If that does not happen, especially of a stallion, they are disappointed and did not reach their full potential.
While it is a good start, wild horses society is dynamic, and the above description doesn’t quite ring true to ecology. On a basic level, the only motivation animals have is to reproduce. This is commonly referred to as survival of the fittest which adds to the confusion since people think that it refers to physical fitness. However, the ecological definition of fitness only refers to an organism’s ability to successfully reproduce. Strength is one of many traits that might make it possible for an organism to reproduce, or it may hinder an organism’s ability to reproduce.
If one still thinks that a horses’ greatest aspirations is to be band stallion, or lead mare then it puts pressure on those two roles to reproduce and protect the foals. Since you cannot know what factors determine fitness until the offspring is successfully raised, as the saying goes, it takes a village. Any mare might have a foal in the band, and they all work together to raise it.
Band Stallion
The stereotype is that since their only purpose is to protect the band, stallions are aggressive. It’s true, stallions protect the band, but that is only one part of their role in a band. If a stallion is aggressive all the time, a mare might be less likely to let him breed her. Looking for a fight all the time also increases the chance that a stallion will get hurt. Like everything in life, a stallion’s behavior depends on the situation. Even when another stallion approaches the band, the band stallion will decide if he is a threat. Sometimes, all it takes is a look for the other stallion to respect boundaries. Even the most “serious” confrontation is all about bravado, and rarely leads to either stallion getting seriously injured. While some band stallions are more proactive at confronting other stallions, or might still enjoy playing with bachelors, I’d argue that a band stallion spends the least amount of time sparring vs. other activities. Even if the band stallion has bachelors dogging him, he does more in his day than just confront them.
When a band stallion is not in protection mode, they attend to the members of their band. Some of the most successful band stallions recognize that creating strong bonds with their mares will help create a strong band. Bonding with mares means more than just wooing them. Sometimes that means a band stallion mutual grooming a mare. It might mean playing with a foal. Even snaking which people think looks harsh if they don’t understand wild horse society, serves a purpose. It is part of the entire bands duties to keep the foals safe. Since horses rely on subtle non-verbal cues to communicate a foal or band-member needs to pay attention to the other horses to know what is safe. Far from being harsh, snaking is often a stallions last resort to keep his band together.
Lead Mare
It is largely believed that there is only one lead mare for the group, and she makes the sole decisions for the group. While that might be one way to have a band, that is not always the case. Although it is often more subtle than stallions, mares also have their own hierarchy. While it’s often the case that the oldest mare leads, that is not always the case. Sometimes a mare with the most foals, is the lead mare. Sometimes, an older mare has taken the lead most of her life and is ready for retirement. Sometimes a band has no lead mare, or several mares tag team the role.
Young Mare
Often, it is thought that a young mare’s only role is to have foals. While it is true that many mares have foals for most of her life, that is not always the case. Some mares are more prolific than others. The idea that a mare that has never foaled lives an unfulfilled life, is false. Many mares fill fulfillment from being an “auntie” to the foal’s of other mares. They might be particularly watchful, good at keeping the band together, or have good range knowledge. Occasionally, a young mare might even be the lead mare. Every horse in the band is important.
Young Bachelor
It is commonly thought that a colt becoming a bachelor is a sad process. While it can be a confusing time for the colt, it is no worse than a teenager preparing to go to college or the workforce. A more independent colt might become a bachelor quickly and find some friends to play with. A less independent colt might visit the band from time to time. No matter what their path, being a bachelor helps them get strong and prepare for life as a band stallion.
Mature Bachelor
It’s a theme of wild horse society that people often find things sadder than the horses do. It’s tough to see older band stallions becoming bachelors again, and for people the change chan seem sudden. For the horses, there are plenty of signs that a bachelor will start challenging band stallions. If a bachelor is fully mature and starts bossing the younger guys around, it is a sign that he is feeling ready to become a band stallion. This is an important part of a stallion coming of age, that helps keep genetics healthy.
Aging Stallion
Some think once a band stallion becomes a bachelor he loses his purpose. Since every wild horse has a role this is a highly anthropomorphic view. While different older stallions react to bachelorhood differently, I am sure protecting the band gets exhausting as a horse gets older. Once the stallion recovers from whatever battles prompted the transition, being a bachelor can feel like retirement. While he may not ever have a band as big as when he was in his prime, there is still a chance he will have one or two loyal mares. If he never becomes a band stallion again, he still plays an important role mentoring younger bachelors.
Since they ensure populations stay sustainable, one could argue that they are the most important part of wild horse society. It might seem like their role is limited since the entire band has to keep them safe, but they can add levity. They can also help bring bands together, and establish which horses have the potential to be strong lead mares, or band stallions.
Wild horse society is nuanced in ways that one blog post alone cannot explain. One thing I do know is that it is not one size fits all for any demographic of the herd. Without all of those nuanced roles, even if they are different than your expectations, the herd lacks strength. Like people, if a horse takes a different path, they are doing what is best for them. While I understand people gain emotional connections to horses, it is important to understand that life in the wild is a vastly positive experience and each horse is important.

When Fiero was a band stallion, Strawberry assisted Sacajawea as lead mare by sticking close with the young mare Oregon while Fiero took the rear as band stallion.

Wild Horse Mismanagement: Breaking the Wheel

With helicopter roundups the primary management tool for the majority of herds it can be easy to get discouraged about wild horse advocacy. With social media making it easy to share ideas and information, it can be even more discouraging to know that many of the issues wild horses face is due to misinformation spread by advocates. It can be easy to see a trusted advocate share something, assume it is verified, and (if no one has taken the time to verify the information) pseudoscience can quickly spread. I’d like to think people aren’t maliciously spreading pseudoscience as everyone makes mistakes. Which is why, even from trusted advocates it is important to verify information before sharing it.
Despite numerous studies, and its safe use in numerous herds, possibly the most widespread promotion of pseudoscience between wild horse advocates. Since those against PZP use just enough truth (after 5 applications PZP is no longer reversible) they can make the rest of their claims (PZP harms foals) seem creditable. The truth is, that if a mare is given PZP until she is four she will have a chance to mature before having her first foal. Despite, the science that shows how safe PZP is when used correctly, it is becoming more common to see people completely against it.
I think part of the problem is how instant information can be found on the internet. It is tempting to think of a study as irrefutable, but unless one has the full context you cannot fully understand the study. Further, it is important to make sure that the study was peer reviewed by other scientists. It is also important to see if the study was sponsored by a group that might bias the results.
Even with techniques to know if a study is creditable, it can still get tricky. While I try to think the best of fellow advocates, there are some clues that I use to help determine if they are sharing creditable information. I have found that groups that are open to PZP until you have a difference of opinion. I have found that when asked for the full study, context of their opinion, or for studies that back up the “side affects” of PZP that have never been proven they are unable to comply. When confronted with diverse discussion, they often block people rather than use the experience as an opportunity to educate someone with a difference in opinion. This experience teaches me two things: 1. they may not have actual science to back up their opinion. 2. they are not sincere when they claim to be open to differences of opinion. 3. they may have something to hide.
Unfortunatly, since there is miss-information about PZP, even if people do believe that PZP is safe some feel it is ineffective. Since helicopter roundups are the primary management tool of the majority of herds, they assume that it does not work at the rate people claim. The truth is, that there are herds that pairing PZP with natural selection, bait/water trap removals, and natural selection has ended helicopter roundups. Some herds are even using PZP and natural selection as the primary management tools so well we may even start seeing the end to bait/water trapping in them.
Despite it being clear that herds that still use helicopter roundups are not properly utilizing PZP, some think that limiting the amount of mares will reproduce will have a greater effect than PZP. While it was traditionally believed that managing the male population of a species is a valuable management, there is more and more science that shows otherwise.
Let’s pretend, for the purposes of this blog post, that gelding were to be used as a management strategy. Since the BLM would want to geld as many stallions as possible, and would require a helicopter roundup. That, alone, should tell you that gelding is inhumane, but it also takes away a stallion’s purpose in the herd, takes away his wildness, and changes the herd dynamic.
The word “roundup” should be enough to show gelding is a bad idea, but even if the majority of the stallions are gelded before being released it only takes one stallion that eluded the roundup to breed with an entire herd of mares. Thus, gelding has no impact on population levels and reduces genetic diversity. When herds are already underpopulated, genetic diversity is the most important indicator of heard health. Even if that horse is still wild, gelding still takes away those genetics forever. Further, since gelding lowers testosterone, the horse will no longer have the drive to win mares and protect a band.
I’m all for creative solutions to keeping the horses wild. However, it is important to make sure the pros vastly outweigh the cons. There are no pros for gelding, ergo it should never be used as a viable management tool. When advocates use sound science, work together, and are open to partnering with BLM field offices real progress can be made. If advocates are mainly concerned with PZP’s effectiveness then they need to get it more widespread. Anything else just distracts from the realities of management, and prolongs roundups.

The Pryors are an example of a range that has used adaptive management effectively. No need to geld stallions when the last helicopter roundup was in 2009.

What Color?*

At about mid winter, people’s thoughts start turning to foals. While it is hard to tell that early in the year, it is a way to pass the time until the range is more accessible. Since some mares are naturally rotund, or a mare may lose a foal, it often is promoted as just a way to prevent cabin fever. Since it’s all in good fun what does it mater if people get it wrong?
Like many things about wild horses, even something that seems small has management implications. Despite clear evidence of outdated science to make population estimates, there are still people that think that every mare has a healthy foal that survives to adulthood, and lives to old age. Under that “logic” it implies that the population rises dramatically enough that stallions also give birth. Not only would the horses not be over populated if every mare gave birth, natural selection is a huge management tool that often gets over looked.
In order to change peoples’ perspectives, they need to be shown rather than told that the horses are underpopulated. Even if it is impossible to know exactly what happens in the wild, advocates can still make observations and inferences. If a mare was healthy coming out of winter one day, but thin the next, it can be inferred she lost a foal. Since HMAs are remote, she lost her foal due to natural selection.
Once foals are born, while people still try to predict if a mare is pregnant, they also try to predict the foal’s color. It’s away to pass the time anticipating the other foals. Another past time that can seem like it is just for fun. But beyond information about how many foals are born, it is important to have an idea about genetics. If there is a removal, it is important that all lines are represented. Sometimes, people focus on the horses that are still living. It is also important to reflect natural selection in the removal process if a mare has had a chance to have a foal, but it did not survive.
While it can be hard to determine the exact shade a foal will be, having a basic understanding of the base coat can help make inferences about genetics if the foal does not survive. That way, if accurate survival records are needed for management purposes advocates have a starting point. Although a light foal coat can be confusing, the same basic rules for adult coats still are true for foals.
With red bodies and light legs, it is easy to confuse bay foals with chestnut foals. The easiest way to tell the two colors apart is by looking at the mane color. Bay foals are born with black mane and tails. Although they start out light, bay foals also have black points on their legs and ears. Usually, the black rims around the ears are easiest to see, even if the foal is young. Since legs start out looking almost white, it is best to look for more of a dusty black color that will deepen as the foal gets older. Even if foals have legs that appear light, there is usually a small amount of black hair just above each hoof.

Noble started out bright orange and darkened to liver chestnut. Niobrara started out bay and ended up bay roan.

Chestnut foals are born orange rather than red like bays. The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at their manes. When I say chestnut foals are born orange, I mean everything is orange. While the shade will change as the horse gets older, chestnut foals never have black in their coats when they are born.
This is another color confused with chestnut and vice versa. It’s true that once a horse an adult light chestnuts and dark palominos can be tricky. As foals, though, palominos start out almost white. Sometimes, if the sun hits them the right way they can look light orange, but at most palomino foals have creamy undertones. Although they may get darker as they get older, palominos never have any red on them.
If I am being honest, these to colors are so similar I have a hard time telling the shades apart on adult horses. Perlinos manes and tails are creamier than their bodies, whereas cremllos mane and tails are the same shade. Even so, the color changes are subtle. I am sure there is a way to tell the two colors apart on foals, but I am not that experienced with them. In herds with these colors I tell them apart from palominos by looking at eye and skin color. Palominos have dark eyes and skin. Cremello and perlino horses have blue eyes and pink skin. Some mistake that for an albino horse, which is not a naturally occurring color, so we can rule that out for all horses.
In laypersons terms, bucksins are palomino horses with black points. They start out creamy like palominos, it is easy to get confused at first glance. Like bays, buskins have black points. Like the many other colors, if a cream colored foal has a black mane and tail rather than a light one it will be buckskin.
Bay Dun/Dunskin
Since dun is a pattern, not a color keeping track of different shades can be confusing. If at least one parent caries the dun gene any base coat could potentially be affected, which lightens the color and adds primitive markings. Often shorthanded to dun, bay horses affected by the dun allele lighten to tan. Dunskins are similar, but the horse also has the cream gene which lightens them to more of a buff color. Regardless, it is difficult to tell the colors apart at any age. When they are dun, they are light but still have a hint of a tan shade and primitive markings. The differences between buckskin and dun are subtle, but I promise they are there.
Not only are black foals often born dark grey, they can have countershading that looks like primitive markings. Like dun horses, though, grullo horses start out very light. If a foal is already dark grey at birth, even with countershading, they will darken to black after shedding their foal coat.
Since the color was given a Spanish name grullo and grulla are the same color. Mares and fillies with the color are grulla, stallions and colts are grullo. These are black horses affected by the dun allele, so I can see why they get mixed up. Like duns, grullo foals start out light. Thus, it is a lot easier to mix them up with bay duns than black horses. Unfortunatly, I don’t have a great way to describe the differences between the two when the horse is a foal. It can be helpful to have an idea of which colors the parents can produce, and compare with any siblings to make inferences. Like anything, the more practice you get seeing the differences between colors the easier it gets.
Red Dun
Red duns are chestnut horses affected by the dun allele. Compared to other horses with dun factoring, I think red duns are easiest to tell apart on foals. They will still be light in color, but their primitive markings will be red, orange, or yellow in color.
While a foal will be born whichever base coat it is, shade takes time to determine. It is easier to see when a foal sheds their foal coat, and different foals do that at different rates. Usually, though, foals start to shed around their eyes and nose first. Not all colors have different names for shade, but bays and chestnuts do. Sometimes, if a bay foal is born with darker legs they may end up seal bay (the darkest shade of bay).
Chestnut horses with flaxen (blond) mane and tails are known as sorrels. If the mane and tail is black, or darker than flaxen they are known as chestnuts. The darkest shade of chestnut, known as liver chestnut, can look black at first glance. This information can be helpful if the foal also has dun factoring. If a foal’s base coat is a redder shade of chestnut, they are red dun. Sorrel horses are yellow dun. If a foal’s base coat is more orange, they are apricot dun or another variation.
Once a horse gets older you might start to see different shades emerge. Claybank is a catchall for duns or bucksins that are extra light and don’t fit into the typical shade categories. To me, they look a bit like the reflection of water on the bank of a stream. Smokey refers to horses with a black base coat that also carry the cream gene. It can be hard to tell, but they often look a little lighter than horses without the cream gene. A bit like milk chocolate, if that’s your jam.
Sooty is a random of collection of black hairs in a horse’s coat. It’s what can make flaxen manes look grey, it can look like countershading, and make lighter shades look darker. Since the sooty hairs within a coat can very year after year it can make things extra confusing.
Mealy has to do with if a horse appears tan around their nose and flanks. Although I mostly see it with bay horses, I am sure it is possible in a wide range of shade possibilities. Often, mealy horses are lumped into a “brown” category. Although I believe that “brown” horses are becoming better understood on a genetics level, the label doesn’t always accurately describe the base coat.
Although a foal’s shade isn’t revealed until later, having an idea on the shade and base coat of family members can help indicate what it will be. Regardless, it is fun to watch the foal shed out and guess how they will look.
White Patterns
Although white patterns on their own are not colors, they still give clues about genetics. However, unless it is an obviously marked pinto or appaloosa, it is hard to know which pattern they will have. Sometimes, a foal’s body color will be distinctly lighter indicating roan, but most of the time, it is harder to tell. In some ways, grey’s are both the easiest and harder to figure out. If at least one parent is grey, there is a chance that the foal will go grey. Sometimes, not always, grey foals will have a grey ring around their eyes that will indicate that they will grey out as they get older.

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Although grullas start out light, Nomad was shedding out to grulla roan. Horses with a bay base coat, like Niobrara, are born a darker and redder.

White Markings
Although there are some instances where white markings are obvious, it is not known for sure how they are passed down from each generation. Often, facial markings are the easiest to see. Since foal legs start out light, any leg markings are harder. At the very least, hoof color can use to indicate if that leg will have a white marking or not. Sometimes, it can make it easier to see what the white marking will look like, but in most instances it is best to wait until the foal starts getting darker.
The bottom line is, foaling season should be fun. Most of the time, all it takes is patience for a foal’s color to be revealed. It’s easy to get similar colors mixed up, but random guesses make things confusing. Especially, if people trying to learn are also part of the discussion. Hopefully someone new wouldn’t mix up palomino or black, but sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone wants the foal to be a certain color, or if they think the foal will be that color. Even if it can seem like a fun, small, thing to predict, can connect to genetics which can connect to management decisions.
*Since the best ways to tell colors apart is by comparing and contrasting different foals, I recommend searching other blogs and facebook pages for photos. Especially if you know the color of an adult horse, it can be manageable to search to see their color as a foal and start seeing the characteristics of each foal coat.

Mustang Mismanagement: Minimal Context

Pseudoscience is one of the biggest barriers to wild horse advocacy. With so many sources on the internet, it is tempting to use the source that provides instant gratification rather than a factual one. Especially, when information can be taken out of context, it is easy to mistake someone’s opinion as facts, and for that opinion to spread quickly.
Especially when the opinion is shared on social media, people can get defensive wondering what it matters if they share their opinion. It matters because the BLM has the expectation that advocates are subjective. While they I don’t think many BLM employees follow advocacy pages I know they occasionally do. Regardless, discussions with other advocates can help people know how to respond formally to management proposals. If advocates plan on responding to EAs, it is important that only facts are provided to the BLM.
Unfortunatly, when so many opinions are shared via social media, many people feel that they are providing facts. While it is true that many opinions have some facts to back them up, they are often lacking the full context. For example, seasonal changes often make people worried about the horses. In the spring, the horses are lean, so people wonder if they are well suited for the wild. If you think it a fact that wild horses suffer in the wild based only on how horses look in the spring, then you may feel that removing horses is saving them. If that is your opinion at the time of responding to an EA then it might perpetuate the stereotype that mustangs are not able to survive in the wild and the best place for them is in holding. Without the full context of life in the wild, this contributes to removing horses that should have stayed in the wild. Since seasonal changes seem to shock people the most, here is the context to those situations.
Body Weight
Since forage varies with the seasons, the weight of mustangs cycles. When forage is abundant, they gain weight before winter. Although they can look obese, it ensures that they have extra calories for times when grass is less abundant. Since mustangs are adapted to eat almost all natural forage, they are still able to find food. Thus, mustangs are able to hold their own over winter, but will come out of it looking lean. This all a natural, and healthy cycle that enable wild horses to be adapted to life in the wild.
Mares With Foals
Like people, horses have different body types. Depending on a horses age, body type, and the role they play in a band they may look more lean than others. If a mare is lighter built, especially if she is a young prolific mare, people often worry about her after having a foal. Most know that a mare’s body will change when she is a mother, but they may not be prepared for what that actually looks like. Since she was so wide during pregnancy, her skin pulls tight over her ribs and hips after giving birth. If people are used to how large she was during pregnancy it can give the illusion that she is less healthy than the other horses. The reality is that the changes her body makes during pregnancy and giving birth are a healthy part of life in the wild.
Pregnant Mares
I don’t know how people expect a pregnant mare will look, but for some reason if she looks comparatively large they assume something is wrong. As established, different horse have different body types which means that some mares will show their pregnancy more than others. In most herds, foaling season is from early spring to late fall. Thus, if a mare is still pregnant after another one she just has a different due date. Since this is the wild, size is not an indication of that due date. Some mares start the spring roomy and stay that way until the end of the season or when they have their foal.
Older Horses
Older horses also tend to show the wear and tear of winter more so than other demographics. More so than other demographics the weight of older horses fluctuates. Part of the aging process is losing muscle mass. Since it is most visible along their topline many people mistake it for thinness. Sometimes, people think that older mustangs suffer. The reality is that older horses chose to pass away on their own terms. Often, they find a secluded spot to nap in the winter sun and pass away peacefully.
Coat Conditions
How mustangs’ coats look can also vary with the seasons. In the summer, they are sleek and short to keep the horses cool. In the winter their coats grow in thick and velvety to protect them against the cold. Spring is when those coats can start to look messy. As they start to shed, it really makes it clear just how those winter coats can get. Some horses are able to go through that transition gracefully. Some horses hold onto their winter coats and can look scraggly as they shed the last bits of fluff. Some think if a horse takes longer to shed in the spring, they are not as healthy. Since spring can be a fickle season, keeping one’s winter coat can help keep young and old horses warm in case of late winter storms, and damp conditions. Horses in their prime are better able to withstand damp conditions, but it does not make one demographic less healthy than the other.
Roan Coats
Some coat colors can look rougher than others. Roans, especially, are a prime example. Since roan is a pattern of white, and not a color they revert to their base coat in the winter. In the spring, they lighten as they prepare to shed their winter coat showing more roaning in summer. Their roan coats, especially in the summer show the history of the scars when they heal back the color of their base coat. This does not mean all those nicks happened at once, or out of conflict. Those winter coats get itchy, and even a scratch from a tree can cause a cornmark. Even just nips from playing can look worse than they are on a roan coat.
Teeth and Feet and Health
Another misconception is that mustangs cannot possibly be healthy since they do not receive vet care. The reality is that nature provides for them. While I am sure their teeth are a limiting factor to their lifespan their diet is varied. Adapted to eat almost any natural vegetation that can include tougher plants such as sage. Thus, they do not wear as unevenly as people expect.
If people are used to domestic pastures, they take for granted how rocky it is in the wild. Or they are well aware of the rocks and assume that the horses can’t survive in the wild because domestic horses could not. Since mustangs, unlike domestic horses, are wildlife they are adapted to those rocky conditions. To compensate for their habitat, mustangs have huge, thick, hooves, and sturdy legs. It creates a surefooted combination, and the rocks act like nature’s farrier creating a strong, flat, and perfect hoof.
Often, even if a horse only got the slightest bit injured people assume they need vet care. As established, mustangs are tough. Even if it looks bad to use, any bite or kick will heal quickly. Since sparring can look intense to us, people worry that they fight to the death. Since neither stallion wants to get hurt himself, the serious injuries people worry about are rare. Even if a horse gets a leg injury, they often recover from it with a bit of rest and solitude.
While wild animals do not live as long as domestic, some stallions live well into their 20s. Some mares have almost lived into their early 30s. Considering that’s a lot longer than other mammals, and nearly as long as domestic horses, it shows how resilient and adapted for the wild they are.
While people are entitled to their opinions and emotions, it is important for those opinions to be formed based on all available facts. While some will worry even with the full context, I have found that many more will appreciate the perspective it brings. Regardless of one’s personal opinion, I implore everyone to give the full context of facts when they provide it.

The biggest fears for mustangs are their condition in the spring and sparring. Theses seasonal changes happen yearly. Each year like clockwork the horses do just fine.

Return to Freedom & Co. Proposal

If you have been following wild horse management news over the last few weeks you know that there has been devision regarding a proposal to end helicopter roundups in the next 10 years. The proposal has been made by Return to Freedom, other animal advocacy groups, ranchers, and the BLM. As the groups that had been part of the proposal began sharing information, other groups also were providing information. Groups that usually provided objective information regarding management seemed to get their source from a blog post.
While the blog post also provided a press release it provided the author’s subjective opinion first. The subjective language implied it was a plan to eradicate thousands of horses by removing them, and potentially sending them to slaughter. Perhaps the groups making the proposal would rather sterilize or kill horses than manage them sustainably. Nothing in the press release stated eradicating HMAs or sending the horses to slaughter, or lethal means to manage horses. Unfortunatly, the groups that had not been part of the proposal, seemed to focus on the subjective language used in the blog post rather than the content of the press release.
Trying to find out what really was in the proposal, I reached out to groups and individuals that usually have a more objective look at management. Oddly, the groups and individuals that normally seemed open to discussion seemed adamant that their opinion of the proposal was justified. While there were parts of the press release I wasn’t sure about, I also wasn’t sure if the emotional response was warranted.
Although I was looking for objective information from more than just one side of the proposal, I went directly to the organizations that had provided press releases about it. Starting with Return to Freedom, I found a lot more resources than the organizations that had not been included in the proposal were providing in their responses. Although the type of language changed depending on the purpose of the information (press release, FAQ sheet, etc.) four points for a robust fertility program, strategic non-lethal gathering, rehoming of horses, and increased adoptions. As far as I can tell, the recommendations are an effort to use adaptive management to end helicopter roundups. Nowhere does it say zeroing out HMAs, or using inhumane methods. I recommend going directly to the stakeholder websites for more information, but a FAQ sheet can be found here.
While I was not part of the discussions and thus only know the summation provided by the materials on each website I can infer the intentions of the full proposal. Since all the information each group provides has promoted non-lethal management, I can infer that fertility control means PZP or another reversible birth control method. Strategic non-lethal gathering usually means bait/water trap removals. Rehoming of horses and increased adoptions sound like efforts to keep horses out of holding facilities and rehome horses that are already in holding facilities. Based solely on the way the information is provided from those that were part of putting the proposal together this seems like a valid attempt at adaptive management. Since adaptive management is what other organizations have been striving to, it seems odd that they would have such a vehement response to the proposal.
Although adaptive management is a great approach some things about the proposal, perhaps, were poorly worded. I disagree that any HMA needs removals, while understanding that with so many stakeholders it might be the best language that tries to reflect everyone’s values.
This was the part of the proposal that the groups that were not part of the planning fixated on. While the big picture looks good, overall, details are lacking in the information provided in the proposal. The biggest concern seemed to be the inconsistencies in the number of horses that might be removed in the first few years.
Word was spreading that thousands of horses could be removed in the first year alone. Surely that would eradicate all HMAs!
Rather than getting caught up in emotional language, I prefer to take a step back. Without context stats are meaningless, so I wanted to try to find more context behind them. Thousands of horses does seem like a lot, but it does not share where those horses will be removed from. Although there is limited information regarding where removals will take place, no where does the information provided list removing horses from only one HMA. Assuming the removals would start out more aggressively to stop helicopter roundups while keeping herds sustainable, I doubt removing thousands of horses from one HMA is the goal. To the point of those that created the proposal: the BLM will roundup thousands of horses wether we want them to. If removing is inevitable, then the best advocates can do is try to control how it happens and work toward a better future.
While I don’t know exactly what went into the proposal, I would prefer to think the best of fellow advocates. I also do not want to try to limit the emotions of other advocates: perhaps there is something I do not know about the proposal and they are justified in feeling like some advocates are “traitors”. At this stage, my reaction is that the proposal is well meaning, but poorly executed.
Similarly, the reactions of other advocates seems a little strong. Many organizations promote multiple ways to be a good advocate. I can’t help but wonder when organizations promote discussion and sharing ideas use this as an education tool rather than spreading allegations if this truly were a poor proposal. As far as I can see the way advocates have responded to the proposal has been well meaning, but a poor execution. This could either be an opportunity to advocates to learn and grow together, or become divisive. Given the choice, I would prefer the former.
Bottom line: this is just a proposal. Regardless of if it is good or bad, my understanding is that it still needs to go through congress. There is no guarantee this proposal will be used. No where in the proposal states anything about it being the only way to approach management. Other groups are free to approach the BLM on an individual level, my understanding is that this proposal is an attempt to get adaptive management more wide-spread.
I am a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their own emotions and opinions. At the same time, opinions should be formed by taking an objective look at facts. Perhaps I am misunderstanding them, but to me it seems this entire proposal has been blown out of proportion. Regardless of what the proposal states, it is discouraging to see advocates that seem more concerned with bashing it than trying to understand or improve upon it.

Regardless of where people get their information, or what opinion they have looking at any management objectively is imperative.

Mustang Mismanagement: Projecting Emotions

Although every season brings different challenges for wildlife, summer can seem especially dramatic for wild horse viewers. Foals are born. Stallion’s vie for mares. With more forage available, horses in other bands are able to graze closer to each other. An increase of horses, can mean an increase in conflict.
When people are used to domestic horses, this can be hard for people to see. It’s common for people to feel fear and sadness as stallions vie for mares. Sometimes, people assume if they are feeling those emotions, the horse must be feeling them too. While horses feel emotion, they do so differently than people do. Emotions take energy. In the wild, animals need to conserve energy. They feel emotions, but are more graceful at them than we are. They do not linger as much as we do on emotions. I am of the personal opinion that horses are a lot better at accepting emotions and moving on from them than we are. For the purposes of this blog post, I plan on simplifying things, but I am sure the emotions animals feel can be just as complex as ours.
Social animals, mustangs can form strong bongs. Mares take impeccable care of their foals. Since a mare might have several stallions in her lifetime, she is often more bonded to another mare than her stallion. If a stallion is kind, and wise he has a better chance of the mares bonding with him, too. Like people, mustangs experience love for a variety of reasons.
Often, foals seem to be the most curious members of wild horse society. They are often the most watchful when new things like people come into their world. In adults, wonder can be subtle. A mare learning the scent of her new foal. A stallion might experience wonderment as he woos his first mare. Having subtle behavior helps mustangs survive, so I am sure there are many ways that they show wonder that we do not notice.
Like all animals, mustangs have a fight, flight or flee response. Since mustangs are prey animals they might freeze while they check something out, then flee if they think something is a threat. Ideally, the horses will be faster than the perceived threat, but especially if there is potential for a foal to be harmed, their last resort is the fight response.
Sometimes, a behavior that people associate with one emotion is really an indication of another. While fighting out of fear is a last resort, stallions spar to protect their bands. It helps show which stallion has the most endurance to successfully be a band stallion. Similarly, when a horses ears are pinned people think anger, but it is way for horses to tell each other when to move quickly. Stallions can look especially fierce when snaking their mares, but it is jut their way of making sure the entire band knows what is going on.
Since the horses do live in the wild, I am sure they do experience pain. Stallions especially get nicks as they spar with each other. Since they are wild animals, I expect that they are tougher about pain than many humans. Since they are prey animals, a potential threat will pick up on any signs of pain fast. Since the horses are so resilient, serious injuries are rare. They are able to heal fast, and recover well.
Often it is thought that only foals play. While sparing can look dramatic, it is not all about protecting the band. Even as band stallions, horses like a break from responsibility. Playing can strengthen bonds, and muscles. Even mares tolerate the pestering of other horses to play.
As mentioned, these are just some of the emotions horses experience. They are not listed in any particular order, and none of them are bad. Although there are ones that I may have missed, I caution against assuming that horse experience emotions that imply malice. As horses, wild horses experience emotions to help them survive. Malice takes extra energy and implies that mustangs are mean or trying to sabotage other horses. While some view life in the wild cruel, I personally think that malice is a human construct.
Although people like making emotional connections with wildlife, it is important to give the full context of a situation. An emotional gets the attention of potential advocates, but adding facts can help make sure those advocates are a strong ones. Advocates have a reputation for being subjective, so before reporting what a horse is feeling it is important to analyze if the emotion is truly relevant to the situation, or if it is a projection of one’s own emotions.

Mystique's band
JT tries to flirt with Sydney while Treasure looks on. There is a lot of behavior here: Sydney was annoyed but patient, JT was amorous, and Treasure was annoyed while letting Sydney deal with JT.

Mustang Mismanagement: Ignoring Paternal Lines

Spring is the start of foaling season. Often, people focus on the mare and foal, but they can be also curious about the sire. Since it is impossible to know for sure without genetic testing, and genetic testing cannot happen without capturing the horses, the predictions are made all in good fun. If there are different opinions, what does it matter if the predictions made are not anywhere close to which horse the actual sire could be?
It matters, because based on my last posts even though there is no over population problem the horses need to be managed. As helicopter roundups are being replaced by more adaptive management, removals still take place. In any form of management, maintaining genetic diversity is vital. Although natural selection dictates how often a horse breeds, or has surviving offspring, if a removal must happen it is important to make sure only the horses with the least amount of impact on genetics are selected.
Since only the dam can be confirmed, sometimes paternal lines are ignored when removals take place. While a horse’s sire can’t be 100% confirmed, we still know who his dam is and can make inferences about who a horse’s sire is. A stallion could be the only offspring of a mare. If paternal lines are ignored, then a mare that was prolific with one stallion could have her offspring removed if she has foals with a new stallion. If that stallion is the only offspring of a horse, then removing that mare’s offspring based only on her side risks having a huge impact on genetic diversity.
Hopefully I’ve convinced everyone that paternal lines are important. The next question is: how do we make the best decision if it is impossible to know without genetic testing? The biggest thing is to leave horses in the wild if there is doubt about the sire. Even if the horse in question is the offspring of a more prolific stallion, part of quality management is honoring natural selection. If a stallion’s genes are more suited for surviving in the wild than another, there will naturally be lines that are more prolific than others. To try to determine which stallion is most likely, there are many factors to consider.
While even color can be murky, certain pairings can be limited in the colors they produce. Roans, grays, and duns, all need one parent with that pattern to have that coat pattern. Two sorrels will only produce a sorrel foal. Darker colors are often more dominant than lighter ones. While there are other factors, color can be used to eliminate a potential sire if the foal is a color that is not possible between the mare and stallion.
Mustangs have ways to prevent inbreeding, so at around the age of two young horses start the process of leaving the band. Young stallions become bachelors, but are not yet old enough to have their own band. Thus, even if the color is a match a young age decreases the chance of a stallion being the sire of a foal.
Band Dynamics
While mares don’t always leave their natal band, there are still ways to limit inbreeding. If the band stallion is her father, he will let her wander away from the band to be bred by another stallion. If she is too bonded to the other mares to leave the band, another stallion might steal it. Thus, while it can be the default to assume the band stallion is the sire, there are other factors.
These are just a few scenarios that help people make the best prediction on which horse a foal’s father is. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, of there is potential to lose genetics it is important that all factors are considered. Even if I am confident in my opinion, I still try to list all the possible sires incase I am wrong. If there’s only one takeaway from this blog post, for the health of genetics if there is doubt about lineage it is probably best to keep the horse in question wild.

Zorro is an example of a horse in the Fish Springs herd that has most likely had offspring with mares outside of his band.