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Yoder trainer helps rehome the West’s wild horses 

Mustang Lisa

click to enlarge Lisa Vargo perches atop a horse that her father raised. (He’s not a mustang, unlike the other four horses on her property). - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Lisa Vargo perches atop a horse that her father raised. (He’s not a mustang, unlike the other four horses on her property).

Sporting a bright yellow hat, a patterned sports bra and pink shorts, Lisa Vargo waves her arms up and down inside a fenced horse pen on her property in Yoder, about an hour east of downtown Colorado Springs.

A handsome, chocolate-brown mustang named Mariah (after a song from the 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon) snorts nervously and shimmies away. For a while, the two dance in circles around the pen.

“She’s very flighty,” says Vargo, a tanned and fit trainer who works to “gentle” wild horses.

Before arriving at Vargo’s ranch in August, Mariah ran wild with the Devil’s Garden Plateau herd in northern California, until she was rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency responsible for managing the mustang population on public lands.

Now, she’s here with Vargo to prepare for the next phase of her life as a pet, working horse, or even (Vargo’s dream) a show horse.

Though she’s skittish, Mariah has a good chance of finding a loving owner, thanks to Vargo’s patience and dedication. But she’s just one horse out of tens of thousands of animals that public lands can’t adequately support.

And the problem is becoming dire: With the country’s wild horse population growing exponentially, the BLM has far more mustangs than willing adopters.

click to enlarge Boxcars and old farm equipment decorate Vargo’s Yoder property. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Boxcars and old farm equipment decorate Vargo’s Yoder property.

The BLM estimates
the free-roaming population of wild horses and burros across the West totals more than 88,000 (72,000 of them mustangs). That’s more than three times the “Appropriate Management Level” of horses and burros that the BLM has determined “can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses.”

More than half of the country’s population roams the land in Nevada, but Colorado’s Western Slope is home to around 1,900 wild horses — more than twice the state’s AML.

With too many horses on the range, herds can get to the point where they’re “trying to eat bark off of trees, or dying for lack of water” as resources become depleted, says Jason Lutterman, a spokesperson for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

So the BLM does its best to manage the population. It’s not an easy task: Herd size can double every four or five years.

The agency “removes” wild horses and burros on the range by rounding them up into holding facilities and private pastures, in an effort to slow population growth in a humane manner. There, they’ll live out the remainder of their lives, unless they’re placed with an adopter. Most years the BLM removes around 4,000 animals (though last year was an exception with more than 11,000).

The BLM also “darts” some horses with fertility control drugs, though that method is expensive and only lasts about a year, Lutterman says.

The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not been without controversy. To some animal welfare advocates, the use of helicopters and bait traps used to round up the animals is inhumane, as are new proposed types of birth control methods.

But before the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971 — handing the responsibility of managing and protecting the population to the federal government — many of the animals were hunted or rounded up for slaughter, some ending up in pet food.

Today, the BLM seeks to place horses and burros in homes, and doesn’t sell them for slaughter (though the agency has in the past been accused of ignoring adopters’ intent). Current policy allows wild horses to be adopted for as little as $25 — but the adopter doesn’t officially own the animal until it’s been in their possession for a year, and the BLM can certify it’s healthy and safe.

click to enlarge Mariah, a mustang from California, plays hard to get with trainer Lisa Vargo. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Mariah, a mustang from California, plays hard to get with trainer Lisa Vargo.

Organizations such as
the Mustang Heritage Foundation, with which Vargo works, serve as a bridge between the BLM and wild horse trainers to help find them safe homes.

As one of around 450 trainers involved in the nonprofit’s Trainer Incentive Program, Vargo gets the wild horses to the point where she can comfortably put on and take off a halter, pet them and brush their manes, pick up each of their hooves, and lead them in and out of a trailer.

Such gentling makes the horses more attractive to potential adopters, who otherwise might adopt a mustang as a pet without understanding what they were getting into and end up returning it to the BLM.

“The single best way to increase an animal’s odds of finding a good home is to train it a little,” Lutterman says.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation is built on that philosophy. Formed in 2005 to increase the number of successful mustang adoptions, it now works with about 450 trainers all over the country who receive a financial incentive to find homes for horses, says Cheyenne Johanson, the nonprofit’s program and event coordinator.

Johanson says she receives up to seven applications from trainers every two days, and on a recent Tuesday in early September, the nonprofit had more than 50 applications pending. Trainers don’t need a license — applicants just need to provide at least two references that attest to their ability to work with animals, and they can’t have animal abuse in their background.

“We love that the program is growing, that we’re getting more trainers,” Johanson says. “If we can get every mustang a home that needs a home, then we would be glad to do that.”

The number of adoptions through the BLM has steadily climbed for the past several years, and the agency expects to find homes for about 5,000 wild horses and burros this year, Lutterman says.

Last year, 4,600 animals were placed into private care, including 190 in Colorado.

Though the increasing adoptions look promising, wild populations are growing at a rapid rate — and the federal government is already spending a significant amount of money to manage them. This year, the BLM will spend $75 million on the Wild Horse and Burro Program.

click to enlarge Shelves of antiques line an old silo. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Shelves of antiques line an old silo.
Vargo worries that not enough people understand the beauty of wild horses.

Despite riding and training horses for most of her life, she met her first mustang two or three years ago. She quickly fell in love with wild horses, and now trains 10 to 12 a year on her Yoder property, which she bought several years ago from a “hoarder” who collected antiques and old boxcars. (She’s still sorting through the many items he left behind, and dreams of one day running a bed-and-breakfast on the property that doubles as a wedding venue and retreat location.)

Each trainer’s strategy is different. Vargo’s involves wearing large hats and flowy garments, and waving her arms, which often makes the animals uncomfortable — until they realize she won’t hurt them, and will allow her to approach them, pet them, and eventually halter them. Depending on the animal, that can take a few hours or a few days.

But Vargo’s on a tight schedule. She only has a few months to gentle each horse and find it a home. Otherwise, it goes back to the BLM, and any progress it’s made can be lost. Marketing can sometimes be difficult.

“Unfortunately, most of the people who like mustangs and want mustangs, we’ve already saturated that market,” Vargo says. “So we really need to get these mustangs out in public.”

Vargo believes that if more mustangs were trained for show-horse disciplines such as dressage or reining (levels of training beyond what she normally does with the Mustang Heritage Foundation), it would increase the number of interested adopters.

But show horse owners, Vargo says, are “rather clique-ish, most of them — you know, they like a particular breed and they don’t like any of the other breeds,” even though wild horses can hold their own in competitions with purebreds.

She fantasizes about changing stereotypes that mustangs aren’t as beautiful or smart as other breeds.

“If one big show barn would take one mustang a year and put it all the way through the paces, and turn it into a real show horse, it would really help to promote the mustangs.”

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