Wild horses

Ashburnham woman adopts mustang and urges others to care for these living legends

By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2007

On a glorious summer morning, Laura Baker led her roan gelding, Merle, from the edge of the woods behind her house to a paddock. As she brushed the compact horse with a curry comb, Baker exuded over Merle’s color, temperament and intelligence.

Baker placed a rope halter on him, and with easy swings of the rope he began to move from side to side. She used signals to instruct Merle to walk around her. He backed up when she wagged her index finger at him.

The demonstration was impressive, and all the more so because Merle was once a wild mustang roaming the plains of Nevada. He and other members of his herd were removed by the federal Bureau of Land Management to protect the rangeland from becoming overgrazed.

Baker, who lives in Ashburnham, adopted Merle two years ago through the BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption program. He was 5 and had lived in a BLM holding area for three years. Baker was looking for a somewhat older horse – surefooted, well-proportioned and not overly spirited.

Getting to know one another proved challenging at times.

“He would look at me and I knew he was thinking, `You think you’re the boss? So do I,’” Baker said, laughing.

Baker, a self-described tomboy in her youth, hopped on her horse. She slid back to his rump and lay down on him. Merle appeared unperturbed.

“I kept a journal so I wouldn’t take for granted and forget what we’ve accomplished,” Baker told a visitor, her bright blue eyes sparkling with pride. “The smallest things were milestones.”

She has found her experience with her mustang so fulfilling that she will be on hand as the BLM holds an adoption session this weekend at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Sixty horses and several burros will be available to go to new owners.

Baker will pick up a mustang gelding and adopt two burros. She already has adopted the horse over the Internet. The BLM conducts an Internet adoption every eight weeks at www.blm.gov/adoptahorse. The horse and a burro will go to Baker’s sister and her daughter, who live in New Jersey. Burros are good at controlling predators, and Baker’s sister, Kristina Baker, raises Romney sheep. Baker will keep the other burro as a companion for Merle.

The BLM, which has operated the adoption program since 1973, has high hopes that people qualified to adopt will take advantage of the opportunity. The horses have been carefully selected and a few have been “gentled,” meaning they have gotten used to being touched and led around by humans, said Karen Roberts, deputy chief of external affairs for the BLM.

“We would love to find some good homes for these horses,” Roberts said. “They are diamonds in the rough. They are very sturdy, very loyal animals. If anyone were to speak to our adopters, they would find they love their animals.”

More than 214,000 horses and burros have been adopted nationwide since the program’s inception. Of those, more than 1,800 have gone to New England homes. The fee is $125 for an animal up to 3 years of age. For older horses, the fee is $25. Those who adopt a horse at the $125 fee can adopt a second animal for a $25 “buddy” fee.

The BLM program has been embroiled in controversy from time to time, with accusations surfacing that some people who adopted horses turned around and sold them for slaughter. More recently, animal protectionists have been up in arms over a rider slipped into the 2005 federal appropriations bill allowing wild horses 10 and older, or those unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times, to be sold at auction, often the first step to the slaughterhouse.

“We do not slaughter, and we do not sell to people who slaughter,” Roberts said emphatically. “Simply based on economics, if you looked at what it costs to feed a horse for a year, you wouldn’t send it to slaughter.”

A potential adopter must complete an application in which he or she describes the situation in which the animal will live and provide a reference, such as a veterinarian. There is a year-long probationary period before the owner can gain title. During that time, compliance checks are conducted by the BLM or volunteers who have previously adopted animals, Roberts said.

“Often, a local animal control officer will alert us if they see something amiss,” she said. “It happens more often than we would like.”

Between 20,000 and 25,000 horses that have not been adopted are living out their lives in long-term holding areas, Roberts said.

Baker, a 39-year-old history professor, first encountered mustangs when she volunteered at an equine rescue operation while teaching at Rice University in Texas. She was learning to ride and knew that someday she wanted to own a horse.

“They had a few mustangs, and they took my breath away. They were, without question, the most beautiful horses I had ever seen,” Baker said as she sat on her porch with her 10-year-old border collie mix, Dwight Earl, at her feet.

When she moved to Massachusetts three years ago and joined the staff at Fitchburg State College, Baker bought an 1840 Cape and 14 acres. Her intention was to get a horse. Baker converted an acre of woodland for use as pasture. She keeps half a dozen chickens. Her perennial, herb and vegetable gardens are scattered about the property.

Baker said that a wild mustang was a good choice for her because the breed is very hardy.

“He has a run-in shed and a small paddock,” Baker said of Merle. “He’s on pasture and a little grain. You don’t need to blanket him or shoe him.”

Baker has been riding Merle bareback since November; now, she is getting him accustomed to a saddle.

“We’re learning together,” she said. “I’m becoming a more experienced horsewoman. He’s becoming a more confident horse. I love the experience of developing a relationship with an animal – communicating.”

Baker has learned how to work with Merle through home training manuals. The horse was a stud when she adopted him. She soon realized she faced problems with aggression.

“I wasn’t quite prepared,” she said. “He was trying to dominate me. The BLM gave me strategies for that, and we nipped that right in the bud.”

Another source of advice and support has been the Wild Mustang & Burro Association, which has regional chapters. Baker is the Massachusetts coordinator.

When Baker knew she would adopt from the BLM, she was perplexed as to how she was going to transport her horse home. A woman from Connecticut whom she had previously met agreed to help her out. Now, Baker has bought a stock trailer so that she can volunteer to haul for new adopters.

“I see it as repaying a karmic debt,” she said with a smile.

As with the BLM, Baker is hoping that many of the horses up for adoption find homes. In her view, there’s nothing more powerful than word-of-mouth.

“What will turn someone on to a mustang?” Baker asked. “Knowing someone who owns a mustang.”