SALEM, Ohio – Rick Rhodes always wanted to be a cowboy. These days, his Stoney Hollow Farm near Lisbon, Ohio, is a self-proclaimed “regular rodeo,” complete with wild horses.
Together, Rhodes and Kim Culler have adopted four wild horses through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s annual western roundups and Adopt A Wild Horse program. The couple has also gentled each one, relying on their own equine knowledge to turn the untamed horses into more easily handled animals.
“These animals are a real tradition, a big part of our heritage,” Rhodes said.
“And especially after what happened in September, who wouldn’t want to help keep a little piece of the American tradition going,” Culler added.
The pair urges others to learn about and take advantage of the program and attend an adoption event, including the upcoming opportunity Feb. 9 in Columbus. Although there are no plans to bring another steed to Lisbon this year, the couple will be helping friends complete their first adoption at the site.
History. Wild horses and burros, or wild donkeys, are descendants of animals turned loose or escaped from ranchers, prospectors, Indian tribes and the United States Cavalry from the late 1800s through the 1930s.
The federal program began when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act – legislation to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros on public lands – in December of 1971. Prior to that, the animals were often captured and destroyed as nuisances or were sold for profit, chiefly for use in commercial products.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service administer the law.
“Because there is an overpopulation of wild horses and burros on the western rangelands, we gather some of them and offer them for adoption to good homes,” said Gayle Gordon, the bureau’s eastern states director.
“Essentially, the law made the animals a federally protected species,” said Randy Anderson, bureau wild horse and burro specialist.
“The animals reproduce at a rate of around 22 percent per year, so it wouldn’t take long for them to totally ruin the land and limit their survival,” he said.
“By gathering around 8,000 animals every year, we can manage and control their population, which also helps the land keep up with the forage demands the herds put on it,” Anderson said.
Roundup. For more than 30 years the bureau has run the adoption program, finding homes for more than 200,000 feral horses and burros from 10 states. Last year alone, nearly 7,000 equines were adopted.
Currently, there are approximately 53,000 wild horses and burros still roaming the western plains; more than half of those are in Nevada. Other states with high populations are Arizona, southern California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, according to Anderson.
Satellite adoptions are held February through October across the country. Scheduled and ongoing adoptions are also held at permanent holding facilities located in the western states, where animals are first taken after the roundups.
Animals are vaccinated and wormed, tested for diseases by a veterinarian and freeze-branded before they are eligible for adoption.
The brand marks the horses as federal property and allows tracking of important information, including its age and the state where the animal originated.
The bureau also offers the option of gelding to discourage breeding.
Animals of all ages are available for adoption, although the younger ones tend to be adopted more quickly, Anderson said.
Qualifications. To make sure each animal goes to a good home, an application must be filled out by any person who wants to adopt an animal, detailing the facilities they have available for a horse or burro, Anderson said.
Those hoping to take an equine home with them from an adoption site should preapply, he said, which allows time to conduct phone screening and review available facilities. The preapplication also allows time for changes to be made, so that adopters have a greater chance of gaining clearance to buy an animal.
Potential adopters can fill out the paperwork at an adoption site, but run the risk of not being cleared, Anderson said.
Look, then buy. The two-day Columbus event is structured like most others across the country; all animals are penned and available for inspection the first day. The following morning, animals are auctioned by silent bid.
Adoption fees for each animal begin at $125, and “most of the horses go for the bottom amount,” Anderson said, although some have gone for much more, and “it’s not uncommon for two buyers to get into a bidding war over an animal they both fell in love with.”
Adoption fees cover a portion of the costs of the program from roundup to adoption, including veterinary care prior to adoption and shipping costs.
After animals are sold, bureau officials halter and load all animals. Adopters must sign a contract guaranteeing their responsibility for the animal for one year, at which time the animal is titled to the individual and becomes private property. Adopters are limited to having four untitled animals at a time.
Equines gathered from the Plains but not adopted cannot be released back into their natural habitat; those animals are taken to federal long-term sanctuaries, and most are made available at subsequent adoption events.
Never say never. Shirley Mendenhall of Wadsworth, Ohio, never thought she would adopt a wild horse. But then things changed.
“Almost every kid wants a pony when they’re growing up, but there comes a time when that actually comes true,” she said of a gift of riding lessons from her husband for her 40th birthday. The lessons led to a trail ride near Las Vegas two years ago, where Mendenhall saw her first wild horse.
Not long after, she got a call from friends at the National Wild Horse Association telling of an emergency roundup. A young gelding – colored like the one she’d seen – was available for adoption.
“I finally realized my dream with Cielo. He’s a perfect gentleman,” she says of her horse, who was professionally trained in Nevada. “He was groomed within inches of his life every day, which helped him form trust,” she said.
Since the animals have seen few, if any, humans until the roundup, a bond of trust must be formed.
“A lot of people go into this thinking they’ll see results overnight, and that’s wrong. You have to work with the animal and gain his trust before anything else,” Kim Culler said.
“These animals are terrified when you first get them, and they can hurt you, too,” she said.
Although neither Culler nor Rhodes has been hurt by a horse, the couple have plenty of stories to share about their animals.
“Each has his own attitude. One throws Rick off every time we go riding at Beaver Creek State Park. He walks away but always comes back, puts his head down and watches Rick laughing at him, and snorts. We’ve just come to expect that,” Culler said.
Other times, it’s “as if they get flashbacks of being in the wild. We hit an open field, and sometimes they take off running,” Rhodes said.
Culler and Rhodes don’t claim to be experts, but rely on their own experience when dealing with the animals. The gentling process is done slowly, at the horse’s own pace. “If it takes us five or six months to get a saddle pad on, then so be it,” Rhodes said.
“The neat thing about them is they don’t have bad habits already. We can train them and program them the way we want to,” Rhodes said.
“And training is the fun part of it all, anyhow,” Culler said.
Good enough. They have now four horses from the Plains – Raven, Shaky, Cally and Trail – in addition to 14 others on the farm.
The couple has entered the animals in horse fun shows in Lisbon, and “the judges couldn’t say enough about them. They were up against more expensive horses, but they looked good, and the judges told us they had never seen such beautiful animals,” Culler said.
“A lot of people around here don’t like the mustangs, and I think it’s because they don’t know enough about them. But when we go trail riding, we get a ton of compliments about them,” Culler said. “They’re good for us, but not for everybody.”