Their stillness makes them almost imperceptible. But I know they are out there, so I cup my hands around my eyes and squint into the late afternoon sunlight, scanning the high desert for any sign of movement.
Suddenly, they appear: Nearly a dozen wild mustangs grazing in scattered groups on the hillside. Lingering beneath a partly cloudy sky, they look painted onto the landscape.
The air smells of dirt and sagebrush as I stand by my car parked on the side of Steens Mountain Loop Road, on the western flank of the mountain in southeast Oregon. Around me, the wilderness is silent except for a bevy of Western meadowlarks, who, perching on desert plants, tip their heads back and serenade anything passing by.
These horses are the South Steens mustangs, one of more than 17 herds that traverse Oregon’s public lands. Oregon has more than 6,100 wild horses, according to estimates, just a small fraction of the nearly 95,000 that live throughout the Western states. Most live in Nevada.
Though revered by much of the public, wild horses across the West are also the subject of a 70-year controversy involving locals, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), activists and ranchers. This complicated dispute, intertwining passion and harsh realities, debates what it means to be wild, what it means to have a home and what it means to protect a horse.
To learn more about Oregon’s wild horses, Eugene Weekly took a trip to the remote southeast corner of the state, trading Douglas-fir trees for the sparse high desert landscape some of these horses call home. The South Steens herd, like many other herds in Oregon, wandered through these lands ungoverned and unprotected for centuries until the BLM began managing them in 1971. The agency has been responsible for horses on BLM land ever since.
From plains to pens
“You occasionally see one, and it’s the thrill of a lifetime. But mostly all you ever see is a cloud of dust after they are gone. It’s their stubborn ability to survive that makes them so remarkable.” — Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston
Before the BLM managed wild horses, the mustangs were fair game for any rancher or cowboy who wanted to round up mustangs and slaughter them for commercial purposes. In the 1950s, Velma Johnston, a secretary from Nevada known as “Wild Horse Annie,” became aware of how badly wild horses were treated and led a grassroots campaign against some of the worst abuses.
She recruited school students to help, and thousands of letters later, Congress responded by passing the 1959 Wild Horse Annie Act, which prohibited the use of motor vehicles to hunt wild horses on public lands, but did not further protect the horses.
“There was no protection for wild horses,” says Rob Sharp, program supervisor at the Oregon BLM wild horse corrals a few miles west of Burns. “People were rounding them up. A lot of it was for slaughter purposes.”
By 1971, the wild horse population on public lands declined because of the continued permitted gathering and slaughtering of horses. In response to public protest, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which gives the management and protection of wild horses on most public land to the BLM. It was signed into law that year by President Richard Nixon. There are other herds that live on reservations and land managed by the forest service, for example the Big Summit Herd in the Ochoco National Forest.
Then the question came: How would the BLM manage the horses? One answer came from Harney County during an extreme drought in the 1970s, says Pauline Braymen, a third generation rancher near Burns and former editor of the Burns Times-Herald as well as a correspondent for The Oregonian.
“It was the worst drought of my life,” recalls Braymen, now in her 80s. “Malheur Lake was dry. You could just drive across it.”
Braymen says the drought led the BLM to conduct one of its first “gathers” of wild horses. A gather is when the agency removes wild horses and burros to, ideally, protect the health of the animals and range land. In 1977, they rounded up the Palomino Butte herd into trailers, taking the horses away from the BLM land they lived on, called herd management areas (HMA).
“Horses in Harney County, especially the Beatys Butte Herd, would have perished if they hadn’t been gathered,” Braymen says, who loves horses, but doesn’t ride them.
For many years, horse gathers were selective. The BLM put back horses with certain markings that were representative of the herd. With the South Steens, it’s pinto, a horse with patches of white and another color.
“They selected the horses that they thought were the best horses, and the colors and the markings and all,” Braymen says. The famous Kiger mustangs — which are descended from Spanish horses — were rounded up at Beatys Butte, southwest of Steens Mountain, and were placed near the northern part of the mountain in and near Kiger Gorge. This geographic isolation keeps the Kiger DNA local.
Debate persists about whether horses are wild or feral. The BLM says the horses are feral, because they are non-native to North America, and the first horses introduced were domesticated animals brought by Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s.
Horses evolved in North America before disappearing from the fossil record, and advocates point to research suggesting Indigenous peoples had horses before Spaniards arrived in America.
Joan Suther, a former BLM field manager and a biologist in Burns, says that over the centuries, ranchers left their horses on public lands when they couldn’t take care of them.
“If you do genetic testing, there is a whole lot of mixing going on,” Suther says, adding that the South Steens herd is not descended from Spanish mustangs.
Even if some horses were once feral, many people have their own idea of where to draw the line between feral and wild. Sonya Spaziani, known to many as “Mustang Meg,” documents Oregon herds, including the South Steens, and advocates for their protection with her organization, Mustang Wild.
“In my opinion, ‘feral’ is often misused in a derogatory context,” she says. “It should be directly applied to a horse in a feral situation that was domestic and then turned loose. Now, if that horse gives birth then the subsequent offspring is wild.”
Spaziani says she’s learned from geneticists that thousands of years of domestication have not changed the biology of the horse. A horse that is turned loose will quickly regain the natural instincts, she says.
“Once they are born wild, they are wild.”
Home off the range
The BLM corrals sprawl across 320 acres of land in low hills about a quarter mile off of Highway 20 west of Burns. About 600 wild horses, collected from all over the region, fill 41 pens, lined by tall fences so the horses can’t jump out. They are separated by age and gender. The horses stay here for the next few years until they are either adopted or moved onto another range.
A gravel road wraps around the corrals, an auto tour for both interested adopters and other tourists. Some pens hold several dozen mustangs. Their colorings are all unique — pinto, black, chestnut, bay and dun. When we arrive early in the morning, the horses munch on freshly delivered hay, on which the Oregon BLM spends $1 million — half its horse budget — each year.
The horses in the corrals still have thick winter coats in late April, a necessity in the freezing air that persists despite soft morning sunlight. As we drive around on the auto tour road, the horses don’t mind too much when we approach the fence with caution. Sometimes they scatter and other times they just go back to eating. The foals are the most unfazed by approaching humans.
“This is often where the journey starts for every animal coming into this facility,” Sharp says.
Every herd has a management population number range, Sharp says, which is the number of animals the BLM determines can sustainably occupy geographic areas.
One of the most efficient ways of gathering, Sharp says, is to round them up by helicopter, a method that is opposed by many advocates because it exhausts the horses and sometimes leads to death. BLM can also set up a bait trap, which lures the horses into one area or using a trained mustang called a “Judas horse” to lead others into a corral.
Another reason the BLM says it gathers horses is because of their rate of reproduction. But horses give birth to one offspring at a time, whereas sheep and sometimes cows can give birth to twins. In the wild, mustangs are resilient, and if they face a shortage of resources they will find other ways to survive.
Clare Staples, who runs a wild horse and burro rescue called Skydog Ranch and Sanctuary based in Prineville, argues that though the BLM used to gather for genetics, it now does it to keep numbers low. “The number of horses in holding pens gets larger and larger,” she says.
Many activists think the BLM prioritizes beef ranchers’ demands for space to graze cattle. Livestock don’t live on range year round — they graze from April to September in Oregon — but they still outnumber the horses on BLM land, where ranchers pay as little as $1.35 a month to graze one cow-calf pair. Advocates say it wastes taxpayer money to hold horses in pens, while other livestock have access to the land for cheap.
Sharp says that ranchers who want their livestock to graze on BLM land have to acquire a permit, which means the BLM can limit the number of grazing livestock if resources are scarce for mustangs.
Scott Beckstead is the manager of campaigns for the Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy. He says the BLM has become increasingly resentful of its position.
“This is seen in their pro livestock duties,” Beckstead says. “They are weaving this false narrative and are taking cues from the beef industry.”
After an animal is taken off the range, the BLM will process it: giving the horse vaccines and a BLM freeze brand on the neck. Mares are given contraceptives that last about a year. Any horse that doesn’t end up back on the range is available for adoption at a price of around $125. Even so, adoption rates are low.
The BLM started an adoption incentive program in 2019, which pays qualifying individuals a total of $1,000 to adopt an ungentled horse. After one year the horse belongs to the adopter.
“Since the launch of the incentive program, we adopt out about 400 animals a year,” Sharp says, which is double from previous years. If a horse doesn’t get adopted within about two years, they are sent to live permanently on range in another state.
This morning at the BLM site, an adopter arrives to pick up a horse. When the mare is loaded in the trailer, she thunders back and forth, frantic and confused. The trailer shakes, and the adopter assures the horse she is on her way to a better life.
‘She’s my heart horse’
Sydney Brooks never intended to adopt a wild horse. For one, she already had a horse, a dapple gray named Luna. But the Lane County resident, who often takes trips to Harney County to view the wild horses, was told of an auction in 2007 featuring Oregon’s revered Kiger mustangs.
As we sit together, she pulls out the old auction catalog and explains how she casually perused the available horses. Brooks points to an adorable grulla, fuzzy foal with a black dorsal stripe down her back and explains how she fell in love with her. Brooks bid on the horse, and other bidders dropped out.
That’s how she got Aspen.
“I ended up getting her and was completely unprepared to take on a wild horse,” Brooks admits. She adds that she had her daughter and a trainer help gentle the horse.
Living outside Eugene city limits with an average sized backyard, Brooks says she kept both Luna and her filly Aspen for a while in her backyard. Adopted horses need a small space to stay in initially while they acclimate, so they don’t jump out and are easier to catch. Brooks set up a makeshift pen for Aspen.
The neighbors didn’t mind, she says. “The horses ripped up the yard, though.”
For Brooks, training Aspen wasn’t easy.
“She’s smart,” Brooks says. “Training her was different because it had to make sense to her. She didn’t have any domestic blood in her.” Brooks competed with her mustang in hunter-jumper competitions for many years. Brooks adds that she would not recommend adopting a wild horse if a person doesn’t really know what they are doing, and also suggests asking a professional to help.
Brooks says her daughter, Casey Wright, dreamed of breeding Aspen. So Wright and their trainer worked together to find the right stallion.
And when Wright was tragically murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend at age 26, Brooks carried out her desire to breed their Kiger mustang.
“I carried it through,” Brooks says. “And I’m sure Casey is looking down and has been a part of the whole thing.”
Through both hardship and brighter times, Aspen, now 14, remains a constant and loyal friend in Brooks’ life. At almost 70, Brooks says she stopped competing during the pandemic. She runs a pet grooming business from her house, but she still rides Aspen multiple times a week.
“She’s my heart horse. We are very attached to each other. For a horse to come out of the wild and gain that trust and acceptance in this radical, different life is amazing. It’s an honor to be trusted.”
Not every horse that gets adopted has a happy ending. Adopted horses can also end up in kill pens. After one year an adopter can put the horse up for auction where anyone can bid, providing an opportunity for buyers who sell the horse to a kill pen.
Skydog Ranch takes on mustangs slated for slaughter. Staples says most of the 165 mustangs at the ranch were taken from kill pens.
“Taking horses out of kill pens is a small part of what we do. Promoting the SAFE [Safeguard American Food Exports] Act that would stop the transport and slaughter of horses is another part,” Staples says. Skydog also takes horses that were relinquished due to their inability to be trained.
The mustangs live out their days on the ranch’s 9,000 acres. They can’t take all horses, but they do their best, Staples says, adding the BLM adoption incentive program increased numbers of mustangs in kill pens.
“I realized a long time ago we can’t save them all,” she says. “As a wild horse lover, we’ve saved over 200, but it’s never enough.”
The future of wild horses
The best way to protect and manage these creatures is unclear. Some say they should be entirely left alone, while some locals believe that the horses’ ability to survive in the wild will destroy the land. The only certainty seems to be that no one will ever agree.
“I think there will continue to be a struggle,” Suther says. “I don’t think there will be a resolution to it and I think that’s true of all public land issues. A few people can live in the middle, but that’s not good enough for more vocal folks.”
If the BLM’s goal is to manage herd numbers, there are several options. It could geld stallions, but this is controversial because it changes the herd dynamic. Mares can be spayed, but it requires an invasive surgery that could lead to infection. Neutering horses also lessens the genetic diversity of a herd.
The least controversial method of birth control is administering a contraceptive vaccine to mares that lasts for one year. This is what the BLM currently does.
Spaziani says diligent vaccine contraception of mares is proven to work and is the least invasive, costly and deadly approach.
“I think that will really work and save a lot of taxpayer money instead of these massive gathers and running all these horses at the same time,” she says.
She thinks there is a middle ground in protecting horses overall.
“From what I have observed with all the groups — BLM, ranchers, advocates and the horses themselves — the truth is found in the middle.”
In April 2021, a coalition of more than 70 advocacy organizations signed and sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The letter calls for the government to assess the impact of cattle on public land, and for better management of horses.
Beckstead says wild horses need to be prioritized because they are important, weaving their way into all aspects of American culture: literature, films, sports mascots.
“We want them protected and to live wild and free because we as a people value freedom,” Beckstead says.
Near the end of our trip to eastern Oregon, we again drive Steens Mountain Loop Road between rain showers to see if any horses are wandering nearby. Shuffling through the patches of scraggly sagebrush, I spot a group far up on a hillside.
Observing the mustangs in the distance, I miss, at first, the mares standing to my right, 20 feet away. One is black, and the other a dark brown pinto. They graze between two juniper trees. Then, the pinto horse raises her head and her dark eyes meet mine for several seconds.
She returns to grazing, and I creep away to give them space. Breathless, I can’t help but smile. The alluring image of a mustang looking me in the eye is etched into my mind as I amble through the dusty, rocky terrain back to the car and as we drive out of the desert, over the Cascade peaks and back into the Willamette Valley.
Love in the wild
The two wild horses pictured on Eugene Weekly’s cover have names and a romantic history.
Sonya Spaziani, known to many as “Mustang Meg,” often travels to the South Steens herd to photograph and document its wild mustangs. She names the horses and calls the chestnut colored stallion, on the right in the photo, Solomon, and his newly acquired mare, the pinto, Mariposa.
Solomon took Mariposa from a younger, more inexperienced stallion named Eros, as Spaziani recalls seeing Mariposa and Eros together in early June. Mariposa is the granddaughter of a horse named Renegade, who lived at Skydog Ranch rescue and tragically died in an accident on May 7.
Solomon was a band stallion for years, meaning he led his own group of mustangs. But he lost his band to another stallion, Sioux, after reinjuring his hind leg. Spaziani says she has seen him with this injury since 2014, but a friend said she had seen it a year earlier.