April 08, 2014

Photo: Feeding the Wild Horses

California is home to growing herds of wild horses, which you don't always get to see because they're generally spooked by passing cars and approaching people. I first spotted some actually not far over the border into Nevada, in Beatty near Death Valley, but I'd never actually seen any in my home state.

How did they get here? Once upon a time, there were wild horses that were indigenous to California, but, like the camel and mastodon, died off. But then the Spanish explorers brought their domesticated horses over, many of which ran away (in distress, because of disaster or perhaps just the desire to be free) or were abandoned. Never captured, the mustangs bred, and their descendants now roam many of our open spaces. Although they are generally called "wild," technically they're "feral."

They're a federally protected wild animal, so in order to control the growing population, the Bureau of Land Management has established a program to capture them, rehabilitate them, and offer them up for adoption. Usually to control an overgrown wild animal population, an area will open hunting season (for deer, wild boar, etc). This is a descent alternative to that.

If you're lucky, you can spot some mustangs on the China Lake Naval Base in Ridgecrest, CA (another gateway to Death Valley), but security is so tight there, it's unlikely that many would ever actually get to go. As large as it is, the base has actually shrunken in physical size over the years, and some of its former Navy-owned land has been converted into a BLM-operated Wild Horse & Burro Facility...

...where visitors can feed the horses carrots through the corral's fence...

...and even adopt one themselves.

I haven't spent much time around horses in my life – never having even ridden one – I was a little nervous sticking my hand up in there with merely a baby carrot between my fingers.

At first, the mustangs don't notice you much, acting coy and looking at you askance.

But then one becomes curious to see what you've got, and approaches...

...and the others follow suit, nosing each other out of the way to get the delicious snack nugget.

You can try throwing the carrots over the fence, but their eyesight doesn't seem to help them find the food very well, even when it falls right in front of them.

They prefer to get up as close as they can and sniff what you've got, breathing hot on your hands, which are dangerously close to their giant chompers.

Some of the horses are surprisingly timid...

...and as they carefully approach...

...even a bit shy.

They probably see many people like you come and go, without taking them home.

But the hungry ones will bite the fence and fight each other to get to you...

...posing adorably...

...straining their necks...

...keeping an eye on you the whole time...

...smiling right before you pop that carrot into their mouths.

For me, it was scary to get that close to them, convinced one of them would get too excited and would bite my hand off.  Still, trying to be brave, I wanted to pay attention to them all, but some hung back and never approached me, never even getting a chance at a carrot. Others were repeatedly pushed out of the way by a stronger, more assertive (not necessarily aggressive), charismatic horse who knew how to get all of the carrots.

Unlike the horses off the side of the road, these mustangs are acclimating to humans, now eating domestic feed (hay), having gotten all of their vaccinations, deworming and blood tests. They seem to respond to my coos of "hi baby!" and "you're a beauty!"

And they seemed sad to see me go, when I moved on down the line to the next section in the corral, and finally drove off down the dirt road back to the highway.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Welcoming 100 Mules to LA After Walking the Aqueduct
Photo Essay: The Faces of Bonnie Springs Ranch, Old Nevada

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