Bidders will once again have the chance to take home one of the national treasures at a Sept. 28 auction at Wishek Livestock Sales in Wishek, N.D.
Park volunteer Marylu Weber, who has helped track and identify the wild horses since 1999, said roughly 115 head, mostly 3 years old and younger, are expected to sell.
“No one really knows when the horses first came into the area, but we think they’ve been wild for probably 150 years,” she said.
Bob Fjetland, president of the North Dakota Badlands Horse, said some believe the horses can be traced back to Sitting Bull’s own stock.
“They really are representative of the turn-of-the-century ranch horse,” he said.
“Back in that era, the local ranchers really admired the traditional Indian pony for its speed and stamina, but the farmers needed a horse that could work the fields all day, drive the wagon to town and do all the multifaceted things that were required of a ranch horse,” he said, noting the horses also exhibit influences of the Thoroughbred, Morgan and draft horses of the time.
“It ended up in a horse that’s got great bone, great feet, is well-muscled and, through their development in the wild over time, only the strong and the smart survived,” he said. “It really is a great all-around horse.”
Weber said DNA testing has also indicated Spanish influences.
The horses are not as small as traditional mustangs.
“They’re very well put together,” Weber said, noting heights average above 15 hands.
The herd is known for its array of colors.
“Roans are prominent,” Weber said. “Some of them are really unusual. They’re such striking bold colors — really something to see.”
From the moment he stumbled upon the wild horses, also known as Nokotas, Fjetland knew he had found something unique.
“I’d had the usual, the Quarter horses, Appaloosas, Arabians, but I always seemed to be looking for something more,” he said. “No doubt about it, this was the horse for me.”
One of his favorite wild horse watching moments took place last summer as a mare and her days-old foal navigated a deep drywash gully in the park.
“The banks were 10 feet tall, fairly narrow, not totally vertical, but fairly steep,” Fjetland recalled. When the mare shimmied up the bank, her foal sure-footedly followed.
“I said to myself ‘That’s what makes these horses different,’ ” he said. “By the time that baby’s a few weeks old, it will have done more physically than adomestic horse does in its lifetime.”
Held every few years, the roundups are part of ongoing efforts in population control on the 20 bands that roam the park, Weber said.
Though the auctions have been criticized by some who would like all of the horses to remain wild, Weber said they are a necessary step.
“I think often people don’t understand that the park is completely fenced,” she said. “The horses only range in the park, and because there are other large ungulates like bison, elk, deer and pronghorn that have to feed in the park — and a lack of large predators — they have to be managed.”
Fjetland said the park staff recognizes that roundups alone are not the answer to managing the horses.
“The park has been very, very proactive in considering matters of birth control,” he said. “In 2009, in conjunction with the University of Colorado, they implemented the first round of a birth control program.”
The university will initiate a second round this fall.
“One of the things we as a group are really advocating is the idea of doing smaller low-stress roundups,” Fjetland said.
Due to the park’s terrain, the horses traditionally are rounded up with helicopters.
“Ideally we’d like to be able to bait and trap … to pull some of the weanlings out in the fall of the year when they’re most marketable,” Fjetland said.
Weber said smaller roundups held more frequently would allow the park to bring bands in rather than the entire herd.
The right facilities
Weber, who bought two of the park’s horses in the last sale in 2009, stressed that buyers must remember the horses will be fresh off the range.
“If people are considering buying one of these horses we want to make sure they have the right facilities and some experience or at least someone who has experience with horses to help them,” she said.
“These are not like domestic horses,” she said. “If someone has the skill and the facility to do it carefully and gently, they gentle down to be wonderful horses, but it’s important to understand how much you have to go through just to be able to touch them, to pick up their feet, to put a halter on. In some cases it can take months.”
Six-foot-high fences are recommended for anything at least a year old.
A call for help
Several groups, including The Cloud Foundation and Legacy Mustang Preservation, have joined together to raise funds to help prevent any of the park’s horses from going to slaughter…(CONTINUED)
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IN THE HANDS OF KILL BUYERS! When horses are purchased at auction by buyers intending to kill them, they're hauled away in double- decker tractor trailers where they are beaten and often blinded with baseball bats to mollify them. After crossing the border into Mexico, the animals are stabbed on each side-an act to tenderize their meat-and immobilized. Workers, then saw the horses legs off, at the knee and hang them to bleed out-all while the horses are ALIVE! (This is an excerpt, from an article written by Missy Diaz, crediting Victoria Mc Cullough and Sen. Joe Abruzzo for bringing awareness of horse slaughter, to Florida. In 2010 Florida Legislation unanimously passed the Horse Protection Bill, making it a felony to slaughter horses for personal or commercial use.)