BRIGHTON — The image of wild mustangs roaming free on the open plains out west is a romantic notion cemented in the American psyche by western movies, television shows and books. But over the years, the number of these horses has exceeded the land’s capacity.
Thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, a few of those iconic mustangs are now being cared for and trained by members of the Seminole 4-H program in Big Cypress, Brighton and Immokalee.
The BLM is responsible for managing and protecting the animals on more than 26 million acres of public land in 10 western states. Part of that responsibility includes the Wild Horse and Burro Program, which allows people to adopt horses and burros. Since the program’s inception in 1971, more than 240,000 have been placed into private hands.
“This is a new opportunity for our kids,” said Kimberly Clement, 4-H program assistant. “Not many of them know about horse health and nutrition. It’s always saddle up, get on and go. We want them to learn about the equine industry. This will help them be more patient; that horse will teach them patience they’ve never known before.”
The Seminole 4-H Club is using a curriculum from the national 4-H Council, but it is being tailored to the needs of Tribal kids. The 4-H Mustang Challenge has seven young participants who will get the horses accustomed to human interaction, train their animal to wear a harness and ultimately be led through an obstacle course at the end of the program in March.
Like other 4-H projects, the kids are responsible for feeding and watering the horses every day. The process will take months of hard work, but the 4-H’ers are up for the challenge. All the horses are yearlings and cannot be ridden until they are 2 years old.
The Mustang Challenge kids are Jaylen Baker, Jayleigh Braswell, Allegra Billie, Ashlynn Collins, Madisyn Osceola, Harmani Urbina and Jalee Wilcox. Most of the kids have other horses and some do rodeo, but all are comfortable around horses.
“I joined this program because I knew it was going to be fun,” said Harmani, 9, the youngest participant. “I think training it will be hard, but I’m willing to do it anyway.”
The horses arrived Aug. 24 after having been transported cross-country from Utah to Loxahatchee on a semi-truck. The kids and their parents met the horses that evening in Loxahatchee. The kids picked numbers out of a hat to choose their horses and then they were taken to a corral set up just for them at the 4-H barn in Brighton.
The following day a few 4-H’ers came to help move the horses from the corral to the barn. Some of the kids had already named their horses. But with limited previous encounters with people, the horses were skittish and stuck together in a group.
“I named mine Charming,” said Little Miss Eastern Indian Rodeo Princess Ashlynn Collins, 12, about her sorrel-colored horse. “He looks like he’s going to be charming.”
Getting the horses into the barn took a team of adults on foot and on horseback. With Madisyn providing some assistance, Aaron Stam, Florida cooperative extension agent and 4-H leader, used some metal panels to create a pathway for the horses leading from the corral to the barn and the stall. He and Justin Hipp aimed to separate the horses and move them one at a time into the barn, but most of the horses wouldn’t be separated and came in pairs.
During the moving process Hipp rode his horse Dolly, who everyone calls Ma for her nurturing instincts. Hipp hoped Ma would calm the wild mustangs and she did her job well. Her presence had the hoped for effect as the horses were led into the stalls without incident. Two were loaded onto horse trailers for transport to private barns in Brighton and the Immokalee area.
“I’ve always wanted a mustang since I was little,” said Madisyn, 17, the current Eastern Indian Rodeo Association Queen “I know you can’t force them. I named mine Juggie because he has such a big head.”
Natural Resource Director Alex Johns, who spent much of his childhood training horses, is helping the kids learn to train the horses. The horses spent their first week in the barn at Brighton or at the 4-H’ers home barns to acclimate to their environment. Then Johns began working with the kids and their horses.
Mustangs are descendants of Spanish horses brought to this continent by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. The name mustang comes from the Spanish word mustengo, which means stray horse.
Since the mustangs have bred with other domesticated horses over the centuries, BLM considers them feral, not wild.
Whatever they are called, these horses will learn to become more domesticated and the 4-H kids will learn many lessons from their horses.