By Gail C., AWHC Volunteer
(Feb 15, 2023) On Friday, Feb 10, 2023, I attended the BLM Wild Horse adoption event in Okeechobee, FL. This was my second time observing this annual event. I arrived at 11:15 a.m. and left at 1:30 p.m. During that time, I observed a continuous flow of couples, families, and small groups of friends coming and going. There was also a group of elementary school children touring the facility and receiving a lecture on the WH&B program.
According to the information sheets posted on each of the 8 pens, a total of 102 horses were brought to Florida:
- 41 Adoptable mustangs
- 39 Internet Auction mustangs waiting for pickup
- 19 Sale Authority mustangs
- 3 mustangs that were marked as N/A (not available.)
By 11:00 on Friday, 44 horses in all of these categories had already been picked up.
There were no burros at this event, which is unusual.
A few of the horses were quite thin but most of the horses appeared to be in fairly good body condition overall, although somewhat “tucked up” from their long travels to Florida. Most were caked in dried mud, had long winter coats, and some were sweating. I was told they were shipped from Colorado, an area that has been dealing with a colder-than-usual winter. They were now in 80+ degrees humid weather in Florida!
Most all of the horses were originally from Colorado with just a few WY horses, with all of the 2-year-olds being born in holding. The ages of the horses ranged from 2 to 26!
I only saw one injury on a horse, a somewhat deep looking puncture wound on a hind leg—and a few scrapes and patches of missing hair on a few other faces. During one of the sortings, one of the BLM employs noticed one of the horses in a pen had a cataract in his left eye, and they sorted that horse out. That horse then became “Not Available.” I was told he would be taken back to long-term holding “where he would live a nice long life on green pastures.” (This seemed unlikely to me.)
Something that I have noticed on each of my visits to this event is that there are remarkable periods of calm and peace---and then there are equally remarkable, very loud periods of panic and fright that are continuously experienced by these captive horses. When there was no sorting and loading going on, the horses seemed quite relaxed and would munch hay, groom each other, and rest their heads on each other. I could even hear the birds singing and the lulling sounds of the big overhead fans. The group of 2-year-olds that were born in holding were actually quite friendly and would come to the fence to be scratched and petted by many people.
However, the second a sorting started, the energy changed and all of the horses in all of the pens displayed anxious and frightened behaviors. There was a great deal of clanging and slamming of gates, flapping of flags and yelling, with horses running back and forth in their individual pens -- and in the alley from the end sorting pen—frantically spinning and smashing into each other and into panels. This sorting process can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, but ultimately, the sorted horse(s) were run into the chutes to have their tags removed, get haltered and then run into trailers with more slamming of doors and scrambling of hooves.
It's always loud and frantic. And hard to watch. And very, very clear that these are WILD, unhandled horses. There were only 3 trailers that were loaded while I was there this time, all with just two horses each.
As I roamed around watching and listening, more often than not I heard people say things like “Hey, we’ll get a thousand bucks in a year—so why not!” It was a definite theme of the conversations of many folks there. Many of the folks were “first time” horse buyers—or they had had a horse when they were a kid. One family was looking to buy their 12 year old daughter her first horse. One very sweet gentleman in his late 70’s (with dementia and very unsteady on his feet) was looking for his first mustang. There were also knowledgeable horse people, some TIP trainers and a horse sanctuary there to pick up horses.
All horses that were not adopted or picked up by Saturday afternoon were then loaded up and sent to the storefront in Bell, Florida.
I try to stay really objective when attending these events---but it really is difficult to look all these horses in the eye without feeling such a sense of loss. For them and for us. Especially when we know that there IS a better way. I know that some of these horses will, indeed, get good, loving, experienced homes…and I take comfort in that. But I also know the reality of the inevitable end for those that won’t.
But I want to end this report with a happy story.
During my time at this event, I noticed a small, blue roan gelding that was being vigorously protected by a larger grey gelding. The blue roan, a 2-year-old available for adoption, had an injury to his left hind leg that looked quite deep, although it didn’t appear to bother him. The big grey was 21 (!) and was an Internet Auction horse, waiting to be picked up! They seemed to be very, very bonded and the big grey was not taking any nonsense or interference from any of the other 7 horses in the pen. As I watched them, I wondered what their story was and worried about how difficult it was going to be for that 21-year-old horse to be separated from his little buddy.
Right before I left, a small trailer backed in to be loaded up, and to my surprise I realized it was the old, gray gelding AND the little blue roan that were being sorted. I was so relieved and happy…and grateful to the kindhearted human that had only planned to provide a home for one, old mustang---but saw the need to also bring along his young friend.
It was a pretty rough sort and load, with the big grey turning around at the last minute, two times, getting in the chute the wrong way, and then bounding back out of the trailer. Each time it appeared he was trying to get back to his little pal---who at this point was taking the brunt of it all. There was a lot more noise and crashing around…but finally they were both on the trailer. And quiet, with no scrambling of hooves. And they stayed quiet.
As their new human slowly and carefully drove off with them, I wished them all well and I hoped, with all my heart, that they ALL lived happily ever after.