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Size Matters: Horses, HMAs, Sanctuaries and Reserves

Size matters when it comes to wild horses, HMAs, sanctuaries and reserves.

In Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold described his moment of grace. After shooting a wolf from the rim rock in Arizona he recalls, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes… there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”1

Recent revelations about the suffering and loss of equine life at the International Society to Protect Mustangs & Burros have me reflecting again about the hubris of human kind. While being “protected,” dozens of formerly wild horses have starved to death, suffering untold disease and neglect. It’s a big case, but not an isolated one. Numbers, costs soar in wild-horse controversy, Rapid City Journal, Oct 14, 2016




ISPMB has, at last count, 810 horses on 680 acres near Lantry, SD. The ISPMB herd was and is a failed experiment in self-regulation. Supposedly, the horses would not breed past their food allowance. It was expected that some would starve. They bred, and even now continue top breed  and when the money and food ran out it became a horror show.


Wild horse advocate and ecologist Craig Downer has put forth the idea that horses will self regulate if predators are in the environment. That presumes that the reserve (as he diplomatically avoides the word sanctuary2) is in a topographical environment large enough to allow seasonal migration and also contains and can sustain numerous mountain lions or large, experienced wolf packs.


Size Matters

Thousands of tourists flock to Yellowstone Park each year. The park’s advertising campaign last year, “Find Your Park” was so successful that a park representative this year suggested their pitch be “Find Another Park.”

What’s been learned over the past century is that even Yellowstone Park at 3,468 square miles is not large enough to provide a healthy ecosystem for the magnificent fauna that live there. This led to the establishment of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, linking Teton and the interstitial areas, increasing the size a thousand percent to 34,375 square miles. Kruger National Park in South Africa pales at only 7,532 square miles, while the stunning ecosystem of the Okavanga Delta has been transformed into the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area 17,8415 square miles.3

In the case of ISPMB, one has to wonder about the sanity of attempting a self-regulating environment for 810 mega fauna on 680 acres. From Heisenberg to Hegel, it’s not a new idea removing an object from its environment changes everything.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service, and a founder of the Yale School of Forestry was a close advisor to Teddy Roosevelt, who understood the need for large, unaltered landscapes. Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the national forests and parks we enjoy today, due to his understanding that size matters. In 1905, when Pinchot became chief, federal forests totaled 56 million acres. In 1910, only five years later he left the service with 172 million acres as federal forest land.4

When it comes to mega fauna what is known is: 1. Almost impossibly large tracts of land with varying topography are required for a healthy ecosystem. 2. That we can’t divorce a species from its ecosystem and expect it to self-regulate the way it does in that ecosystem. 3. Horses are mega fauna requiring many, many square miles and the ability to migrate.

In my opinion, this is the downfall of the HMA (Horse Management Area) system as created by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act of 1971. Interestingly, today we just call it the Wild Horse & Burro Act. The “Free-Roaming” part seems to have gotten lost.

In an interview with author Paula Morin, Tom Marvel of the famed Marvel ranch of Nevada recalls wild horses migrating from Austin, NV all the way to Battle Mountain, with the only fences in Nevada being along the railroad. He said it took about a year for them to make the run up and back, a migration route of about a hundred miles each way.5

Today wild horses are confined to the artificial boundaries of HMAs that are between roughly 25,000 and 500,000 acres. And yes, there is some migration happening between HMAs and USFS land that are adjacent, and yes the horses do wander off the HMAs onto other holdings. Now, not only are the great migrations that allowed horses, like other ungulates, to move with the seasons not allowed, much of the land the HMAs occupy have other uses. Human development, ranching, mining and extraction are all effecting resources and water tables.

Do I have a simple answer? Of course not. However now more than ever, it’s vitally important to realize some source infinitely more intelligent than us has created a system so diverse, complex and inter-dependent and we should fall on our knees in beauty and wonder. We should be earnestly learning all we can before it disappears forever. There is almost no place on earth, and certainly no place in North America where the natural landscape has not been negatively impacted, if not irrevocably damaged by man. Now more than ever, there’s no place for ego, hubris or profit at all costs.


  1. A Sand County Almanac, Leopold, Aldo; Estella Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949
  2. Oxford definition: 1 [mass noun] Refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger. 2 A nature reserve. 2.1 A place where injured or unwanted animals of a specified kind are cared for. 3 A holy place; a temple.)
  3. Various sources, easily verified.
  4. http://connecticuthistory.org/gifford-pinchot-bridging-two-eras-of-national-conservation/
  1. Honest Horses, Paula Morin. University of Nevada Press (February 13, 2006

Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh One Year In

Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh still requires balance training at our one year mark, with pics, video (and resources) of how far we’ve come and where we’re headed.

I’ve got two goals with this article: to raise awareness about how pain factors into behavioral issues and that our beloved mustangs may not be all we hoped. I’m aware of more than a few heart breakers returned to BLM for orthopedic and neurological issues. I wonder how many horses returned for behavior issues are simply in pain? How effective is it to punish a horse for trying to communicate that it hurts? How much are balance issues involved?

For most of us, our journey with our wild one(s) is an exploration. No two horses are the same physically, in temperment or history and honestly, we don’t know for sure what’s coming.

Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Not the legs of a performance horse.

I would never have considered buying a horse like Shiloh. She came with physical and emotional baggage. In Shiloh I got a teacher. Not a nice teacher, a challenging teacher. She asked me to take my expertise as a bodyworker and biomechanist, trainer, teacher and coach, and translate that to the equine body/mind. I’ve always been a trainer. Of dogs, cats (yes, cats), horses and all the critters an animal crazy kid feels compelled to train. Agility for frogs? No problem. I jumped at the chance to do their last chicken clicker training with the Baileys (B.F. Skinners assisitants) in the 90s. The thread through all these things is neuroscience. I always say, I don’t train bodies. I train brains, i.e., neural networks.

Shiloh was never a 90 day horse, she came with issues. Condition, attitude, emotional and orthopedic “challenges” as we like to say. During the first months I often became disheartened by her crappy attitude, but the gift of having seen how she moved in the wild Training Balance: Mustang Shilohgave me faith.  Where we landed in Colorado, the universe provided me with a dream team of farrier, veterinary acupuncturist and equine chiropractor, all expert horsewomen and advanced Tellington trainers (contact info below). They helped me understand her functional short leg syndrome and other joint issues. In December I bought the Masterson Method book on light touch mobilization, and the results were so astounding I took the training course in January. Once Shiloh began to trust that I was “hearing” her, the defensive nipping stopped. It was her way of saying, “Hey! It hurts there!” She had hurts all over.

Got my first ride in Feb, but after the third ride, she let me know she hurt by biting my feet in the stirrups. We backed up. More bodywork, more gym work on the ground to help her develop balance, motor control and abdominal strength. We resumed riding in April and went on our first trail ride in May. I finally bitted her in Sept so I can ask for more detailed movement. I still have not found a western saddle to fit her ginormous shoulders, that doesn’t cost several thousand dollars.

This link shows how she moved in October 2015, and now in September 2016. We’re basically peeling an onion. As one issue gets addressed, the underlying issue reveals itself. Video link here: Longing For Flexibility and Balance

Hard to see without freeze framing, I grabbed these screen shots to show the shear forces that could eventually ruin her joints. Especially from the knees on down. This is just an easy trot, asking for bend.

Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Check the shear force on the right front leg.


Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Excessive lean, shear force and hardly bending.


Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Right hind externally rotated and swinging out.


Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Finally some balance. Slower, smaller movement. Mindfulness.

Here’s a video link comparing Feb to Sept 2016 of platform work. Granted, I’m learning too, so my performance in Feb leaves something to be desired… Shiloh Platform Feb-Sept 2016


Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

Where we’re at today

Training Balance: Mustang Shiloh

What we aspire to…

And some video of me stretching her. This she has only allowed me to do over the last month and we still have a way to go. Video link here:

Shiloh Stretched


All this sounds expensive, doesn’t it?  Many people resist spending on alternative medicine and therapeutic training for their horses. I look at this year’s expenditure $1,430, a little over $100/mo, as an investment in the future and of having a horse that will, hopefully, remain sound. It’s not my biggest expense and will probably (hopefully) not be as much next year. Add $450 for the Masterson Training, which is highly recommended for anyone with a horse. (The book is clear, concise and about $20.) I could not afford to pay someone else for the hundreds of hours of bodywork and neither would it have created the trust my horse has in me.


Masterson Method: https://www.mastersonmethod.com/

Tellington Touch: http://www.ttouch.com/

Dr. Kerry Ridgway: Low Heel/High Heel Syndrome

Smaller Steps for Greater Balance Article by Kyra Kyrklund

My practitioner angels, from Central Colorado to the Front Range:

Eryn Wolfwalker, Farrier extraordinaire, Tellington Training, nutrition, homeopathy and on and on… 303-453-9886

Dr. Janet Varhus, Holistic DVM, Acupuncture, Tellington, Cranial-Sacral. Studied extensively with Dr. Kerry Ridgway. All round gifted healer… 719-539-1086 www.animalcareponcha.com

Dr. Kris Ahlberg, DVM, Chiropractic, Acupuncture. Likewise a wealth of scientific and training knowledge. 303-816-6473