Wild horses patrol wilderness

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — The first time Jack Hatch swung his leg over the back of the mustang Geronimo he realized he was in for a ride.

It was the first time anyone had ever mounted the horse, who had been born in the wild like hundreds of others in the West. He was 4 years old when Hatch picked him out, a little older and hotter than the animals he usually chooses for the stock program at the Blackrock Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. But Geronimo was well built, and with a golden coat and long, flowing black mane, he was also a bit of a looker.

Not that looks matter to Hatch, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide (http://bit.ly/2fbOYGK).

"This horse," he said, "he's going to read who you are. He's going to know who you are before you get on his back."

It's not just this horse, but every horse, he explained. While Hatch grew up on the well-bred backs of high-end performance horses — quarter horses, thoroughbreds or a mix of the two — he's since dedicated his horsemanship to training mustangs to safely haul rangers and materials into the expansive Teton Wilderness.

"Every one of these mustangs are good horses," he said. "A lot of guys don't like BLM horses. They make fun of them. What I always say is, these horses are whatever you make of them. If you're a good hand you'll get a good horse. If you're a bad hand you're going to go through a lot of them."

Patience is key. Geronimo exemplifies that. But in his fourth training session the mustang was quieting. He was starting to trust Hatch, whose presence is gentle and quiet in the round pen, an enclosure Hatch hand-built in 1990. The horse still had "blowouts," but he came back quicker.

"You're all right," Hatch told Geronimo after the horse lunged forward, digging his hooves into the dirt for a quick half-lap around the pen before settling down again. "There we go. You're OK.

"Everything is baby steps," Hatch said. "You're training these little things into big things."

Knowing when they're ready

By the time Geronimo is ready for his debut he'll be ready to haul a rider and supplies, cross water and bridges, stand quietly as a rider opens a gate from his back.

"If I can go wrangle on him and chase horses on him he'd be ready to go," Hatch said.

How long that will take, Hatch is unsure. Usually he can make quick work with the mustangs. But he also lives by the personal adage "Never carry a watch."

"Everyone wants a certain answer," Hatch said, "but it's just when they're ready."

Hatch has been involved in Blackrock's stock program since 1989, first coming in under the tutelage of Brian Stout, who launched the program. It's run on a shoestring budget, managed on less than $30,000 a year, he said. The horses themselves are typically free, a nod to interagency cooperation and the rising numbers of captive mustangs the BLM is charged with managing.

The Bureau of Land Management, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, oversees the stock under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971, passed to protect the animals. While the horses are not native to the land but the feral offspring of domesticated European stock, the act declared the equines "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."

A contested issue

The fight to protect the animals dates further back, however, to the '50s with "Wild Horse Annie." Velma Bronn Johnson, an advocate for saving the animals, spearheaded the movement that eventually led to legislation that protected them.

How the horses have been handled has been hotly contested, with the BLM at the helm of deciding how many animals stay out on the range and how many are rounded up.

The bureau has also implemented birth control methods, including darting mares with a fertility vaccine to control population numbers, a notion railed against by some advocates. Between fiscal year 2012 and 2015 more than 2,400 mares have been darted or hand-injected with the vaccine.

Ranchers are often on the other side of the aisle, calling for increased roundups of the horses, asking for more to be pulled from the lands where they compete with domestic livestock for grazing. It's an age-old clash and one that is unlikely to be resolved soon.

There are 10 government-designated herd management areas in the West, in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

While numbers of animals on the range have dwindled since the act was first passed, the number of animals in captivity has grown. As of August more than 45,000 animals were in holding pens. By contrast, the BLM estimates about 27,000 roam free across the West.

The Blackrock stock program, Hatch said, gives the horses a purpose and a place to go.

"I want to teach people how efficient these animals are," Hatch said. "If you can prove to people how efficient these animals are, the more they'll go back to using them.

"This is almost the best solution we have," he said.

When Wilderness Ranger Jake Baker rode 35 miles into the backcountry this summer, it was on the back of a gelding named Well Dun. When a log fell unexpectedly, pinning Baker's leg and shattering his foot bones and snapping tendons, it was Well Dun who packed him out 9 miles.

It was also Well Dun who kept his ears perked for bears as the ranger hitch — usually two or three wilderness rangers and a string of five or so pack animals hauling supplies — traveled around the 500,000 acres of wilderness.

"It can be a very dangerous area to travel in if you're not on horses," Baker said. "Most of the time when there's a grizzly nearby we would know about it before we see it.

"The horses are on high alert," he said. "Their body language changes. They're more cautious."

The mustangs bring senses and intuition not found in domestic horses, having been born out on harsh lands themselves.

"They are really smart on where they place their feet," Wilderness Ranger Steve Niles said. "I think they're more adept to their surroundings."

Most of the riding season, starting around May and ending in October, is eight- to 16-day trips, with rangers heading out to clear trails or check up on backcountry outfitters, alternating with 12-day rest periods. It's work that would be nearly impossible without stock strings.

"The outfitter industry is one of the main reasons it's essential to have stock," Baker said. "They have camps in the backcountry and we're their permit holders. So we are responsible for their conduct and making sure they adhere to the wilderness regulations.

"If we don't have stock it would be very improbable for us to patrol and check in on those camps," he said.

Baker, 27, has been a ranger for four seasons. He grew up horseback riding, but he really honed his skills when he started riding mustangs in the backcountry.

"No matter what you had before, the level of horsemanship that we use here goes to a whole other level," Baker said. "The amount that we use stock, what we use them for, it's more like a working horse way of training and teaching people."

Niles, who has been riding in the backcountry for over 20 years, is accustomed to this routine. The spring starts with a horsemanship camp led by Hatch to introduce the newbies to the stock and assess riding skills.

"I've had some really good horses, to be honest with you," Niles said.

For the past three years the 61-year-old has been mounted on a Palomino named Yuma.

"We've got good horses and we've got a good horse trainer," Niles said. "That makes our job easier when we have somebody like that."

He's ridden dozens of horses over the years, and as one of the more experienced riders he may be saddling up a new mount next season, one that is likely younger and more wide-eyed to wilderness work. Baker expects the same.

"Well Dun is an experienced horse," Baker said. "He's been in the wilderness most of his life. So next season I will probably be moved on to a less experienced horse."

It's how riders and horses advance. The least experienced horses are often paired with the most experienced riders.

Pendleton is a large roan gelding with a Roman nose — a clunky head that bows outward.

"This guy is probably a little uglier than the other horses," Hatch said.

No matter. He's studying angles on the horse, looking at where the animal's neck hits its chest, and the length of the horse's back. Pendleton isn't ideal, he said, but he's sturdy.

"This guy is probably not there, but you're never going to get perfect," he said. "The hardest thing to do is find the horse that has the whole package."

Pendleton hadn't been ridden in a while, so Hatch started him in the round pen to assess his energy and mind-set. He wanted the horse paying attention to him, focused on cues, ready and willing to respond to requests before he takes him out on mile upon mile of unfenced land.

"If you just go out here and let a horse get in a wreck, you set him back," Hatch said. "You always work your horse and ride your horse before you need your horse."

Pendleton is somewhere in the ballpark of 6 or 7 years old. Most of the horses in the program come in as youngsters — somewhere between 2 and 4 — and stay until they are in their 20s. As long as they've got a job and they're doing it well, they have a home, Hatch said.

"The more training you put on these horses, the better life they'll have," he said. "When your horse has complete body control you've kept them out of the can."

Hatch is the first line of defense for the horses. If a horse messes up it's the rider who's at fault. If a horse is underperforming it's the rider who needs more training.

Horses expose human weakness. Even with nearly a lifetime of experience, the 56-year-old admits some days it's his turn to be humbled.

"Whenever you think you got it, they tattletale on you because you didn't do your homework," he said. "People always think training a horse is difficult. It's training the human that's difficult."

But even his worst days with the horses are good ones for Hatch. There's an unspoken understanding between him and the horses he handles.

"My whole life I've liked horses. They've always meant a whole lot to me," he said. "I always say horses are my therapy for dealing with humans."


Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com