The 2019 Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Gather is about halfway through and I thought it would be a great time to share some of my first impressions about the experience. I showed up the first day knowing nothing about how wild horse gathers operate or what exactly happens to the horses between their life on the Modoc National Forest and the next phase of adoption.
When I initially thought about a “wild horse roundup” I pictured a helicopter speeding through the sky and cowboys on horseback yelling and chasing wild horses at full speed. I imagined that the process would be chaotic, loud, and exhausting. However, like many things in life, this preconceived notion was created by the influences of other people on social media and in Hollywood. It actually turned out to be some of the most relaxing, quiet weeks of my internship.
Much of the day at the trap site was spent waiting for the helicopter pilot to bring the horses. I spent some of this time getting to know the contractor, Sun J Livestock. All their people are very friendly, knowledgeable, and take precautions to provide the most effective humane and low-stress service. They took the time to explain their processes and were always flexible and willing to work with the Forest Service’s needs. The 2019 gather has not been without challenges. The abundance of trees on the Devil’s Garden poses a difficulty for the helicopter to effectively move horses. Rainy and windy weather has forced the gather to stop early or cancel on a few of the days. Also, a lightning fire near the first trap site forced movement to a different site to allow for air support on the fire.
Here is a breakdown of what a typical gather day was like. I arrived at the Forest Service office at 6:00 am for the daily morning briefing. We were updated on the plans and concerns for each division of the gather including public information, trap division, safety, and other Forest personnel. Depending on the trap site location, it was then up to an hour drive through the Devil’s Garden. Each trap site is selected based on its geographical features and proximity to wild horse bands. Typically this means an open space so the helicopter can move without getting caught in trees. The trap is often set on a road, located around a bend or behind a small group of trees so the horses cannot see it as they approach. The wings of the trap angle away from the trap in a “V” shape, and are made of jute which is hung from t-posts pounded into the ground. The jute is let down at the end of each day to prevent the wind from rubbing it on the t-posts to the point of fraying and breaking. One aspect of the setup that surprised me most was the trap size. I had pictured a huge pen, but it is actually only a few panels long. This is more than adequate for the number of horses being brought in at a time, typically 5-20.
When the helicopter radios us to get ready, one of the contractors rides the prada horse down the wings to the end of the jute. Everyone else gets into their positions behind the jute and prepares to close the gates of the pen. The helicopter usually tried to get the horses gathered to the road, and allowed them to just follow the road to the trap. Once the horses are guided into the wings of the trap, the trained prada horse is released and runs back to the trap. The wild horses typically follow him. Once the horses are in the trap, the gates are closed behind them and the prada horse is sorted back off separately. When we have enough horses for a load, they are loaded into the trailer and hauled to the Double Devil Corrals. Foals are separated from adults in the trailer to prevent them from being injured. Upon arrival at the corrals, the horses are aged and mares and studs are sorted into separate pens. Mares with unweanable foals are reunited and kept together.
It has been fascinating to see how quickly these horses adjust and become more comfortable around people. After only a couple days in the corrals, some of them would eat out of our hands and many of them stopped running away when someone would drive or walk past the corrals. These horses learn quickly, are highly trainable, and are often comparable to any unbroke domestic horse. My experiences and observations being around them these past weeks reinforces the fact that they really are just “regular horses” with unlimited potential once they are gentled.
It is really cool to see how unique these horses are. The color variations between locations is amazing. For example, while some of the first groups contained a lot of solidly built, black studs, some of the later groups had more moderate frame sizes and a lot of buckskins. We even had a couple of groups with the uncommon Perlino coloring. Perlinos are a double dilution of a bay (the creme gene), and have pink skin and blue eyes.
Overall, my time spent on the gather has been hugely educational and I feel like I now have a much more accurate understanding. The contractor’s smoothness and low stress levels on the horses were the most eye-opening to me. It brings a better sense of reality to actually see the process and see how well the horses respond. I would encourage everyone with an interest in wild horses to go actually view a gather rather than form opinions based on other people’s impressions. The Devil’s Garden gather will go until about October 5, depending on when the goal of 500 horses is met. The Modoc National Forest is providing public viewing opportunities for the gather. Please call (530) 233-8738 to make a reservation or get more information. They are also offering tours of the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals at 7:00 am on Wednesdays and Fridays and 9:00 am on Sundays.
Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals: https://www.facebook.com/doubledevilwildhorsecorrals/
Fall in Love with a Devil's Garden Mustang: https://www.facebook.com/groups/425692178037946/
Devil’s Garden Wild Horses: https://www.facebook.com/devilsgardenwildhorses/
A Devil’s Garden Mustang for you: https://www.facebook.com/adoptadevilsgardenmustang/
U.S. Forest Service - Modoc National Forest https://www.facebook.com/ModocNF/