“The wind of heaven is that which blows between a Horses ears”
After learning about all of the incredible history of the wild mustangs and their unfailing service to the Pony Express, and seeing these magnificent creatures in their wild west habitat, I had to learn more about them.
I specifically wanted to know how they are managed, protected, and what the future holds for these animals. I also wanted to understand and get the truth about several misconceptions about the management of the horses and the range.
Sometimes when you are interested in a subject and doing research, things just work out. That is what happened when I decided to take some soldiers out on the Pony Express trail to conduct a route reconnaissance and we happened to run right into the Onaqui herd and the upper-level management of the Bureau of Land Management at the national and state level out in Skull Valley.
I noticed a lot of vehicles along the side of the dirt road just south of Dugway near the Express Trail, so I stopped to inquire what was going on. Turns out that the deputy director of the BLM and all the Utah State BLM Office leadership were out there witnessing the practice of fertility control of the herds population through “darting,” which is a method where a fertility control vaccine is introduced to a mare via a dart fired from a long gun.
Turns out that it is absolutely necessary to control and limit the population of the herd in a desert environment where water and forage are scarce. If the BLM doesn’t do this, the health of the horses will decline as they compete for sparse resources and they may even start to die off.
This encounter left me with all kinds of questions and led to an amazing interview with Gus Warr, who is the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program manager for the state of Utah. The following information is primarily derived from that interview.
The horses you encounter out along the Pony Express Trail from Lookout Pass to the Old Riverbed, belong to the Onaqui Herd. These horses are descendants from horses that escaped from early Spanish settlements, Catholic missionaries, military forts, Native American tribes, and the Overland Stage and Pony Express stations.
The BLM reports that these horses are in excellent health and are doing very well. The horses of the Onaqui herd are known as “medium frame” horses that reach a height of 14 to 15 hands. They typically live from 20-25 years out in the wild with notable exceptions like the “Old Man” that can survive up to 30 years or more. These horses come in all colors such as pinto or “paint”, strawberry, red, and blue roans — roan horses have flecks of white mixed in their dominant color, palomino, buckskin, dun and other colors.
Their diet consists of foraging on grass species, and they can consume up to 20-25 lbs. of dry forage daily. In a desert range where drought only seems to get worse as the years go by, it can be a difficult thing for the horses to find adequate feed. The mustangs of the Onaqui herd are survivors however because they will also eat browse, forbes, and if desperate they will eat sagebrush or even the bark off trees. The Onaqui horses move around a lot ranging from Skull Valley south of Dugway Proving Ground, down around the north end of the Simpson Mountains near Simpson Springs, and out into the Old Riverbed.
Population targets for the herd are based on water and not forage. The BLM does not typically haul water. The horses all go to water at the same time and will utilize livestock water if they can get access to it. They also rely on spring sources and pipelines brought down from the Sheeprock, Simpson and Onaqui mountains for livestock use.
Sometimes people will go out into the desert in the winter and when they fail to see the horses, will call the BLM and leave nasty messages wondering what has been done to the horses because they are gone.
Fact is, in wintertime, these horses “chase” snow, which is a main source of water for them in the winter and they will range down around the southern Simpson mountains or into the Sheeprock or Onaqui ranges to utilize the snow. Often, the high ridges of these ranges are swept clear of snow by winter winds, thereby exposing the grass. The horses will also climb up into the tops of the mountains to take advantage of this cleared grass.
The mustangs of the Onaqui herd do have a predator, the mountain lion. Lions sometimes take some young foal and older adult horses but not in high enough numbers to impact or naturally control the population of the herd. The reason why is that there simply are not enough mountain lions.
At one time, back in 1995-96, no foal horses survived in this herd, primarily due to a high number of mountain lions on the Sheeprock, Simpson and Stansbury ranges. The lions however, were so numerous at that time that they were showing up in urban areas, taking livestock and in some cases taking domesticated animals so the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources issued a good number of tags for taking cougars and the numbers of the felines were brought under control.
The other major threat to the beautiful Onaqui herd is the social interaction they are having with dozens, even hundreds of people that go out there to photograph or look at the horses.
Most people behave appropriately but there are some who walk right up to the horses and touch them and feed them things that would not normally be in their diets. Warr stated that the Onaqui herd is becoming “Hogle Zoo West” and people don’t realize that they can get severely injured or even killed by these powerful wild animals.
The horses of the Onaqui are peculiar in another sense because they tend to congregate in groups of 100 or more horses. This throws the balance into chaos because even though the horses are in a large group, the individual bands of eight or nine horses, dominated by a stallion are still present and when mixed like this challenges, between the studs inevitably occur.
There are also bachelor bands of horses who want to find their own mate and as a result you can sometimes witness some epic and terrifying “horse combat” and many of the horses in the herd bear wicked scars from some of these engagements.
In next week’s article we will close out our discussion on the horses by looking at how the BLM is managing the population to ensure a healthy herd will always exist in the Onaqui Herd Management Area. We will also take a look at the adoption program and I will tell you about my daughter’s experience adopting a wild mustang and how anyone who is able to take care of a horse, can adopt one of these living legends.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.