By Ellen Rosenberg, The Town Crier
“All horses matter, but wild horses are special,” explained Ellie Phipps Price, executive producer of American Mustang, a new movie that’s part documentary, part narrative, and will have its local premiere Friday evening, Feb. 21 at Regal Cinemas on State Road 7 in Royal Palm Beach.
“They’re beautiful and majestic in a special way, part of our American history, and they’re in danger of losing their way of life,” Price said.
Multiple screenings will continue daily through Feb. 27.
In addition to telling a good story, the mission of the people involved in the film is to raise awareness of these wild horses’ plight, especially among horse lovers in our area, a unique equestrian community.
“We want people to know what’s happening,” media consultant Erin Gilmore said. “The problem is that when wild horses are rounded up, they lose their herd structure and families. Also, because they can’t roam freely, their hooves don’t get worn in a natural way, leading to foot problems. And, of course, it’s expensive keeping and feeding that many horses.”
The current adoption policy run by the federal government has its problems.
“Yes, they hold periodic adoption events, which are great, but that’s a lot of wild horses to try to place,” Gilmore said. “There aren’t enough homes for all of them. We’re very worried the Bureau of Land Management will eventually allow buyers to ship them to slaughter in Canada or Mexico. We’re hoping to start a conversation where other solutions can be discussed, such as birth control, ending the roundups and rethinking the way the land is allocated.”
According to the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a coalition of more than 50 public interest groups, environmentalists, organizations and historical societies whose goal is to see government reform of wild horse management policies and restore protections to wild horses and burros under federal law, there are more mustangs being held in captivity than allowed to live free in the wild. The struggle to protect wild horses from excess roundups has been raging for decades among the BLM, cattle ranchers and wild horse activists, who are at odds in a battle for land use rights in which the horses often come out on the losing end.
The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act designates public land for the protection of wild horses. Since its passage, however, more than 270,000 wild horses and burros have been removed from public lands by the BLM. Ranchers insist that federal land used for cattle and sheep grazing is threatened by the grazing habits of wild horses. But horse activists argue that cattle outnumber horses on federal land 50 to 1, and since 1971, protected land for horses has shrunk by 40 percent.
Captured wild horses are rounded up by helicopter and kept in government holding facilities. There are only 32,000 horses left in the wild, and 50,000-plus held in captivity. Rounding up wild horses and placing them in holding pens breaks up their natural family bands and condemns them to a dull, unnatural life.
While some are adopted into good homes, there are more than the market can absorb. The BLM spends more than 70 percent of its budget on roundups and keeping wild horses, while only 6 percent is spent on sustainable practices such as birth control and protecting horses on the range.
The preservation campaign evaluated BLM data on forage allocations in 50 Herd Management Areas where roundups were conducted between 2010 and 2012. The BLM allocated 82.5 percent of forage in designated wild horse areas to privately owned livestock and just 17.5 percent to wild horses — despite that the BLM is mandated by federal law to protect wild horses, whereas livestock grazing is authorized entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.
The horse activists feel that there is an inequitable distribution of resources, since the “appropriate management level” for wild horses is only 166 per HMA (which constitutes 249,000 acres). This means only one horse is allowed per 1,500 acres, or 2.3 square miles.
Meanwhile, the average equivalent of cows permitted to graze per HMA is 9,380. This puts BLM’s claims of wild horse overpopulation in perspective. When the wild horse population exceeds the artificially low “appropriate management levels,” the BLM claims the horses are overpopulating. But in almost every area, the number of livestock per HMA far exceeds the number of wild horses.
The American Mustang filmmakers will sponsor a booth at the Winter Equestrian Festival from Feb. 19 to March 4 and hold a mustang demonstration on Feb. 28 with Elisa Wallace. She’ll be bringing Rune, with whom she won the 2012 Extreme Mustang Makeover. Started in 2007 by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, the Extreme Mustang Makeover pairs trainers from all over the country with wild mustangs that need adoptive homes. Trainers and horses are randomly matched, and they have 120 days to turn the mustangs into suitable pleasure horses. Wallace believes she is the first eventer to take on the challenge.
The demonstration will precede the $75,000 Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup. Wallace partnered with the film to build awareness for the plight of the American mustang and increase overall awareness of wild horses. Admission is free, but there’s a $20/carload parking cost. The competition begins at 7 p.m., and the mustang demonstration just prior to that. Wallace will also do a demonstration the next night, March 1, at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.
“Yes, there’s a lot of big money and politics involved in this issue,” Gilmore admitted. “But we believe that if more people understand what’s going on, we can change policies. These horses should be valued and protected. They’re as much an American icon as the bald eagle.”
The movie appeals to a wide, family audience and doesn’t depict cruelty. “It shows the beauty of their lives in the wild,” Gilmore said. “They deserve to be able to continue to live this way. We hope the film will start a conversation between the American people, the BLM and ranchers to find better management practices. Come see the movie, show your support and get involved.”