“He’s learned a trick!” Tyna Skulason informed her watchful husband, Sandur, standing across the corral on Saturday. The “trick” was a bonus; earlier in the day, Ugs made progress by submitting to a halter and lead rope for the first time.
Human control is slowly replacing his wild spirit.
As volunteer wranglers, the Skulasons spend their Saturday mornings preparing the 2-year-old gelding for adoption at the Bureau of Land Management’s Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Center north of Sparks.
“This is good mental therapy, like going to the lake,” Sandur explained. “You get out of town and don’t have to worry about work.”
After Ugs was captured about a year ago, someone named him Ugly due to a big head that was out of proportion with his body.
“Now he’s growing into it (the head),” Sandur said. “The funny thing is that Ugs was our son’s nickname.”
The Skulasons plan to adopt Ugs after he’s “gentled” and after they finish their new horse corral in Lemmon Valley. Sandur explained part of the horse gentling process.
“First, you start by ‘sacking’ them out. You have a pole with a shopping bag at the end of it and you slap it around their heads, butts, all over,” Sandur said. The painless technique desensitizes the animals and lets them know they won’t be food for humans.
“At first, it was a battle. She (Tyna) was able to get a halter on him today. That was a good step forward,” Sandur said. “The next step will be to get a saddle and blanket on him.”
Tyna’s life-long fascination with wild horses drew her to the volunteer mustang training program. Her husband joined a year later. Five mustangs halter-broken by the couple have been adopted out.
As more wild horses are rounded up in the Calico Mountains north of Gerlach, the Skulasons and other volunteers are helping mustangs adapt to captivity and improving their chances for adoption. Volunteers are invaluable but adoptions are slow along with a slow economy; the Palomino Valley facility is full with about 1,200 animals waiting for adoption, said J.D. Parsons, the center’s assistant operations manager and volunteer coordinator. Parsons said currently he needs new mustang adopters more than he needs new volunteers.
On Saturday, long-time volunteer Silvia Beck of Spanish Springs suggested that Parsons invite Safari Club members to the facility during the club’s convention next week in Reno. Beck, now working with a young horse she named “Sunday” for Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, said all 10 of her trainees have successfully been adopted. The Nevada Air National Guard employee spends her days off helping BLM wranglers with sorting, grooming and vaccinations, adding that she avoids the painful but necessary castrations. Beck believes wild horse round-ups are also necessary and handled as safely as possible.
“I suppose I’m prejudiced. I believe the BLM is very careful about wild horse management,” Beck said. She attended a “gather” north of Winnemucca in February 2009, which was covered by National Geographic and featured in the magazine.
Lemmon Valley horse boarder and trainer Colleen DeWitt agrees.
“It needs to be done. If the horses are hungry and thirsty, they need to be rounded up,” said DeWitt. “Helicopters don’t injure those horses but shit happens no matter what you do.”
DeWitt helps owners saddle-break their mustangs and promotes the advantages of mustangs over domestic horses. She claims mustangs are as easier to train, less spoiled and more versatile with greater endurance due to their wild heritage — an ancestry that includes former draft and cavalry horses, according to Parsons.
“These horses are clean slates, like sponges. They love to learn,” DeWitt said. “They haven’t been screwed up by people.”
DeWitt is trick-training her mustang Cheyanne and will show her off at this year’s Wild Horse and Burro Expo at the Reno Livestock Event Center in August.
Volunteer-gentled mustangs are a bargain but the adoption price of $125 is the same for all Palomino Valley mustangs. Potential adopters must have a horse shelter, steel corral and an understanding of the cost — $300 a month or more depending on the level of care and training — and commitment involved in owning any horse.
“It’s like having a child,” Beck said. “You have to work with them. They want and need stimulation. The love that you give them comes right back at you.”
A former UPS driver from Chicago now retired in Spanish Springs, volunteer Paul Abbinante, 67, affectionately stroked Beauregard, a young Appaloosa born in the wild and now in training at Palomino Valley.
“I’ve always had a fascination for horses. It’s a labor of love,” Abbinante said. “I wish I could have done it 40 years ago.”
For more information on wild horse adoption, call 1-866-4MUSTANGS or go to the BLM’s Web site at www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/wild_horse_and_burro.html.