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So, you've decided you're ready for a horse, and you want to contribute to the well-being of animals at the same time. Purchasing a wild (feral) horse from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might be just the ticket.

The BLM is responsible for managing thousands of acres of federal land for multiple users. In the case of the western United States, where most of the wild herds are located, multiple use includes ranchers, the feral herds, and wildlife such as elk, deer, coyotes, and wolves. The round-up and sale of the horses and burros help to keep the numbers small enough to survive in their reserved areas while they co-exist with the other species.

BLM offices in Palomino Valley (just outside Sparks, NV) and in Salt Lake City, UT, maintain captured herds of horses. The holding facilities are open during normal weekday business hours, by appointment only. Several times a year, semi-truckloads of the animals are hauled to locations throughout the states auctions that usually last two days.

The horses range from weanlings (at least 4 months old) to nine years, and come in all colors, sizes and personalities. The on-site adoption fee for any single horse, and the bid minimum at auction, is $125.

On the surface, it appears to be a cheap way to get a good horse, and it might be, if you understand everything else involved. The adoption fee will be your smallest expense: feed, tack, veterinary, training and facility expenses can easily be $1,000 a year or more--for any horse.

These are government owned animals; strict regulations apply to all buyers, who must be pre-approved before being allowed to adopt a wild horse.

When you fill out the application for BLM approval, you must provide a site drawing showing where your new horse will be kept and where the corral sits in relation to roads and other buildings on the property. You must provide photographs as well as written descriptions of the facilities.

Minimum requirements are 400 square feet of fenced space for each animal (for example, a 20'x20') corral with a covered area appropriate for your climate. The fencing must be made of pipe, pole, or lumber, and must be 5 feet high for foals or mares and 6 feet high for stallions.

To haul the horse, you must use a covered horse trailer--no open trucks--with adequate ventilation and no sharp protrusions on the inside, which could injure the horse.

For the first twelve months, your new horse will still belong to the BLM. You must prove that you can adequately care for the horse before you receive the title.

During that year, the horse must not be sold, exploited, or used for commercial purposes, and the facility where it is kept must be made available for inspection by the BLM.

It's easy to get carried away when you are actually at the sale site, so it's important to know ahead of time why, exactly, you want this horse.

Who will be riding it? Do you need a horse strong enough to support a large adult male who will be using it in the mountains? Or will the rider be a teenage girl who will compete in horse shows?

How much experience does the owner have with horses? A five year old wild stallion requires a great deal of knowledge and handling skill to be turned into a tamed, useful horse on the ranch. A weanling filly might be a better choice for a less experienced horse owner.

How important is the appearance? In different seasons, the coats will look different; they are thicker on the winter, so keep that in mind if you are shopping during the cool months. Feral herds come in all colors, but most are a solid brown (bay or sorrel). Colors might change with the seasons, especially on spotted or roan horses, and as the animals age. Long, flowing manes and tales require more maintenance to stay attractive.

The BLM provides a video to each buyer that explains the basics of handling a horse in a new environment, but there is much more to learn than is possible from those twenty minutes. Sometimes, at the auctions, a local horse trainer will present live demonstrations about working with wild horses to the audience of buyers. This is a good opportunity to learn how to train without hurting yourself or the horse; these exhibitions usually focus strongly on safety.

Before and after you bring your new horse home, watch as many training videos as you can. Recent thinking holds high regard for "resistance free training," which is much different from the "horse breaking" the cowboys used to do. Training workshops and videos are widely available; a glance through the back pages of any popular horse magazine will give you lots of addresses and prices to choose from.

After your horse is "gentled," some riding lessons from a trainer that specializes in the kind of riding you want to do are very useful. It usually takes only a few to get a rider and the horse "in synch," which will prevent or reverse communication problems between them.

Some of the different riding classifications are eastern, western, dressage, hunter/jumper, centered, and western trail. Adopted horses have been successful in all areas of horsemanship.

Support for the adoptive owners is available from the Bureau of Land Management as well as from groups of people who hold this particular class of American horses dear to their hearts. Assistance is there for the asking.

You can find out the date and location of auctions near you by writing to the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management office serving your area, or by logging on to their web site.