HAMILTON, Mont. — Trust is something hard to earn and easy to lose.
With the lead rope held lightly between his thumb and forefinger, Karl Crittenden is working to earn the trust of a horse who knew what it was like to live wild.
Ziggy, the 3-year-old roan, isn’t quite certain yet on what to make of this tall, long-legged man with an easy smile and soft voice.
Born free, Ziggy was a little over year old when he was captured and removed from the range where he was born.
It turned out that he was one of the fortunate few.
The young horse was assigned to an inmate at horse-training facility at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. For 120 days, he learned that he could trust a human enough to offer him a chance to live a life outside a holding pen where thousands of other wild horses languish.
A couple of weeks ago, he and three others were selected to join national forest pack strings that serve in the wildernesses of the Bitterroot and Bob Marshall.
Crittenden is in his second year as the lead horse packer on the Bitterroot National Forest. He made the journey south back in April to select the pair of mustangs that will join his string.
“We had to flip a coin,” Crittenden said. “We both kind of wanted to same ones.”
Just a few yards away, the 6-year-old bay named Sloppy Joe appears ready to take a nap as Crittenden sends Ziggy in a series of small circles just outside the barn at the West Fork Ranger District.
This isn’t Crittenden’s first time to ride mustangs into the wild.
When he worked in Wyoming, the Forest Service had a few mustangs they used as saddle horses.
“Generally, they worked out well,” he said. “Just like any horse, they all have their own little quirks. They all seem to be innately curious. They are always trying to figure stuff out. They’re also very bonded to one another. It takes awhile before you can ride them out on their own.
“But mostly, they just really hardy,” Crittenden said. “They’re just tough.”
The challenge for the Bureau of Land Management — the agency charged with managing wild horses across the West — is there are just too many for the range to support.
As of March 1, there were an estimated 72,674 wild horses and burro on the range that BLM experts believe can sustainably support 26,715. The herd size increased from 67,027 over the course of one year, a jump of 8 percent.
Without natural predators, wild horse and burro populations can double about every four years.
The BLM removes several thousand every year and then attempts to find new homes for those animals. Unfortunately, not nearly enough people are willing to take in those animals.
This March, the agency was caring for 46,015 animals, including 13,234 kept in off-range corrals. The total cost of caring for the off-range herd is more than $49 million a year.
A fortunate few end up in programs like the one at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center that pairs wild horses with inmates.
“The horses work one on one with the inmates,” said Jenny Lesieutre, a BLM public affairs specialist for the wild horse and burro program. “Many of the inmates had never ridden a horse before. They learn together using natural horsemanship techniques.
“There are no ropes, no forcing,” she said. “They have to be able to touch the horse first before moving on to the next step.”
The inmates are all screened before being accepted in the program. They work with their horses five days a week. On the weekends, they feed and care for them.
“It teaches them responsibility,” Lesieutre said. “It teaches them a trade. Some end up leaving here and going to a working ranch.”
The horses they train are either auctioned off for adoption or find their way into the hands of federal and state agencies like the Border Patrol, U.S. Forest Service and state wildlife agencies.
The success of the 17-year-old program comes in plain view during the semi-annual auctions that sometimes bring in celebrities to bid on the opportunity to adopt a mustang.
Some horses have gone for as much as $15,000.
“This program has really built itself,” Lesieutre said. “Mustang people want to adopt mustangs. They feel like they are rescuing a horse. For them, it’s almost like going to the Humane Society to rescue a dog.”
Until recently, the BLM has been required to go through the adoption process when it turns mustangs over to federal, state and local governments.
The recently signed FY2017 Appropriations Act will streamline that process by providing the agency authority to transfer the wild horses and burros to the agencies for use as work animals.
That new provision would mean the animals can be transferred directly without the one-year waiting period currently required under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
“By streamlining the transfer process, public agencies will be better able to bring wild horses and burros into their service,” Lesieutre said. “We can place more animals into a productive environment and we can reduce costs for other agencies currently purchasing mounts at domestic market prices.”
That will be good news for like Crettenden those who still depend on trustworthy steeds to carry them deep in the backcountry.
“I’m confident that they’ll hold up well in the mountains,” he said. “They are a little bit shorter than my other horses, which means that I might get my feet wet when I’m crossing a river.”
Crittenden knows the training doesn’t stop when the horses arrived in the Bitterroot. Over the years, there will be lots of different people depending on the two mustangs to carry them into the mountains.
“We still have some work to gentle them some,” he said. “We have to get them used to their new world.
“It’s all about respect,” Crittenden said as he lightly pulls on the rope in an attempt to get Ziggy to give to its pressure. “A horse is a horse. . It’s all about getting into their minds and developing that trust.”