Photography by Dave Leiker
Kansas ranchers team with a national program to bring mustang herds back to the Sunflower State
Our pick-up truck bumps across chert-strewn pastures as lightning flares over broad hills, green and lush against an ominous gray sky, a suitably dramatic setting to see a herd of wild mustangs with their long, wind-whipped manes flying in the air.
There are some two thousand wild mustangs living here on the Vestring Ranch in the heart of the Flint Hills. An adjacent ranch is home to two thousand more. Thousands more can be found in the Flint Hills, feasting on big bluestem, buffalo grass, switchgrass and other grasses that historically sustained vast buffalo and other wild herds, including mustangs.
Protected by Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the mustangs came from federal land in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other areas of the western United States. In effort to ease overcrowding, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contracts with landowners and ranchers, some of whom are in Kansas and Oklahoma, to accept shipments of the mustangs and care for them as they live out their natural lives.
“We’ve had mustangs here for almost 10 years,” says ranch owner Steve Vestring. “After you’ve had them awhile, they gentle down. They’ll come up to us just out of curiosity.”
Vestring and his ranch hands feed the mustangs throughout the winter using a processor that spreads the hay out in long rows, making it easier for the older and weaker horses to devour their fair share. But once the hills begin to green up with rich prairie grasses, the horses fend for themselves on pastures that might be as large as a section (640 acres) or more.
“We’ve taken a lot of fence down to make the pastures bigger,” says Vestring, as a group of four bays gallop past.
In order to help manage overpopulation, herds are separated into groups of mares or gelded stallions before being transported to ranch contractors. The mustangs on the Vestring ranch are all geldings. They range in age from 7 to 27 years old and can live to be as old as 30.
The program is not without controversy. In Kansas, there are questions about the mustangs’ impact on the grasses of the Flint Hills, and the overall expense and value of the program on a national level continue to be a point of debate.
One longstanding outgrowth of the mustang transfer has been BLM’s partnership with correctional facilities in several states, including Kansas, to enable inmates to gain work experience by working with and saddle training horses from these herds.
In Kansas, around 300 mustangs are held and cared for at the Hutchinson Correctional Center as part of the Wild Horse Program operated by Kansas Correctional Industries.
Marty Mora, a manufacturing manager whose duties include overseeing and assisting the Hutchison KCI facility’s mustang program says, “We’ve been involved in this program for about 18 years. We can get them from a colt on up to about 10 and 12 years old. When we receive them, we’ll sort them out and put them in pens. It can take anywhere from three to nine months to train them depending on the horse. Once the mustangs are trained and saddle broken, we’ll offer them for adoption.”
The Hutchinson program can have up to 14 minimum-security inmates involved, and some become qualified trainers. The experience appears to benefit the men as much as the horses.
“It helps them,” says Mora. “They’re getting good feedback from the animal, and they’re investing in the program. They buy into it and the reward goes both ways.”
In order to help manage overpopulation, herds are separated into groups of mares or gelded stallions before being transported to ranch contractors.