Horsey hucksters


THE SIGNIFICANCE of the moment was clearly lost on these youngsters; mostly 1- and 2-year-olds, trucked hundreds of miles across the country to find themselves clustered in makeshift pens in the middle of a Lorton, Va., field one recent Saturday morning.

This was a chance for horses fresh off the Western range to catch the eye of a prospective adopter, someone to love and care for them and provide a safe new home. Particularly for those without striking colors to distinguish them from the predominant bays, a quick bonding with humans gazing through the fence was their best shot to be chosen.

But the 61 equines featured at the morning's adoption auction typically flinched at the approach of possible predators or spent this valuable preening time munching hay. Only the dozen flashiest animals drew bids from the small crowd; the top price buckskin went for $380. Another 18 horses and two of three burros were adopted later for the base fee of $125 or $25 each for additional "buddies." The rejects were trucked back to the Midwest for, at most, two more tries at adoption before they become eligible for commercial sale and butcher shops abroad.

If ever there were critters in need of some Madison Avenue marketing savvy it is these descendents of the great American mustang - now effectively declared excess federal property.

Despite new urgency for adopters since Congress voted last year to allow horses that don't find homes to be sold for slaughter, the numbers fall woefully short. The Bureau of Land Management, operating with minimal resources, has held more than 30 adoptions nationwide so far this year, but only in a few cases have all the animals been adopted. Meanwhile, pressure keeps building as nearly 22,000 horses have been taken off the range into captivity under pressure from cattle ranchers, mineral drillers, recreational enthusiasts and encroaching development - leaving only 31,700 in the wild.

There is great potential, though, for the mustang market to heat up. The annual wild pony swim and auction in Chincoteague, Va., attracts up to 50,000 spectators; eager bidders - usually with children egging them on - compete to pay an average of $2,000 each for the 70 foals sold.

And in many ways, the Chincoteague horses are just like their Western cousins: small, hearty, sure-footed creatures that with enough time and training can become beloved riding companions. What's remarkably different is the sophisticated salesmanship of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which wove the lore surrounding farm animals let loose on the barrier islands into a money-making machine, building skillfully on the legacy of Misty, Marguerite Henry's 1947 novel. Firefighters even tinker with breeding to produce more high-dollar paints and pintos.

Alas, federal agencies aren't so nimble. But a consultant urged in 2001 that the BLM should make far greater use of commercial marketing techniques to boost the mustang's appeal and target likely adopters.

One handicap is money. Even though the east is considered a ripe market for mustangs, an adoption auction scheduled for next weekend in Dillsburg, Pa., is the second of only three such events planned for the mid-Atlantic region for the entire year. Transportation is so costly, the BLM often resorts to soliciting bids for horses by posting photos on the Internet - a tactic less likely to win hearts than an in-the-flesh connection.

Until Congress commits to a far more aggressive campaign to find horse enthusiasts willing and able to take long-term responsibility for animals dubbed "living legends," it should honor its 34-year-old promise of a perpetual home on the range.

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