Fifteen-year-old Chloe Bayles arrived at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales early Saturday morning, eager to load up the horse she'd picked out the day before and take him home to Baton Rouge.
She knows she's in for a challenge. Her new horse has roamed free on the open range out west for most of his life. He isn't used to being around people, much less trusting them.
But Bayles, an aspiring veterinarian who rides and shows horses, has been chomping at the bit to get a mustang of her own ever since she saw a documentary on the animals. They run in packs that are a symbol of the American West — but their numbers have grown so large in recent years that the federal government, out of concern that the land can't support such a large horse population, is now rounding them up and adopting them out at events around the country.
A horse could be had for a fee of just $25 at Friday and Saturday's event in Gonzales, which was organized by the Bureau of Land Management office near Jackson, Mississippi. About 50 animals — which also included a couple of burros, or wild donkeys — were available.
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An adoption event is held about once a month in the 11-state district covered by the Mississippi office, said Curtis Patrick, a bureau wild horse and burro program specialist. One was held last year in Port Allen.
Usually, 70% to 75% of the animals get adopted, Patrick said. Those that don't find a home are put up for adoption again or turned back out onto bureau-owned land. No animals rounded up by the bureau are sold for slaughter, he said.
Bureau employees on Saturday helped those seeking to adopt a wild mustang or burro with paperwork and checked to make sure they were able to provide the animals adequate shelter and pasture space.
None of the horses or burros up for adoption in Gonzales have significant experience with humans, making their new caregivers — who aren't yet the official owners — eligible to get a $500 untrained animal incentive, plus another $500 after about a year.
"Until the animal is titled, which takes at least a year, they do not own the animal — so you can't sell it, give it away or trade it," Patrick said. "You can relocate it ... but you have to get our permission."
A few months after adoption, bureau employees visit the adopted horses and burros to see how they're doing at their new homes. The results of those evaluations help determine whether adopters get to keep the animals and collect the second half of the financial incentive.
Not everyone does. During that first year, some people realize they've adopted a particularly difficult animal and end up giving it back to the bureau, said Shayne Banks, a public affairs specialist for the bureau.
“It is a pretty big undertaking to take home a wild horse and train it, especially if you’ve never done it before," she said.
So why would anyone want to saddle themselves with the task of taming a wild animal?
“To each his own," Banks said. "Everyone has a different reason why they adopt a wild horse."
Lauren Vincent, a Sulphur resident who has trained many mustangs and currently owns three, said one advantage of wild horses is that they offer a "clean slate." Because no human has ever worked with the horses, adopters can train them without having to undo habits ingrained by previous owners.
But people should keep in mind that, well, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.
"It's not cookie-cutter training with these animals," said Vincent, who was at Saturday's event to help answer questions from potential buyers. "They all have different minds, different things that make them bond with you. The main thing is to get their trust. Once you get their trust, from then on, you have a relationship, and they tend to be a one-person horse."
It's important to be patient and understanding of the horses' background.
"They have learned how to survive over the years, and some of them have a very strong flight instinct," she said.
Jacob Dawson, of Baton Rouge, was drawn to the wild horses for their durability.
"They've got a great immune system, great feet," he said.
He and his girlfriend, Katie Denham, left the expo center with a 4-year-old mare with a shiny brown coat. They hope to get her ready for trail riding and rodeo events.
"She's a big ol' horse, and (I) think we'll have a come-to-Jesus moment," Dawson said, admiring his new horse with a smile. "But she looks smart and sweet. Great configuration. She's beautiful."
The walls at Jack’s Place in Port Allen don’t need to talk. They already tell countless stories from the 95-year-old bar’s long history.