By Janice M. Ladendorf

Today tourism produces ten percent of the world’s gross national product. For this trade in the United States, our wild horses are still an underutilized asset. For thousands of years, the beauty and talents of horses has been celebrated first by artists, then by authors. To see and admire horses, urban dwellers flock to races, shows, state fairs, expositions, and other equestrian events. Movies and books which include horses are popular. Examples are =, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague. Millions of girls and women dream about someday owning their own horse.

Photo courtesy of Windcross Conservancy, Buffalo Gap, S.D.
Photo courtesy of Windcross Conservancy, Buffalo Gap, S.D.

Both our mustang breeds and the remaining wild horses add the romance of our Western frontier to the general attraction all horses have for so many people. Below, my own Spanish mustang is shown meeting new fans at the Minnesota State Fair. His breed became the first wild horses on our prairies. They were the Spanish horses who were ridden by Indians, explorers, mountain men, vaqueros, and our early cowboys.

Photo courtesy of nature photographer, Roger Williams,
Photo courtesy of nature photographer, Roger Williams,

When early settlers first reached our prairies, they found millions of buffalo and thousands of wild horses. As the wild horses were caught and used, their numbers declined, but a few thousands with mixed heritages still live on our public lands. Because these free-roaming horses are afraid of humans and our vehicles, they can be hard to find and run away from us. But wild horses have become popular tourist attractions where they can be viewed on the range or in ecosanctuaries.


The public program began in 2010 when Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico, wanted to use federal money to purchase the Ortiz Ranch, add it to the Cerrillos Hills State Park, and use it as a wild mustang sanctuary for ecotourism. Unfortunately, his proposal did not succeed, but he is still promoting wildlife protection and is seeking alternatives to the slaughter of wild horses.

His proposal started the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) thinking about developing such sanctuaries as an alternative to keeping horses in long-term holding pastures. Initially the plan was to accept partnership proposals from private individuals, Indian tribes, and state or local governments, but their first request for applications, issued March 15, 2011, was limited to private individuals. This request required the partner to accept 200 horses, but this limit was modified in 2012 to 100 horses. Also, applications can now be accepted from nonprofit organizations.

Requests could be submitted for ecosanctuaries, ecosanctuaries with adoption centers, ecosanctuaries with training centers, or ecosanctuaries with combination adoption/training centers. Every ecosanctuary was expected to encourage public visitation and provide opportunities for learning.  Partners would be expected to speak well of BLM programs. BLM managers believed establishing these ecosanctuaries could simulate local economies and provide local jobs.

As the public partner, BLM would provide the horses, pay the standard rate for their keep, and would help provide funds for the required setup of items such as fences. The private partner must be qualified to provide good care for the horses, accept a non-reproducing herd of mares or geldings, and provide tourists with the opportunity to view the horses. If their operation was a success, profits would be used to decrease payments for the upkeep of the horses.

So far, only three such sanctuaries have been established:  two in Wyoming, and one in Oklahoma. They are described below.

1) Deerwood Ranch Wild Horse Ecosanctuary

This former cattle ranch has been a family-owned operation for 30 years and is 35 miles west of Laramie, Wyo. on State Highway 11. This scenic route goes through the valley between the Sheep and Medicine Bow mountains. The Middle Fork of the Little Laramie River runs through the ranch and it is near other recreational sites. Three hundred wild geldings now graze there on about 4,700 acres of land. It is also home to other Wyoming wildlife, such deer, elk, and coyotes. The ranch offers public, photographic, and group tours by appointment. It also includes a guest cabin and a gift shop.

The two photographs below are of the wild horses enjoying life on the Deerwood Ranch. Beautiful photographs by Jana Wilson can be viewed on the ranch website and in slide shows on YouTube.

Photos courtesy of Wyoming Bureau of Tourism.






2) Mowdy Ranch Mustangs

This family ranch is located 12 miles northeast of Coalgate in the hills of southeastern Oklahoma, the historic home of the legendary Choctaw ponies. They have dedicated 1,280 acres of their ranch as a wild horse sanctuary and 153 wild mares now graze there. Up to 32 people can sleep in their lodges and they have dining facilities for larger groups and special events. Lodging and tours available by reservation. Their website includes some delightful photographs of their mustangs enjoying life on their sanctuary.

3) Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary

This sanctuary controls 900 acres and lies in the middle of the Double D Ranch. It is located on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming near the town of Lander. The first photograph below is of the Double D Ranch. The second shows a tour of the sanctuary.

Photos courtesy of the BLM, and the Wind River Visitors Council, respectively.



The partnership agreement between BLM and the Sanctuary includes plans for a learning/visitor/information center, tours, a gift shop, and a campground. The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes have approved the site and have contributed information to the learning center on native culture and the historic role of the horse. A grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund helped pay for the center and it is open to the public. The sanctuary opened on June 4, 2016. Reservations are recommended for tours.
The sanctuary currently has 130 wild horses. It includes only yearlings or mares. Most have had some handling or been through the wild horse training program at the Department of Corrections.


The BLM is currently holding over 30,000 horses in long-term leased pastures. Ecosanctuaries can be a beneficial alternative for all of those involved, but especially for the horses. There they should receive good care, be relatively safe from kill buyers, and can earn part or potentially all of their keep by serving as tourist attractions. This program is off to a good start, but should be expanded. If the program is to be continued in 2017, some recommended improvements are described below.

1) All sites should be encouraged to develop information centers and educational programs, describing the role played by mustangs in Western history and Indian tribal life.

2) Foals and young horses should have great appeal for tourists, especially the children. Since BLM is still catching pregnant mares and foals, a few could be sent on to the sanctuaries where they might attract adopters.

3) Ecosanctuaries could be established in any one of our states. In the Midwest and East, far fewer acres would be needed and there should be much less hostility towards the presence of wild horses.

One possibility is our Southeastern states. In the 16th century, the Spanish did settle there to farm and ranch. When English settlers arrived, they found wild horses as far north as Virginia. In those states, mustang history begins well before wild horses had reached the Western prairies.

Minnesota is another possibility. The tall grass prairies extended as far north as the southeastern part of our state. One possible site for a sanctuary could be near the Pipestone Quarry where all the plains tribes peacefully mined material for their pipes. Another one could be near Blue Mound State Park where buffalo now graze and tall grass prairies area being restored.

Information Sources:

“Lander-area ranch to be a BLM Wild Horse Ecosanctuary: Double D Ranch is on the Reservation,” County 10, December 10, 2014.
Raia, Pat, “BLM Seeks Private Sector Partners for Eco-Sanctuary Development,” The Horse, March 16, 2011.
Silva, Alejandra, “Home for Horses,” The Ranger, May 29, 2016.