CHEYENNE – Throughout the 125th anniversary Cheyenne Frontier Days, Mantle Ranch family members – Steve Mantle; his son Bryan and Bryan's girlfriend, Katie Sherman; Nick Mantle, and Nick’s wife, Kayla – have been working with about 20 wild horses and a burro, getting them ready for Saturday's 11:30 a.m. auction.

The event is a capstone for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro adoption program at CFD.

How that all takes place and the work that goes into it behind the scenes is a fascinating part of the “Daddy of 'em All.”

The process

According to Brad Purdy, BLM Wild Horse and Burro adoption program spokesperson, all of the horses that have been gathered for the CFD auction came from Wyoming BLM rangelands. Petunia, the sole burro, comes from BLM lands farther west.

What is a wild horse? From BLM’s perspective, Purdy said, a wild horse is an “unbranded, free-roaming horse.” The difference between a feral horse and a wild horse is the brand: If a horse has a brand, it’s considered feral. If it is unbranded, it is considered a wild horse.

BLM protects and manages wild horses and burros in balance with other public resource values on 177 herd management areas across 26.9 million acres of public lands. Most wild horses and burros living today are descendants of animals that were released or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans.

Wild horses and burros are diverse in their coloring, ranging from solid brown and black to colorful pintos and palominos. Most wild horses stand 13 to 15 hands high (52-60 inches) and weigh from 700 to 1,000 pounds. Wild burros average 11 hands high (44 inches) and weigh about 500 pounds.

Wild horses are gathered from BLM rangelands usually by helicopter, sometimes using other means. After they are corralled, the horses are given a veterinary inspection and any medical treatment that is needed. Stallions are gelded. And all are freeze-branded on the neck with a brand that indicates when they were removed from the range, which range they came from and the date.

The horses for CFD then go to the Mantle Ranch, near Wheatland. The ranch is a BLM contractor, and has been for the last 25 years.

“What’s unique about CFD is that people have a week and a half to interact with these horses, with the Mantles, to get to know them, know what the horses are like,” Purdy said. “It’s an opportunity to buy a well-trained wild horse, trained by experts. I’d encourage people to watch the Mantles work with the horses at CFD. The Mantles know these horses well, and what’s a little different about CFD (compared to regular BLM auctions) is that the Mantles are willing to spend time with the adopters, help them understand the horses.

“The Mantles do a good job. We have a 100% adoption rate at CFD, and this goes back to the quality of the work the Mantles put into gentling the horses; all of the horses will have some work on them. For the most part, the basics are done: halter, pick up feet, oriented to people,” Purdy said.

Mantle Ranch

“This started back in 1998,” said Steve Mantle, ramrod of the Mantle Ranch. “I went to a BLM auction to buy some untouched colts. And a guy from BLM started talking to me about the helicopter gathers and how he was looking for a BLM contractor to gentle some 6- to 10-year-olds.”

Steve said his family has been in the horse business for a long time. His dad and mother operated Sombrero Stables, where they had as many as 1,600 horses, in Colorado.

“So the BLM guy sent a contract to me. I had no clue what BLM contracts were all about, I was just a rancher looking to find some more income.

“The contract did it. So I went to talk to him. They interviewed me on the spot.”

Mantle Ranch was fast accepted as a BLM contractor for gentling BLM horses.

“Now, I grew up with the old cowboy system (of horse training). You forced things, we didn’t know any better. It’s what I knew. But they asked me to learn something different (for the contract). They sent me books, tapes, and there wasn’t much on them. Then there was this one tape from Bryan Neubert. It was a VCR tape. I wore it out watching it and watching it again and again. It had older horses in it.

“Hell on earth was the way I knew how to go at them (horses), but this was different. So I called him. Got his son Jimmy on the phone, then we (he and Neubert) talked and talked for two hours. I told him I wore his tape out, so he sent me another.

“We’ve been following his stuff ever since. Clinics, hands-on, nothing beats it.

“My sons, Bryan and Nick, were teens when we started with Neubert’s style of working horses. We started with his tutelage. They carried it forward, and they far surpassed what I can do. I’m proud of them. I can see them taking it forward.

“It’s been a humbling experience. Nothing makes them prouder than schooling the old man!”

Steve Mantle gives credit to his family for the heavy lifting in keeping the operation running.

Bryan and Katie were returning from running a load of horses to Sheridan, Wyoming, when they described some of the things they do to get horses ready for CFD – or any other horse sale.

“We do the same thing as CFD all the time,” Bryan said. “Our No. 1 goal is to find a forever home for these horses, to keep everyone happy, to find horses to match with people, and people to match with horses.

“Cowboy style (training) doesn’t work on a mustang. My brother and I started doing this when I was in eighth grade; it’s been 20 years now. Show me a better way, and I’ll listen 100%. What a horse can do, a mustang can do better. We find that they are better to gentle, gentle, gentle.”

The rudiments of the Mantle (ala Neubert) technique goes like this, according to Bryan and Katie: He starts by bringing about 50 head of wild horses into the big pens on the ranch to meet him.

“I’m looking for the curious ones, the inquisitive ones. Those are horses I want to take to the next level. Those are the horses that will be compatible with people.”

From this group, he selects 10 horses at a time to put into another pen (the ranch has numerous sorting pens where horses are worked.) The focus on these horses is to "gentle, gentle, gentle them," win their trust.

“We want to produce a product that is successful," Bryan said. “If we put out a product that is inferior, we’d be out of business.”

For the next 20-30 days, Bryan works these horses in the round pen. At the same time, Katie is busy loving them up. She takes the nicer ones into another pen and gives them special attention, feeds them cookies, pets them, makes them like people, halters them, all the while evaluating what the ranch is up against in making them into rideable mounts.

“We do as much as we can to create a horse someone can get along with,” she said. “Some horses are like high school cheerleaders, freshmen. The freshmen come in, and they develop a posture for how they handle themselves. Some handle well, some need more prep time. It’s a progressive thing. There’s different levels of maturity. When they’re ready for the next level, Bryan takes them out of the stall and into the round pen.”

“In the round pen, with yearlings, I like to keep things short,” Bryan said. “Yield to hindquarter pressure, pet. Reel them in. They’re like little kids. They need a recess. It’s all about the amount of pressure and release.” (Pressure is asking a horse to do a thing. Release is removing the pressure – say a tug on the halter – when the thing is done.)

“They are like freshman kids,” he continued. “Some are a little dipsy. They can be scared. Their first line of defense is to nip and bite, and you have to be willing to take a little of that. Less is more – 15 minutes or so. When it’s cold and nasty, they can come at you, ears back and teeth bared. I’ll halter, argue with myself, do it again later.

“Some want to start yearlings, but we like to work with 2- to 3-year-olds to start riding them. The success rate is higher,” Bryan continued.

“You have to know when to quit,” Katie said.

“The first week, we’re chasing them into the barn with a flag (horseman’s tool something like a golf pennant),” Bryan said. “By the second week , we’re chasing them out of the barn with the flag. They like to hang out in the barn; they get hay, feed, loving … They need to enjoy that. If horses could talk, they’d say ‘Why are you making me do this stuff, put a saddle on me?’ You need to make their work enjoyable.

“If a mustang likes you, if you’re nice to him, he’s your friend forever. And that first time you give him a challenge – say taking the horse across a creek – the horse is scared. But when he does it, as a trainer, you really feel that.

“One or two bad experiences, and they’re done. You don’t want to force it, they won’t work for you. You watch for progression, you see the horse gain confidence with you, see them come in and come up to meet you.

Katie talked about her experiences working with horses, riding horses.

“When you’re riding, nothing else matters but you and that horse. During the past year, I’ve had some health issues, and that (aspect of horses) was huge for me. I was healthier when riding. You forget about all the other stuff, about doing anything but riding that horse, and that feels so much better, it absolutely works."

“Horses are more forgiving than people,” Bryan said. “People don’t accept as many failures. You get on an airplane and you surrender complete control of your life to someone else. That’s what it’s like for a horse.

“We try to create something, a horse that has been started, a started product. Wild horses are untrusting; we can change that to trusting, but sometimes a not good person will get a horse and mess that up. Men are the worst – they try dominating the horse. But they don’t have control, they have to get over that, I have to get over it, that’s just the way of the world. It’s like kids in an orphanage. Some go to bad homes.

“Gentle, gentle, gentle, we want to make horses for people who aren’t that great of a horseman. We pound the basics, saddling, trotting, loping. That makes it more successful for an adoption.

“I’ve gone to a lot of colt starting clinics, but Neubert is the greatest problem solver. Try this, try that. Sit and think things through a horse’s mind. Go the path of least resistance. (How horses think.) He deals with a problem without dominating a horse. Our program is based on what Neubert taught us.

“The more we can do to make it positive – catch, brush, saddle – the easier it is all the way around.”

Each year, the Mantle Ranch cares for approximately 200 head of mixed-age and gender horses.

The finale

On July 22, the Mantles brought down about 20 horses from their Wheatland ranch. These horses were put in pens at CFD, given water and feed, given some time to get used to their new surroundings.

Today, the Mantles will be putting the finishing touches on these horses. All week, the Mantles have been holding daily demonstrations from 10:30 a.m. to noon and 4-5:30 p.m. where anyone can learn about some of the techniques used to gentle and train wild horses and burros.

Saturday, from 9-11 a.m., the Mantles will be getting the horses they’ve been working with ready for the 11:30 a.m. live auction, Purdy said.

The adoption process begins with an approved application, and this is something a potential buyer could do right there on the spot, the day of the sale, Purdy said. Specialists from BLM will have all the paperwork necessary to review and approve potential buyers.

At previous auctions, the range for horses selling at CFD was from $125 (BLM’s bottom line adoption fee) to $250-$300 for a halter-broke colt, to more advanced fees for the saddle-broke 3-year-olds. A couple of years ago, one horse went for several thousand dollars, Purdy said.

John D. Taylor is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's assistant managing editor. Email: jtaylor@wyomingnews.com.

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