Karen Sussman’s grandchildren call her ‘Gramma Horsie.’ They live with their parents in Arizona and have had rare visits with their grandmother since she’s taken on full responsibility for the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros. Called ISPMB for short, the non-profit’s ranch is in Lantry, South Dakota. The outfit was inspired by Velma ‘Wild Horse Annie’ Johnston more than fifty years ago with the help of thousands of children around the world.
The petite, physically handicapped, insurance company secretary got on the highway to drive to work one day. Velma was stuck behind a truck dripping a stream of blood along the roadway. She was aghast and followed the truck until it stopped. Her inspection revealed wild mustangs, a stallion shot in the eyes, foals trampled on the floor bed and horror and misery. The truck driver consoled the woman by assuring her not to be concerned since the horses were going to slaughter anyway.
Velma crusaded single handedly, despite threats, hardships, opposition and western indifference to the plight of America’s wild horses. As the story of cruelty and U.S. government connivance and corruption got out, Velma drew support from children. She was dubbed ‘Wild Horse Annie’ by her enemies to mock her efforts. Velma liked the moniker and instead of rejecting the hatred and scorn it implied she adopted it. With it Wild Horse Annie Velma Johnson and thousands of school children succeeded in obtaining passage of important federal legislation to protect wild, free roaming horses and burros on U.S. government lands.
Opposition to wild horses on public lands has never ceased. Corruption, incompetence and bureaucracy in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under whose jurisdiction management of wild horses on public lands falls, continued unabated. Competition for use of public lands increased.
Ranchers want cheap leases for their cattle. Hunters want the range for their sport. Developers and oil and gas promoters have other uses in mind for the land. In all the plight of wild horses became a political football in the West. People in the East, the majority of voters in America, wanted protection for the last remaining vestiges of American heritage and Indian horse culture. Special interests and their bribed handmaidens in government bureaucracy wanted them cleared off public land and killed.
They still do. With 7 billion people on this planet, over 100 million cows, hundreds of thousands of deer and elk, it would seem that the last of some 24,000 to 37,000 wild horses should be allowed some room to roam. In the end, certainly as the world seems to be heading, there will be no room for wild animals to roam free. The only place for them will be on reserves and in parks.
The park concept has not worked in Africa nor in India. Poaching and corruption have taken a toll on protected and endangered species. One African president’s wife was the head of an organized elephant ivory poaching ring. Rhino tusks have been poached for oriental aphrodisiacs to the point of extinction. Wild horses have been rounded up and kept in holding corrals until they are either adopted, languish or die.
Misdirected BLM wild horse policies, including expensive and cruel roundup of wild horse herds using helicopters, cost taxpayers $80 million a year. Bureaucrats live well off it; opponents of the system love it. When U.S. legislators realize the cost to taxpayers they will never point to BLM policy and incompetence. They will blame the horses and describe the need to save tax revenues in economically difficult times.
The politics of the thing has not changed since Wild Horse Annie’s day. Velma Johnston is long dead, Karen Sussman, ‘Gramma Horsie,’ has the reins. The wild horse conservancy is on private land in the middle of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. The place is remote on rolling prairies about 12 miles from Eagle Butte, SD. There are 90-mile stretches of road with no gas stations. There is no mail delivery. Box holders have to drive to the little post office operated by a postmistress to get their mail and news of the town.
Lantry, South Dakota is rural America at its best. People help each other and develop community ties and bonds of friendship. It is also rural America at its worst. All of the plagues that afflict big cities have penetrated Native American culture. Unhealthy diets and free commodities from the federal government created obesity and diabetes. Use and abuse of alcohol and drugs has decimated youth for generations. Lack of self-respect and the loss of traditional values turned proud people into paupers living off the dole. It is no wonder that government programs cannot manage wild horses; they cannot manage human beings with dignity and respect and don’t even try.
‘Gramma Horsie,’ drives the ISPMB tractor with great skill. She feeds the horses winter and summer dropping 1,600 pound bales of hay in fenced pastures where four separate herds are kept. The organization gets no government grants or money. It is entirely supported by private donations. Kids send $1, people in nursing homes send wonderful letters enclosing small checks. Some make sacrifices to send more thus ‘adopt,’ a wild horse. The ‘adopted’ horse stays in its herd but the foster parent, through earmarked donation, takes over some of the direct costs for a particular wild horse of which ISPMB has plenty. Five hundred to be approximate. Karen Sussman as often as not will say, “Don’t tell them we have 500 mustangs. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
In a quip the retort was: “Well if you had 500 cows they’d think you’re rich.” There are subsidies, insurance, government aid and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs for farmers for all sorts of things. There are even Crop Reduction Programs that pay land owners not to plant anything. Government manipulates prices, amounts of crops that can be planted and dictates what farmers can and cannot do. The USDA offers free payments for compliance with big brother’s demands. Wild horses get nothing.
Drought gripped the American West during the summer of 2012. South Dakota went from record flooding in 2011 and bumper crops, including hay, to a period of little or no rainfall beginning in June 2012. “Lack of rain across the state made things very difficult for our agricultural community,’ South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard said.
“Row crop farmers of corn, soy beans and wheat are going to be OK because of crop insurance. Their yields are dramatically down. Insurance will offset some of that. Those that feed cattle, swine, sheep and livestock are faced with buying feed, paying 30 to 40% higher prices, because of the drought. It is not only impacting South Dakota but most of the Great Plains states,” Governor Daugaard stated.
What this means for ‘Gramma Horsie’ and ISPMB in plain language is that hay has gone up from $65 per ton last year to $210 per ton this year. There is no local hay to be bought. Farmers are hoarding their hay to feed their own cattle over winter. Hay has to be trucked in from Canada through North Dakota and Montana. Fuel prices have gone up and shipping hay to Lantry, SD, a one way run since there is nothing for truckers to take back from the area, runs as much as $2,300 a truck load. Each truck can carry about thirty 1,600 pound round bales of hay per trip. The White Sands herd, of about a hundred horses, is fed 24 bales of hay every three days, to give some proportion to the dilemma.
What is Karen Sussman doing? The best she can. She mails out letters to people that have supported the wild mustang project in the past and many have generously responded. Creditors dun her, hay suppliers seek payment, foreclosure threatened the ranch, the checking account is often overdrawn and bank balances have dwindled. Karen takes no salary and often puts her own money into the non-profit organization’s account to cover checks.
To live, Karen works for Indian Medical Services at the hospital in Eagle Butte as a registered nurse. “Gramma Horsie’ is one of those dedicated Americans that has gone the limit. Now the limit has been stretched by mother nature and the drought to another limit. Prices for fuel and hay have soared and the limit seems to have no bounds.
What of the wild horses? So far the herds in ISPMB’s care are getting plenty to eat. The sick and lame ones receive special senior feed. Those that need medication get prescriptions from a veterinarian. ISPMB is unique in the world.
The organization has not adopted BLM horses arbitrarily. They have taken whole herds. In the case of a herd of Spanish mustangs, descendants of the horses first brought into the Americas by conquistadors, they were adopted as a band. These rare horses, some DNA testing back to stock still living in Portugal, ran wild for more than 50 years. Their genetic traits and horse behaviors had not been interfered with by government. A herd of horses from the White Sands, New Mexico proving grounds, adopted intact by ISPMB and kept together on the ranch, likewise had not been rounded up for half-a-century.
“Keeping our horses together as separate herds is important. If offers rare opportunity to study herd behavior and breeding.” Karen Sussman said. Her studies reveal that in a normal wild herd, stallions do not breed mares in their harem until they are two and three years old. The band stallion fights off other stallions. Karen is able to compare that breeding behavior to what she calls a dysfunctional herd. The dysfunctional herd, taken from the Catnip area and kept in its own pasture at ISPMB, is one that had been rounded up and interfered with by BLM officials. The horses in the dysfunctional herd are all younger, the males not more than five years old. These horses had been rounded up, sorted, dispersed, mixed and never learned herd behavior and etiquette. As a result stallions in the dysfunctional herd try to breed one-year old mares.
“In our Spanish mustang herd reproduction averages 10% to 14 % and keeps up with mortality. The BLM asserts horse population on public lands will double every four years. That is not supported by my research nor by the facts. If wild populations are left alone and not continually rounded up and their genetic pool altered by killing wild stallions and putting in paint quarter horses to ‘improve’ the breed and make them more colorful for kids to adopt, then breeding follows patterns I’ve studied,” Karen said.
There is knowledge to be gained from ‘Gramma Horsie’s’ research. Her notes contain valuable information about wild horse reproduction, band stallion and harem behavior. It is the only place where such work can be accomplished except on public lands among wild bands. The difficulty with that is the BLM has continually interfered with herds, altered their genetic pool, conducted frequent roundups, sorted and mixed horses with other family groups. It is easier to study wild herd behavior on the relatively confined areas of the ranch in Lantry than trying to approach bands in larger areas.
What of their future, these wild horses, that have shaped whole cultures of native peoples converting them from a dog people to a horse culture? What will become of these last vestiges that enabled Spanish conquest of the New World, these cow ponies, the express rider’s horses, the foundation stock of ranch horses? Times are tough. The economy is flagging. People are despairing themselves as they see government continuing to grow and not respond to human needs let alone incompetence in running public land programs and dealing with American heritage.
Karen Sussman’s hope is to create an educational center where veterinary students can intern and learn about equine care. A place where knowledge about herd behavior can be studied and interpreted. A center where people can visit and enjoy wild mustangs. Land where hay can be grown and where there is adequate pasturage for horses in the care of ISPMB.
Eventually there will be such a place if major donors can be found to make it a reality. Right now the BLM is enmeshed in controversy over their inability to handle their responsibilities toward wild mustangs competently. The politics of the issue is festering with special interests continuing to put pressure on Congress through paid lobbyists.
The little voices of children will be heard. Those that have no voice at all have advocates that identify the insanity of human greed driven policies. Meanwhile ‘Gramma Horsie,’ gets in her old pickup truck every morning and drives to the post office. “How’d we do today?” She’ll ask the postmistress at a small window in an antiquated wood frame building. Hopeful that mail will bring checks that go right into the bank to pay for hay and feed.
To find out more visit the ISPMB website at www.ispmb.org.