Wild horses of the Badlands
Bob Fjetland has been around horses for a good part of his life. He's owned horses off and on for about 30 years while working at the refinery. His horses were just pleasure horses, but he always wanted to get more involved, he said. The only hangup was that he couldn't find the right breed to work with.
After working at the refinery 40 years, his retirement offered the perfect chance to devote more energy to his horses. He and his wife, Deb, started looking more seriously at making horses their prime focus.
In 2005, they saw an article in Cowboys & Indians Magazine about the Nokota horse - the domestic version of the old Native American horses and the descendants of the last wild horses in North Dakota.
"We were really just smitten," Bob said.
Some say the horses' bloodlines can be traced back to the horses involved with Sitting Bull's surrender in the late 1800s; the Fjetlands believe there could be a percentage of the same blood, but that the Nokota horses are essentially the traditional ranch horse, a result of crossbreeding wild horses with the thoroughbreds and draft horses of the time.
They got some Nokotas on their Welch farm, Full Moon Rising Nokota Horses, and started a small breeding operation. As they did more research on their chosen breed, the Fjetlands found that some of these horses still exist in the wild, within the borders of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands.They also discovered that every few years, the park would round up a number of the horses and auction them off to maintain the population.
The first roundup the Fjetlands knew of was in 2007, but the auction was cancelled. They went back for the next auction in 2009 and bought six of the horses.
By the time the park horses are sold, they have a remarkable set of experiences that leave them strong, smart and surefooted. Bob said he's seen a new foal just a week old or younger climb up a near-vertical embankment after its mother. Most wild weanlings have done more kinds of athletic activity than a typical domestic horse ever does, he said.
They're also extremely hardy. At the Fjetland farm, the horses have about 30 acres to roam. There are shelters set up for them, but even in bad weather the horses don't use them, Deb said. They're also not easily scared.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park isn't the only organization to round up and sell wild horses. The Bureau of Land Management also conducts round-ups and auctions, but the practices between the two are very different.
The BLM horses go into long-term holding between the time they're rounded up and the time of the auction. In that time, they become somewhat accustomed to the proximity of people and machines. The BLM has been criticized for its wild horse management practices as well.
The management at the park, however, is a proactive one that works to the horses benefit. The horses at the park are transported to their new homes within days of the roundup. In 2009, when the Fjetlands bought their herd, the horses were rounded up on Wednesday or Thursday, transported to the auction Friday, sold Saturday and transported home Saturday night, Bob said. When they get out of the trailers, they're still as wild as they were in the Badlands.
"You'd best have good fences," he said.
The park is also working on more long-term management plans, including studies on birth control.
Once the Fjetland horses arrived at their new home, it was time to start teaching and gentling them. The Fjetlands have the help of a neighbor, Rachel Serkasevich, a Red Wing High School graduate who is getting ready to go to Lake Erie College for its equine program. Since the horses are wild, even simple things need to be taught.
"They don't know what hay is, they don't know what grain is," Deb said.
The key to gentling the horses is recognizing the horse's language, Bob said, and getting them to trust people.
"Once they trust you, they really are like big dogs," he said.
First he works on just getting close to them. Once they let him get close, he starts desensitizing them to a soft rope. Eventually, he's able to put a halter on them and even a saddle and bridle. Now, all six of the wild horses the Fjetlands bought in 2009 can be ridden.
Serkasevich credited the Fjetlands with taking the time to walk out with their herd. Their efforts have created a herd that is calm, relaxed and friendly. And while walking in other horse herds might make a person feel unsafe, this one feels comfortable, she said.
"The horses want to be with you," she said.
One of the drawbacks to the park's quick auctions is that often, slaughterhouses are among the buyers, and many horses are sold only to be killed. The poor economic conditions the last several years have exacerbated the problem, as fewer people could afford to buy the horses and give them good homes, Deb said.
The Fjetlands are on a mission to ensure as many of the wild horses as possible avoid the slaughterhouse. To that end, they're working on raising awareness about the park horses.
"We're working really, really hard to spread the word," Deb said.
They have several stories of how steady and reliable their horses are, and how well they respond to people
They want everyone to know "how special these horses are, and we think the world of them," she said.
Serkasevich, who spends a lot of time working with the horses and training them, commented on the horses' intelligence.
"They learn very fast and remember everything very well," she said.
They're so devoted to the cause that they've stopped breeding the Nokota horses so they can work with the wild ones. They have no intention of breeding the new horses they get from the park either, preferring to let natural selection work. Instead, their focus is placing as many wild horses into good homes as they can.
"We believe in this breed so much," Bob said.
Those interested in owning one of the park horses themselves will have a chance this fall. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is conducting another roundup this year, and a public auction is scheduled for Sept. 28 at Wishek Livestock Sales in Wishek, N.D.
The Fjetlands are planning on attending the sale, and encourage anyone who can give the horses a good home to attend as well.
For more information about the sale and the horses that will be there, go to the North Dakota Badlands Horse page on Facebook. For more about the horses in the park, go to www.nps.gov/thro/naturescience/feral-wild-horses.htm.