Wild mustangs and the American cowboy symbolize the fierce independence of the West. The United States Border Patrol, a profession relying on a dose of ancient traditions along with modern technology, recently began using the mustang as a tool to patrol the most remote stretches of the border.
The duty of Border Patrol Agents is to locate and apprehend subjects illegally entering into the United States between the various Ports of Entry. Much of the area between the Ports is desolate and hostile. On most of the Southern Border where I was assigned for more than a decade, everything living will either bite or poke you. Mesquite trees have thorns over an inch long while Cat Claw shrubs make the mesquite thorns look docile. Inhospitable to all but rattlesnakes, coyotes, cougars and a variety of other wildlife; access is discouraged to most except the most determined man on foot or horseback.
The Border Patrol began using regular ranch horses to patrol the southern border years ago, allowing agents to easily access areas previously only reachable on foot. Horses are quiet, extremely maneuverable and truly cut out for use in this occupation.
The northern border sectors, including the Spokane Sector, to which I was assigned for the last half of my career, never participated in the horse program until Chief Robert Harris took over the reins of the Spokane Sector in 2005. Chief Harris’ resume included being a bull rider and general cowboy prior to beginning his career with the Border Patrol and he brought these loves and ideals with him.
The Spokane Sector includes seven border stations including the Washington stations of Oroville, Curlew, Colville and Metaline Falls, Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, and Eureka and Whitefish, Montana. These stations relied on 4X4 vehicles, ATVs, snowmobiles and foot to patrol the border.
Chief Harris implemented a horse patrol unit for every station. There was some disagreement from the respective station heads, but all eventually concurred with his desire.
The original program leased horses from local contractors, paying them a set fee for each day a horse was used. In the Metaline Falls Station where I was a supervisor, we leased our horses from a local horse owner and paid approximately $100 per horse day. Similar contracts were executed at the respective stations which provided a boost for the local economies.
This system worked very well, then Chief Harris had an epiphany. To further bring the horse patrol into the public eye, the sector’s seven stations would rely exclusively on wild mustangs, rounded up by BLM, to patrol the border.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts round ups on a yearly basis to remove excess wild horses due to overpopulation and to remove competition for grazing lands which the BLM leases to local ranchers. The apprehended mustangs face an uncertain future, some will be adopted out and some sent to areas where they are fed like herds of cattle by the government. Beautiful horses in their natural habitat, in captivity they are often abused, neglected or just ignored after capture.
Mustangs are sure footed, healthy, with great stamina and are truly tough animals. Their domesticated ancestors were lost on the plains of the west, with nature allowing only the strongest to survive. Over the past several centuries, they have been caught, broke, and used by many American Indian Tribes, by the cowboys of the 19th century and today, sadly, by few modern ranches.
The mustangs to be used by the Border Patrol, part of the BLM’s customary round ups, were hand selected and sent to a Prison Facility in Colorado where they were broke and gentled by inmates. After approximately 90 days of training, they are sold to the Border Patrol for a nominal fee.
The mustangs arrived in small groups to the Spokane Sector to a skeptical group of agents. But wranglers began working with the mustangs and found them to be exactly what Chief Harris had promised; hearty, sure footed, alert to danger and truly built for patrolling the rough stretches of the US/Canada Border.
Chief Harris put out the word to various News Medias and soon many were scheduling interviews and doing news pieces on the mustangs. Even Anderson Cooper 360 came to our Sector and did a story on the mustang program initiated by Chief Harris.
The mustangs were an instant hit and soon the Spokane Sector’s Horse Patrol Program became a national sensation and took on a life of its own. The Horse Patrol wranglers, who only a short time previously were regular Border Patrol Agents, were on the road continuously going to parades, rodeos, and anywhere else they could be viewed by the masses.
The mustangs were no longer work horses, the wranglers no longer working agents; both transformed to public relation darlings. This culminated in the mustangs being transported from the Northwest to Washington D.C. by Horse Trailer and participating in President Obama’s inauguration parade! Television stations showed the mustangs and their Border Patrol Agent riders passing in front of President Obama’s booth and Vice President Joe Biden giving them a salute.
That was over two years ago and since then Chief Harris has transferred to the Laredo, Texas Sector where he implemented another mustang program. CBP cut most of the public relation funds that Chief Harris was using and now the mustangs are back in their respective stations, receiving little media and costing a small fortune to maintain, but that’s another story!