Twelve-year-old Megan Parks perched on the bar of a fence, her arms looped around a horizontal metal rung, rocking back and forth on her worn white cowboy boots as she pointed eagerly to a brown horse that stood near the back of the pen.
“I wonder why some horses have such long tails,” she said. “Seems like they could have some Appaloosa in them.”
Coaxing a nearby horse with murmurs of “c’mon, baby,” Megan outstretched her fingers and pressed her right palm to the horse’s chest.
“I’d say he’s about seven hands. That’s pretty tall,” Megan said, with a surprisingly assured voice that belied her young age.
Megan, a self-proclaimed hippologist — one who studies horses — and horse lover, traveled from Murray, Ky., to accompany her grandfather, Ed Marshall, a breeder of miniature horses and donkeys, to the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption program, which arrived in Columbia on Friday.
The program, established in 1971 by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
Randy Anderson, wild horse and burro specialist for the bureau, said that most remaining herds of wild horses and burros are found in the western United States.
“Most people in the West know what the Bureau of Land Management is and what we do,” he said. “Back East, though, most people don’t even know what it is.”
Anderson accompanies the touring program as it holds auctions in 12 locations in the United States every year to help stem the burgeoning wild horse population. He said the government determines a quota of animals that are allowed to remain free-roaming, a number called the appropriate management level. The current level for horses is about 27,000, Anderson said.
“There are around 45,000 still out there,” Anderson said. “So horses are the bigger priority.”
Anderson said the level for burros is about 4,500, and the wild burro population is presently under control.
The horses are herded by wranglers who are familiar with the movements of wild herds. They employ both conventional and more modern methods in rounding up the animals.
“Two swathes of cloth are run out into a V shape, and then the horses are herded into the funnel created,” Anderson said. “Helicopters hover as they get closer (to the pen), and then a ‘Judas’ horse which is trained to run into the pen is released,” he said.
On Friday, a steady stream of people slowly circled more than 100 of these horses penned in the warehouse on the Boone County Fairgrounds. The preliminary showing on Friday allowed potential adopters to preview the animals before the auction.
While weathered farmers clad in overalls made muttered comments about the physical attributes of the animals, Gayle Troutwine and her daughter, Elizabeth, surveyed two burros chewing on hay covering the ground. Seven-year-old Elizabeth ran excitedly around the pen, her bubble-gum pink skirt swirling around her.
“Everything we have is adopted,” Troutwine, a single mother, said. “Our cats are from the Humane Society of Maui, and Elizabeth is from an orphanage in China.”
Troutwine said she has no prior experience with horses but was attracted by what she called “the romance” of the wild horses.
Steve Meyer, who works for the bureau with Anderson, said such fascination with the mystique of wild horses can sometimes be problematic. “We have to take people at their word,” Meyer said of the requirements for adoption. “But you know who’s telling the truth and who’s not.”
Adopters must have a minimum of a 40-square-foot area for each animal, as well as the financial means to feed and care for them. Meyer said he has to repossess adopted animals who have been neglected about twice each year.
“It’s usually not intentional,” said Meyer. “People don’t understand what they’re getting into, and it takes them by surprise.”
Meyer stood in the auctioning corral early Saturday morning, issuing instructions for bidding to a small audience occupying two sets of bleachers. Pairs of horses ran around the perimeter of the corral, nearly in tandem, as the drawl of the auctioneer accelerated into a rapid cadence of numbers punctuated with endorsements of the sheen of a horse’s coat or rich color.
Megan and her grandparents awaited the appearance of their choice, a brown mare from Utah, known only as “773.”
Megan, barely seated on the edge of the bleachers, broke out in a grin when 773 trotted into the corral. She clasped her hands together and yelled ‘Yes!’ after her grandmother’s uncontested bid for the horse was closed.
The horse was only the fourth sold in an auction that had begun a half-hour before and had already presented more than 50 horses. Anderson, who said the horses are rarely adopted for more than the minimum price of $125, attributed regional differences to the unpredictability of adoption rates.
“We can’t even give away burros in other parts of the country,” he said. “But in Missouri, people will take any burros they can get.”
The remaining horses will still be available for adoption from 8 a.m. to noon today. Anderson said animals that are not adopted are returned to a facility in Ewing, Ill.
Horse 773, however, will go instead to a stable in Fayette.
“I asked if I could get on her and see if she was broke,” said Megan, smiling. “Grandpa said he’d have to lead her around.”