Where wild horses can roam again

Montana Matters: where the wild horses could roam free again

Symbols of Free Spirit: Montana’s Wild Horse Sanctuary and Guest Ranch

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Living remnants of the untamed past, wild horses are the bloodline of our American strength of character.


montana wild horse sanctuary, avon montana, montana living, jim jones, BLM wild horse and burro program, pryor mountain horsesConcentrated primarily on vast expanses in the American West, these symbols of free spirit even now roam and forage in large numbers. Most of the U.S.'s estimated 100,000 wild horses, however, have been pushed from their natural habitat and survive on public lands — at public costs — or in facilities known as holding pens. When the herds get too large on roaming or free-range ground, they are gathered and relocated to four main pens, all located in the West or Pacific Northwest. 

These long-term holding facilities were constructed with the intent of managing and controlling the amount of wild horses on public lands.  Jim Jones, founder of Montana’s Wild Horse Sanctuary and Guest Ranch, plans to play his own small part in the resettlement of approximately 200 head of wild horses from these holding pens. His plan is to relocate wild horses and care for them on a 1,600-acre eco-sanctuary near Avon, Montana, west of Helena.

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The ranch near Avon, Montana


“I have had a longtime passion for horses and it dates as far back as I can remember,” Jones, of Helena, said. “Growing up, I had this great animal collection of toy Breyer horses and growing up in Wisconsin, I was lucky to have access to horses. Even now I’ll just sit with my horse when I’m stressed and when the world is getting to me.”

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Montana Wild Horse Sanctuary owner Jim Jones

After a vacation and trip to Montana in the late 1970s Jones came to fully appreciate the freedom, the intelligence, and the grittiness of the mustang. Within a few years of that initial visit, Jones attached himself to the horse industry, attending clinics, studying the animals at clinics, forming friendships with like-minded folks, and eventually working with undomesticated mustangs in the Pryor Mountains, south of Billings.

“I fell in love with wild horses. I became more and more educated as to what kind of an animal a wild horse is. They have to be naturally hearty, sturdy, and extremely smart, because they have to protect themselves.”

It didn’t take long for Jones to conclude that the U.S. has a love-hate relationship with its wild horses or that too many misconceptions abound related to their prowess and plight.

“These are not scrub animals,” said Jones. “These are intelligent, hearty, exceptional animals that can do a lot of things. There is a lot of bad publicity surrounding them. The false information out there tells us that they can’t be used for anything, which is the complete opposite of what is true.”

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Jones said that much of the problem stems from how the government deals with them. Most of the United States' wild horses and burros are present on 179 different Bureau of Land Management Herd Management Areas, covering 31.6 million acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Jones said the pens as antithetical to all that’s natural and wild.    

“The wild horses are feeding off the public land that the ranchers have their cattle on,” explained Jones. “But the wild horses belong there and have a right to be there. There are two sides and then the extreme. Once they are placed in the pens, they are supposed to live there for the rest of their lives.

"These pens were designed to hold 20,000 horses, but reports say that a total of 50,000 are being held in each pen. Each pen looks like a feedlot, and the horses basically look like they are in prison. You can see it in their eyes, they’ve given up.”
Some of the land where wild horses are amassed doesn’t even meet their ecological requirements, explained Jones. 
“Most wild horses live in areas that are not high-producing when it comes to feed, mostly living on semi-arid and rocky terrain. There is not a lot of feed or sage to it. You’ve got 100,000 horses in the country that are free roaming, and that’s hard on the land.”

There are three things that wild horses need: food, water and obviously breathing space. Jones said that the 1,600 acres of exceptionally lush land along Highway 141, north of Avon, Montana, fit such requirements. He said careful considerations must be taken to ensure that the wild horses do not overgraze the land and are naturally able to find sustenance.
“When I was out looking for property to use as a sanctuary, I visualized the horses out there. The whole valley is beautiful, green, and fantastic. I was there in the winter and the grass was still high and there was a lot of natural feed. The land has to be healthy, and the horses must be able thrive year-round and be able to survive a winter. I don’t want to put a lot of stress on the land or the animals.”

The Montana Wild Horse Sanctuary and Guest Ranch will include an educational visitor’s center, a guest ranch, and tours of the animals. Jones plans to purchase mustangs directly from the federal Bureau of Land Management. The horses will be relocated to the sanctuary about mid-June of 2019. Jones said the sanctuary is seeking funding for operations.

Jones describes the scenario of his ranch: visitors witness the beauty of wild mustangs up-close and experience one of American icons. In Jones’s estimate, it’s the very least that he can do to preserve one of the strong bonds in the animal kingdom.

Jones said that anything less would be a betrayal of the animals that helped us construct the character of our country and persistently serve humanity.

“Horses are a prey animal and humans are considered a predator," he said. "You will not find too many predator-prey relationships, and horses become our partner for life. Horses love their human partner, and they’d die to protect them. It’s unconditional love between the two.”

The average wild horse has a lengthy lifespan, between 30 and 35 years. If the Montana Wild Horse Sanctuary and Guest Ranch can provide refuge for 200 wild horses that once faced uncertain and, on occasion, ominous futures, that’s a great deal of life preserved, according to Jones.

“At the sanctuary, we can run them again and give them a life again," he said. "They would have a place for the rest of their lives. We can let them be horses again.”

For more information or to donate, visit www. montanaswildhorsesanctuaryandguestranch.com

Watch a short documentary from Montana Living on the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd

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