Fred LeGeve peered through the metal corral Friday morning at the frisky, kicking, bucking, biting, born-to-be- wild creatures and had a thought about wild beauty-- Western style.
"There's nothing more beautiful on this earth than a herd of wild horses thundering across the open ground," the Vista resident observed. "They're all just wild at heart."
But wild horses, the very symbol of the American West, have run across hard times. Their numbers are steadily increasing while suitable rangeland is being fenced off, disappearing beneath their hoofs. As a result, experts say, many are starving.
This weekend at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the federal government is sponsoring a program to help find homes for about 120 wild horses and burros captured on land administered by the government's Bureau of Land Management.
The 16-year-old "Adopt a Horse or Burro Program" has placed more than 90,000 animals with a mixed bag of country folks and city types, each ready to pay $125 for a horse or $75 for a burro that might be tamable but has never been saddled.
Friday morning, they came to look--the surfer boys with earrings and shaved heads, Marines and their wives carrying infants, grandmothers and little girls dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots--all pressing their noses to the cold-steel metal corral in search of a horse or burro that might qualify as another My Friend Flicka.
Some of the corral-crawlers were veterans of taming wild horses. People like Fred LeGeve.
"They're wild animals," he said. "The trick is to take the wild out of them, bring them to trust you. And it's a really tough job if you don't know what you're doing. Hey, it's a tough job even if you do know what you're doing."
Wild horses just don't trust humans.
"Their only contact with human beings is negative," said LeGeve, who owns three tame horses.
"They've been chased and shot at, and rounded up and corralled. This is all new to them."
In the fairground corrals, the horses were separated by sex and age. Many still wore their rough winter coats. Others bore chewed ears and nasty gashes across their sides and necks, the scars of previous turf battles.
Rearing and squealing, pacing and head-butting, the horses had the restless quality of a Wild West gang holed up in some open-air jail cell. They were gray and buckskin, brown and black. "Heinz-57 horses," the wranglers call them, mutts of the range whose lineage has long been muted and lost.
And, of course, not one of them knew that they owed their predicament to an elderly woman named Velma (Wild Horse Annie) Johnson.
Johnson was a Reno, Nev., secretary who, in the 1950s while driving on a country road, spotted a peculiar-looking tractor trailer, said Barbara Maxfield, a public affairs officer for the Bureau of Land Management.
"She saw horses' legs dangling out from the back of the truck," she said, "and blood spilling out onto the road in front of her."
What Johnson saw was the work of the mustangers, the gangs of cowboys who a generation ago roamed the Western plains, killing horses for profit--sending carcasses to slaughterhouses for use in dog food and other byproducts.
Johnson launched a crusade that resulted in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, a 1971 law that made it illegal to kill wild horses and burros for profit on lands administered by the U.S. government. It was one of the few bills ever passed unanimously by Congress, Maxfield said.
Five years later, the BLM began its adoption program to maintain the remaining herds, made up what many believe to be descendants of the stock brought to America by the Spanish conquistadors, as well as horses turned loose by California's early settlers and prospectors--their lines occasionally mixed with a modern ranch stray.
But the wild life is not easy. Just last year, the agency had to rescue hundreds of horses who otherwise would have died of starvation because of fierce competition with other animals--and ranchers--for grazing rights. In Nevada, hundreds did die of starvation.
Nationwide, 46,000 wild horses and burros live on land administered by the BLM. In California, 1,900 wild horses and 1,400 burros range mainly in the eastern desert and plains.
Each year, the agency offers about 15,000 of the animals to new homes, holding two or three adoptions annually in California. It also runs a year-round adoption service in Kern County.
The horses and burros up for adoption in Del Mar were caught in January and February in the northern Mojave Desert, gelded and fattened up for their change of life.
The horses, Maxfield said, are usually corralled by a helicopter that drives them into a huge, round horse trap with extended wings.
Burros are usually roped from horseback or captured when a corral trap is set by a popular watering hole, she said.
And, if they were home on the range, burros will make a pretty comfortable life in captivity as well, Maxfield said. They are known to be great sheep-herders, and burros have been sent as far away as Montana and the East Coast for that purpose.
"I don't know what it is," she said. "It's some instinct they have. They protect the flocks from predators even better than the dogs do. They put their stubbornness to good use."
Nobody needs to tell Fred LeGeve about the benefits of a wild horse.
"Some of these mustangs, you can ride 'em 30 miles in a day, get up the next morning and ride 'em another 30 miles," he said.
"They've got good footing from years on the range. And they're faithful. They'll do whatever it takes to please you. Like a good dog."
Not everyone was convinced.
Mary Beadle of San Marcos had picked out a nice mare. Then she had second thoughts.
"The one I picked out is a total little wench--she's already been in several fights," she said, peering intently into the mix of horses. "I picked her out because of her nice face and because she was more delicate than the others. Well, she looked more delicate than the others."
Not to be outdone, over in the burro corrals, where the animals stood about stiffly, looking bored, came a telltale booming burro bellow.
"Hehaw-hehaw-hehaw-hehaw-hehaw," the animal squealed.
"That's another thing they've got going for them," said Maxfield, ever the saleswoman. "These burros can squeal at 4 o'clock in the morning. They could be your alarm clock."