In the late 1980s, John Hughes' family cattle operation was struggling.
One morning, he opened up the newspaper and found a story about a South Dakota rancher who had landed a U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contract to keep unadopted wild horses on his land.
Hughes asked the bureau about doing the same and soon received a two-inch stack of application papers in the mail.
“For a country boy, it was something,” he said.
Hughes became the second contractor to handle wild horses for the government.
He and his son, Robert, both animal science grads from Oklahoma State University, used the homeland around Bartlesville and leased additional thousands of acres so they could incorporate the horses into their cattle business.
Horses of all shapes and various shades of red, dun, gray, brown, paint, and even palomino snorted and galloped or trotted away as his white sport utility vehicle cruised through the green pastures outside Catoosa.
He talked about “Englebert,” a funny-looking, ornery white gelding who caught his fancy. Like many of the mustangs, the thick-hided, sturdy-hoofed gelding will be over 30 when he dies.
“They really are amazing animals,” Hughes said.
Ranch hand Wes Young said he rode a bay mustang named JC14. Young returned the gelding to the herd when the horse got that “back to the wild” look in his eye.
Living the wild life
The Hughes family runs about 4,300 wild horses — all geldings or castrated males — on about 10,000 acres in three northeastern Oklahoma counties. They raise fescue-Bermuda hay and also feed alfalfa to the mustangs in the winter. They currently have no cattle.
The horses are treated as if they are in the wild. No vaccinations, hoof care or veterinary care. A sick or severely injured horse is shot if it doesn't improve.
The West Nile virus hit Hughes' ranch horses a few years ago, and he worried the disease would wipe out the wild horse herd. One did get sick, staggered and fell down.
When Hughes drove out to check him, the gelding jumped up and galloped away. And he's still alive.
Is Hughes getting rich from the mustang program?
“I wish,” he said, laughing. “We're very proud of the job we do. We didn't have anything to do with lobbying Congress to pass the Wild Horse and Burro Act. We're simply a bidder. If Congress has a problem with the costs and so forth, they can always change the law. In the meantime both BLM and their contractors, we're going to do the best job we can taking care of the horses.”
Though profit is affected by the weather, the income is virtually guaranteed, unlike most agricultural businesses.
Now there are 21 grassland ranches in the Midwest handling BLM wild horses, with 13 of those in Oklahoma.
Costs add up
Contractors average $1.30 per horse per day for pasture over each horse's lifetime. That works out to about $475 yearly per horse or close to a half-million dollars for 1,000 horses.
The bureau also contracts for an average $5.25 per horse per day for short-term holding pens to keep horses that are headed for adoption. Oklahoma has one such facility in Pauls Valley. Some of these operations receive about $1 million yearly for keeping the horses but veterinary care, feed and other expenses of keeping the horses healthy until they go to their new homes are included.