Wild sights at Palomino Valley's National Wild Horse and Burro Center
Wild horses have long been closely associated with Nevada and one of the best places to view these magnificent creatures is the National Wild Horse and Burro Center in Palomino Valley, north of Sparks.
While nothing can compare to the sight of a band of wild horses galloping across wide open range land, at the Palomino Valley Center you can get close to these often elusive phantoms of the purple sage.
Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Palomino Valley Center consists of a series of large corrals and pens that can accommodate as many as 2,000 wild horses and burros at one time (although you usually find only a few hundred at this time of year).
The facility prepares 3,500 to 4,000 wild horses and burros for adoption each year. The busiest time of year is in the late summer and early fall, after the BLM has conducted its main round-ups for the year.
The horses are gathered during the round-ups and put up for adoption to prevent them from overgrazing the range.
While the center's main purpose is to house and prepare the animals prior to their adoption, it also serves as a good place to learn something about the nature of wild equines.
Nevada has about 24,000 wild horses, more than any other state (there are about 44,000 throughout the country). While there are lots of theories for how horses were introduced to the American West, historians agree that most of today's wild mustangs and burros are descendents of animals that were abandoned or escaped into the wilds during the past century.
Over the years, wild horses in particular have become a romantic symbol-they are the untamed, free spirits of the American West. They've been made famous in dozens of books, such as Will James' classic novel, "Smoky the Cowhorse," about a Nevada mustang.
A few of the best places in this area to spot wild horses are in the foothills outside of Dayton and Mound House and in the valleys north of Virginia City and south of Interstate 80. There are also thousands of wild horses in the valleys around Austin, Eureka and Tonopah.
Of course, one of the best things about the Palomino Center is that you don't have to go driving around the state hoping to spot a band of wild horses. Another nice aspect is that the BLM staff offers guided tours of the facilities upon request.
Staff members note that visitors often have misconceptions about wild horses. For instance, some believe a wild horse can't be trained. The truth is that they can be domesticated if properly trained and, in fact, make excellent ranch and show horses.
In addition to freeze-marking the animals and providing them with food and medicine to help them get healthier (remember, these animals have subsisted on wild grasses for years), BLM wranglers often work with the horses prior to adoption to prepare them for training by their eventual owners.
A few years ago, I visited the center and watched with fascination as one BLM cowboy slowly walked into a pen with a horse that had only been in the center for two weeks. He explained how he watched for the telltale body language indicating the horse feels threatened and will attack.
Within a few minutes, using only patience and a few soft words, he had calmed the horse and was scratching it on the nose.
Wandering around the various pens offers an opportunity to appreciate these animals. Skittish when you approach, the horses will resume eating or even pose for you if you stand still long enough. However, don't try to feed them or pet them because, after all, they are wild animals and will bite.
Adopting a wild horse is relatively easy. The potential horse owner must complete an application form, show proof to the BLM that he or she has proper facilities for the animal and pay a $125 adoption fee.
The adopter also agrees to maintain the horse for at least one year, after which the BLM will give the adopter legal title to the animal, provided the horse has been given good care.
The Palomino Center adopts out 100 to 200 horses and a handful of burros per year, with the rest shipped to regional adoption centers in other states such as Colorado, Nebraska, and Arizona.
In recent years, the BLM has conducting televised adoptions with potential owners bidding on horses. Details about these TV adoptions can be found on the BLM web site, www.blm.gov/whb.
The National Wild Horse and Burro Center in Palomino Valley is located about 15 miles north of Sparks on the Pyramid Lake Highway (State Route 445). The center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, except holidays. For more information call 775-475-2222.
Richard Moreno is the author of The Backyard Traveler and The Backyard Traveler Returns, which are available at local bookstores.