Smokey puts up a fuss when Irina Scully tries to lead him through a narrow corridor from the barn to the indoor ring. The two-year-old Coldsmoke-colored gelding isn't accustomed to taking directions from a 5-foot-4-inch human.
Scully, a 19-year-old forestry major at the University of Montana, pulls the lead rope, cajoling Smokey into a couple of tight circles before pointing him toward the entrance of the ring again. They go through flawlessly.
Roany, a strawberry-colored mustang, is already inside. Jordan Clutter, a 20-year-old education and history major at UM, walks him around on a lead rope, ushering him through "the waterfall" - a hanging blue tarp cut into strips. The waterfall is there to desensitize Roany to the variety of things he'll encounter in his partnership with Clutter.
As wild mustangs from Oregon's Stinkingwater Herd Management Area, one of about 200 places in the West where wild mustangs are allotted habitat on federal rangeland, Roany and Smokey had never seen tarps or heard the crackling tarp noises.
At 800 and 1,000 pounds respectively, Smokey and Roany don't seem like the best animals for two college juniors like Scully and Clutter to adopt. Plenty of college kids can't keep a fish alive for a whole semester. But for both girls, horses run in their blood, and the chance to adopt and train a wild mustang for college credit was too good to pass up.
"I've always been kind of crazy about the whole mustang thing, and this guy sort of just fell in my lap," Scully says as she leads Smokey around the barn. The barn sometimes spooks him, so Scully encourages her mustang to poke around so he can learn nothing bad is going to happen to him there.
The waterfall is only one part of a learning boot camp for the mustangs. The goal of the training is to get the horses to trust humans, which is a considerable mission because the horses' go-to defense mechanism in the wild is to flee as fast and far away as possible.
During Roany's first week in Montana last March, he jumped a six-foot fence to get away from humans and back to the other five newly arrived mustangs at the Treasure State Equestrian Center in Lolo.
But both horses are making progress in their budding relationships with people. And both girls are earning their mustangs' trust.
Because of the long life spans and high rates of reproductive success of wild horses, the Bureau of Land Management has to periodically cull mustang herds to keep them from overgrazing their terrain. Smokey and Roany were two of the mustangs removed from the Stinkingwater range this spring in a roundup aimed at downsizing the herd.
"The wild horses out there don't have a lot of natural predators, so they have a steady rate of increase in their populations," said Stephanie Kappes, the horse trainer who brought Smokey and Roany to Montana. Kappes owns the Treasure State Equestrian Center in Lolo.
The BLM also uses birth control to manage herd numbers. At the Stinkingwater range in particular, mustangs are at odds with privately owned cattle for range and water resources. How the BLM manages wildlife versus cattle and other interests has an effect on wild horse herds across the West.
A provision in the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act protects animals in BLM custody from being sent to slaughterhouses, but at a time when BLM holding corrals are chock-full of mustangs waiting for adoption, some suspect the agency is covertly trying to pass their horse problems into the hands of other parties.
The BLM is adamant that horses rounded up on federal range do not go to slaughter. But a recent investigation by Dave Philips for ProPublica.org found that the BLM was selling horses for $10 a head to buyers who agreed to purchase in bulk.
According to ProPublica, a Colorado livestock man named Tom Davis is one of those buyers. He's bought 1,700 BLM mustangs since 2009, sight unseen, and insists they're going to good adoptive homes. In the same interview, he also noted some of the finest meat you can eat is a fat yearling colt.
Horse slaughter facilities still operate across U.S. borders in Mexico and Canada, and Davis has sold horses there before. Horses bought from Native American reservations are not subject to the same no-kill rules as the BLM, according to ProPublica.
Apart from the mustangs sold to buyers like Davis, the majority of mustangs and burros in BLM facilities exist in limbo. Many are too old or wild to be considered good adoption candidates, so they're held en masse until a better solution presents itself.
"We don't have any way to get rid of (mustangs) once they're in permanent holding," Kappes said.
Some mustangs are adopted at live auctions, and others are funneled into incentive programs for horse trainers like Kappes. By and large, most stay in holding. The number of wild horses in captivity now exceeds those in the wild.
"There is a place for them, but what that place is and what it means for the horses long term, I don't know," Kappes said.
Smokey and Roany are the remaining two of six mustangs that Kappes brought home to Montana from Stinkingwater in March. The other four have already been adopted out to Montana homes.
Kappes' equestrian background focuses primarily on jumping and dressage, but last year, mustangs got added to her resume when she was selected to compete in an Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.
In the competition, selected horse trainers around the country have the opportunity to train a randomly assigned mustang for 90 days. They then show off their handiwork in the arena against other trainers' mustangs at a competition for prize money. Kappes' first mustang was from Nevada, and by the end of their training he was pulling her son around the arena on a sled decked out as a boat while he pretended to fish out the sides.
The goal of the Mustang Makeover events is to stimulate the BLM's adoption program for wild horses. Since that event last year, Kappes has adopted out a total of nine mustangs. Clutter said she admires the work Kappes puts into mustangs.
"Nine can't save the world, but it can save a few," Clutter said.
Kappes is the instructor for UM's horseback-riding classes offered through the health and human performance department. She was able to design a one-credit curriculum for Scully and Clutter to learn horsemanship while training the two Oregon mustangs.
Clutter holds her dad accountable for passing her the horse bug. Her first time on a horse was at six weeks old, tucked into her dad's jacket. The junior also inherited her dad's passion for rodeo events like barrel racing. In this event, female riders race at breakneck speeds on horseback through a triangle of three upright barrels.
"In my crystal ball for Roany, I totally see him as a barrel horse," Clutter said. "It's in his genetics to run, and hopefully I can harness that from a fear tactic to an 'I-wanna-go! I-wanna-run!' positive thing."
Adopting Roany wasn't a straightforward decision for Clutter. She already has two horses at home in Great Falls, and at a time when hay prices are through the roof because of an ongoing drought in the West, adding a third horse to her quiver was a tough call.
"I talked to my dad about it, and he was the one who told me to think about what I really wanted to do," Clutter said. For barrel racers, having two horses ready at events is the norm.
Clutter put her older horse up for sale and decided to put her chips in with Roany. "Roany" is a stand-in name until Clutter comes up with something better. Roany is uncreatively short for "red roan," which is a mix of red and white hairs that give Roany a strawberry-colored appearance. Clutter's first horse, Rooster, was also a red roan, and her soft spot for Rooster was one of the small cues that gave her a gut feeling about Roany.
Since working with him, Clutter has seen a definitive improvement in his demeanor. She hopes to ride him in the coming weeks.
"I've taught him to give me space," Clutter said. "He respects me to the point he won't walk all over me."
Clutter and Scully try to work with their mustangs about two to three times a week. Smokey still needs some practice not walking all over his new human. He wasn't worked with as much as Roany when the mustangs were initially brought to Montana, so he has a bit of catching up to do. But that doesn't deter Scully.
"Some horses don't really care about people that much," Scully said. "Smokey strikes me as really reciprocal in his willingness to work."
Originally from North Carolina, Scully grew up around horses but had never trained one until now.
"Up until now, I've been really focused on my riding," Scully said. "The horses have been kind of training me as a rider. Now it's on me to make Smokey do what I want him to do."
Smokey and Scully's relationship has grown in the month they've been working together.
"There wasn't much of a connection in the beginning," Scully said. "But now he's really starting to pay attention. He comes up to me when I get there, he's responsive and he pays attention to my body language. It makes me excited that he's willing to connect with me."
Scully knew from the get-go she'd have to sell Smokey at the end of their training.
By adopting Smokey and Roany, Scully and Clutter have agreed to pay for the horses' veterinary and farrier expenses, in addition to a monthly boarding fee of $375 to keep them in Lolo.
"We only actually pay $175 per month. The rest we work off mucking pens," Scully said. She puts in about 20 hours a month at the Treasure State Equestrian Center in Lolo to offset some of the cost for Smokey's keep.
Selling Smokey would allow Scully recover some of the money she's put into him.
"I'm probably going to get more for him on the East Coast just because he is a mustang," Scully said.
She said she plans to truck him home at the end of the academic year. Since mustangs aren't as common out East, Scully hopes to dabble in the $2,000 to $3,000 price range in selling Smokey.
The opportunity to train a mustang is the real payoff for Scully. She's harbored a fascination with wild horses since childhood, and the chance to work with one in college was a dream come true.
When asked if she'd work with a mustang again, Scully laughed and said it could definitely be a good back-up career to the whole forestry thing.
As a BLM-certified mustang trainer, Kappes took four mustangs from the BLM's holding corrals in Oregon this spring under the auspices of the agency's Trainer Incentive Program, which allows mustang trainers to collect $700 a head for up to four horses after they've been gentled and adopted to good homes.
Seven hundred dollars a head may sound like a good deal, but once Kappes subtracts the expense of her trip out to Oregon plus the overhead cost of keeping the mustangs at her facility in Lolo while she's training them, she's operating in the red.
Smokey and Roany were originally adopted for Kappes' personal use, but an unplanned back surgery during the summer swayed her decision to adopt them out.
Even though Scully and Clutter have adopted Smokey and Roany off Kappes, their equine parenthood isn't official until March when they get the horses' ownership titles. One way the BLM cuts down on mustang slaughter is by establishing a one-year trial period for adoptive mustang owners. After a year, a BLM extension agent will see the horse is in good health before officially passing on the horse's title to the new owner.
Apart from the BLM employees and wranglers who assisted in the roundup, Kappes and her husband were the first two humans to interact with Roany and Smokey.
"The first thing we do is we let them take things in. You don't even try to touch them or capture them or frighten them," Kappes said. "I don't even know if I can put it into words, the amount of stress and trauma they endure until they learn that it's OK to be close to a human."
The initial training starts on a lead rope, where Kappes teaches mustangs their compliance to her demands results in a release of pressure. For example, if a horse pulls against her, she'll hold her ground until the horse takes a step forward, which will release the pressure on the lead rope. Even if a horse only gives an inch, Kappes will release pressure to teach it what she's looking for.
At two years old, Roany and Smokey are horse "teenagers." The most important thing Scully and Clutter can do is handle them as much as possible, Kappes said.
Both mustangs work on lunging, moving in a circle around the trainer on the end of a lead rope.
"Lunging is a tool we use in the round pen to exercise them effectively in their gaits - in a walk, trot or canter - in a circle around us," Kappes said.
During this session, Roany lunges in all three gaits around Clutter. Smokey is more focused on playing with the things Kappes set out to desensitize him. Scully brushes him with a currycomb and Smokey lowers his head to nibble at her grooming basket. Smokey has a habit of exploring new things with his mouth.
Both mustangs take a moment during their lesson to roll onto their backs and wiggle in the soft dirt in the indoor arena. Kappes said it's a good sign that both horses trust Clutter and Scully enough to enjoy a belly-up roll.
"Horses only do that when they feel comfortable and safe," Kappes said.
Every mustang is different, and Kappes molds their training to complement their individuality. She says Smokey is naturally a very confident, independent horse. His biggest challenge so far has been accepting Scully as a leader.
"Once Smokey knows what's expected of him, he's not afraid of anything," she said. "He's the type of horse you could shoot off of."
On the other hand, Kappes said Roany would probably do better as a hard-working ranch horse. His larger size implies some ranch-stock lineage.
"Roany's biggest challenge has been learning how to trust a human enough to stay instead of fleeing when he's scared," she said. He still hasn't totally shaken his wild upbringing, where flight is the tactic for escaping danger.
After about 45 minutes of working their horses, Clutter and Scully lead the mustangs outside to their pens and turn them loose. They each muck a couple pens before making the 25-minute drive to Missoula, back into the clutches of undergraduate life.
At Roany's pen, Clutter gently slips off her mustang's halter and offers him a peppermint candy. He snuggles her affectionately and she laughs, telling him his breath smells good.