As wranglers move the mustangs from trucks into corrals, the smell of warm dust and bunched horses rises from the fair grounds on the outskirts of this old mining town. There's excitement in the air as the jittery stallions and mares (some with foals) sort out their new surroundings.
Folks in boots, cowboy hats, and denim note the animals' behavior and conformation, jotting down their favorites. Although they try not to show it, some of them are jittery too. They've come to connect with - and perhaps purchase - a bit of Western history and tradition.
The horses here are wild, descended from Indian ponies and cavalry mounts, from the stock left behind or turned loose by settlers, and some perhaps from north African horses brought to the new world by 16th-century Spanish explorers. Captured by federal government wranglers, they're available for $125 each to those qualified to take them home.
Mariann Schoennauer, who was raised in Texas and now lives on a ranch in Happy Camp, Calif., ticks off the physical characteristics that make these animals so attractive to someone who works with horses: "They're small, they're strong, they're smart, they have tough feet. They're easy keepers. You don't have to pamper them."
But there's something more. "They're wild and free," says Ms. Schoennauer, a former backcountry ranger for the US Forest Service who now leads pack trips into wilderness areas in the nearby Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. "They really represent the freedom that Americans fought and died for. They're our heritage."
"The spirit they have is different," says Rae Parker, who's here with her family hoping to go home to Big Springs, Calif., with the year-old filly that speaks to her heart. "There's a freedom and pureness to them."
The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse program is controversial, involving animal rights and environmental questions. These beasts breed rapidly all across the Great Basin, and they have no natural predators except the occasional mountain lion. Their numbers, now totalling about 42,000, are increasing by about 20 percent a year (which means they could double in just 3 to 4 years).
Since they originally come from domesticated stock, they are actually feral and not truly wild. (Native North American horses were wiped out by predators - including the first human inhabitants - thousands of years ago.) Since wild horses compete with both wildlife and cattle for grass and water, this is one of the few issues where the Sierra Club and ranchers agree that a species needs to be controlled.
Until the Wild Horse and Burro Act became law in 1971, many of these animals ended up as dog food or as dinner in countries (such as France) where horse is a delicacy. Some critics say the BLM still fails to prevent this from happening.
The BLM can't control what happens once the horses become private property. But officials say that a one-year waiting time and periodic inspections before adopters gain title to the horses make it economically impractical to then sell wild horses as a food commodity. Also, the agency recently banned people from using power of attorney to adopt large numbers of horses.
"In the past our investigators found that some people who obtained large numbers of animals by using powers of attorney from others did so to resell the animals for slaughter," says BLM director Pat Shea. "This rule removes that option." Aware of its image, the agency these days is even careful about the verbiage it employs in describing the program. Wild horses obtained across the rural West are "gathered," not "captured," explains BLM spokesman Jeff Fontana. They are to be "gentled" using "resistance-free" methods, not "broken."
"Breaking" mustangs, as in Hollywood's version of the Old West, is not necessarily just a thing of the past. As a short, muscular man with "Carlos" tooled into his leather belt scrambles to secure two horses into his trailer, his wife observes: "He likes a hot horse."
But most people here agree that it takes gentle persuasion rather than brute force to train a wild mustang, many of which become mounts for park rangers, police officers, and the Marine Corps Mounted Colorguard.
"It's a process of trust," says Tim Morton, whose grandfather came to California in a covered wagon. "You start by letting them smell everything, always talking to them in a low voice. Ninety percent of the battle is their learning you're not going to hurt them."
"I grew up riding these guys," says Mr. Morton. "They're absolutely the best."