It's not always easy being a foster parent, especially if your ward is a wild horse.

They eat just about anything in sight, but turn up their noses at handouts of oats and barley. And the unwary new owner may get bruised and nipped in the process of establishing a proper parental relationship.

Thousands of wild horses facing starvation on the country's drought-stricken Western ranges have been corraled by the federal government and put up for adoption. The horses cannot be shot or sold because they are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

"You have to keep your eyes on them," said Jay Sheffer, 33, owner of two wild horses. "They may try to nip at you a little bit at first. My cott got me on the behind the other day, but it didn't hurt much."

He got the horses by filling out an Adopt-a-Horse application attesting to his ability to car for them. The only cost was transportation to pick up the horses at a government corral in eastern Oregon.

Sheffer, a bank vice president, keeps the colt and a 5-year-old mare on his 22-acre home about 45 miles from Portland. They broke through the first corral he built and destroyed several neighbours' fences before they were recaptured.

He said the horses are not ready for riding yet, but "they are gentling down. They have to learn when you walk up that you're not going to do anything so they don't roar off and charge fences."

Larry Lee, wild horse coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and Washington, said most people have been happy with the horses and many came back for more.

He said a Eugene, Ore., man is helping the bureau by running his won adoption service. He gets the horses, breaks them in and help find them homes, charging only a fee to cover his expenses.

Lee said more than 1,000 horses rounded up in eastern Oregon have been adopted since the program began in 1974. Hudnreds more are in corrals at Vale and Burns, including some aging studs that Lee described as the "hard to place" cases.

Del and Norma Wiley of Portland adopted a stud along with a mare and a colt. They keep the horses in a pasture near the edge of the city.

Her 20-year-old daughter, Roberta, said she rides the horses almost every day. She said at first the starving wild animals preferred to eat the willow tree in the pasture, blackberry vines and anything else they could find except the grain the Wileys offered them.

"Now they eat out of our hands," she said. "If you turned them loose, they'd be in everyone's back yard looking for handouts."