By 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, Sandi Bartolotti has zeroed in on three or four horses she wants to take home. No. 5776, for example -- a 1-year-old from Nevada -- has nice length in his neck, a flat forehead and calm eyes.
"And he looked at me," Bartolotti says. "You may just look at one and it may look at you and say, 'Take me home.' See. He's already looked at me again."
A deliberate woman with a ponytail, Bartolotti likes a challenge. She is among the last takers at the federal Bureau of Land Management wild-horse adoption in Ocala. The horse she eventually decides to take home will require patience, love and a knowledgeable guide to acclimate it to domestic life. These are things that Bartolotti says she has a lot of.
Nearly 45,000 wild horses -- called mustangs -- wander federal land in Nevada, California and Arizona. Their population grows by 18 percent to 25 percent every year. Land in the Southwest is dry from fire and drought. By most estimates, it can support only 27,000 horses. The Bureau of Land Management's solution to the overpopulation is horse auctions. They're held in 31 states, including three this year in Florida. Through the adoption program, bureau officials place 10,000 horses a year in private homes for as little as $25 each, though most cost about $125.
"The adoption program is the only tool the Bureau of Land Management has to remove the excess wild horses off the public ranges," says Vicky Craft, the adoption supervisor. "The animals are very prolific. There are no natural predators out there and they're competing for grasses with bighorn sheep and cows."
In 1971, Congress passed an act giving the bureau control of wild horses. Before then, Craft says, the animals were rounded up by "mustangers" and sold for their meat.
"Hey, little guy," Bartolotti coos, kneeling in the dirt beside a corral at the Ocala Equestrian Complex. No. 5776 comes up to her, sniffs and nudges her hand with its nose. It's a treat many people don't experience for days, weeks -- even months -- after they take a mustang home.
Although she thinks the horse is sweet and good-looking, Bartolotti isn't sold. When she finds the right mustang, she'll know it, she says.
By 11 a.m. that Sunday, the bureau has found homes for more than 135 of the 165 horses it brought here for adoption.
Logan Mobley, 12, and his parents of Roberta, Ga., own three new mustangs.
"I'm going to love them and try to help them with some of the groundwork," Logan says, explaining how at first he will hand-feed the horses and touch them as he feeds them, so they get used to his hands. Then, he will use plastic bags, umbrellas and milk cartons filled with rocks to "de-spook" the horses and get them used to whatever might come up on a trail ride or out in the pasture.
The training process is vastly different with a mustang than with a horse born in captivity, mustang trainers say. Domesticated horses are "broken" in training, meaning their trainers force the horses to submit so they will take commands more easily. Wild horses will not submit because in the wild, they learn to stay alive by remaining defiant. The process with mustangs -- called gentling -- is more like a friendship, based on trust. Mustangs will listen only when they want to.
"What you're trying to do is have them love you," explains Logan.
Once the Mobleys' new horses are gentled, Logan's dad will breed them.
"Most people are scared of 'em," Scott Mobley says. "I'm not. It's an American tradition. I'm a fanatic about American-made. You can't get no more American than a mustang."
Sandi Bartolotti hasn't made her decision. She leans into a corral, her leg up on a metal post, checking the horses' availability by comparing numbers they wear around their necks to a list in her hand.
Bartolotti, who runs a chicken farm with her husband, Ken, has had mustangs before -- 10 years ago. One of them was gentled and competed in endurance trail rides within four months of its adoption. Others were more difficult. The Bartolottis now show Tennessee walking horses. They have no children, but they believe they make good parents -- and today they'll pick another child.
Bartolotti, who could easily buy another purebred horse, is drawn to the mustang story.
"They're a part of history, a living legend," she says. "Just look in a history book -- transportation, farming, Paul Revere's ride, the Civil War. The horse has helped mankind out. This is just our way of helping them."
No. 5523, a mare from Nevada, nuzzles up to two other horses in its corral. The horse is plain looking with black hair that creeps up its legs and fades into a bright brown.
"She's cute," Bartolotti says, and puts out her hand to the horse. The horse sniffs, doesn't touch and then backs away. "I'll take her."
Bartolotti ducks into the office and returns to the corral with a yellow slip of paper -- No. 5523, now named Sweet Pea in hopes she'll live up to the name, belongs to the Bartolottis.
In the end, Bartolotti says her maternal instincts helped her choose. Skinny and a bit frail, Sweet Pea has good proportions, bright eyes and a steady step. She looks tired and hungry, Bartolotti says.
"A lot of people would say, 'Why would you want a horse with an unknown background?' I can't say he's sired by a world champion. These horses, what you see is what you get. They've had to survive on their own for so long. But it's the challenge of a mustang," Bartolotti says, smiling at her husband.
"What's life without a challenge?" he asks her. "No reason to get up if you don't have something to try out."
For more information about adopting horses, call 1-888-274-2133.