The horses trotting near the ducks, geese and cattle at Millard A. Oland's 139-acre farm near Damascus create a peaceful pastoral scene.

It is difficult to imagine that they are descendants of mustangs -- wild horses that once roamed the West in large herds and now survive on a smaller scale.

Oland's horses are among 35 in Maryland that have found "foster homes" under the "Adopt-a-Horse" program run by the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Public outrage over the government's shooting of "excess" mustangs and burros to control their populations helped pass the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act and create the Adopt-a-Horse program in late 1974.

Since the program started, more than 20,000 mustangs and burros have been adopted around the country, most of them by farms in the West. Virginians have adopted 71 of them. Far fewer burros than mustangs have been moved under the program.

Oland was the first Easterner to adopt one of the wild horses. His son brought a stallion and three mares back from the first roundup in Oregon in 1974.

Recently, Oland also became the first Easterner to get title to one of the 3,600 wild horses now in the East.

Under new BLM policies, people who adopt the wild animals receive title to them if they provide humane care for one year. The owners then may sell the animals or give them away.

Before the policy was revised, the federal government retained ownership even though the animals were adopted.

Most mustang and burro colts are said to be as easy to break and train as domestic horses. But BLM, in its "Getting Acquainted With Your Wild Horse" brochure, warns that "breaking a wild horse or burro to ride requires considerable time and patience" and recommends that only professional trainers attempt it.

Oland says he has no interest in breaking his mustangs for riding or working.

"I just like to look at them," he said. "You can't put your hands on them or get close. But then they haven't caused me any trouble, either, and they haven't cost me anything -- except a bit of hay in winter."

When getting the horses, Oland's only cost was for transporting them from Oregon. There is no charge for the animals, but no more than four can be adopted each year.

BLM operates a distribution center near Nashville at which the animals can be obtained for the cost of transporting them to the center -- $145 for horses and $120 for burros.

Since 1974, the 65-year-old Oland has adopted several more wild horses from Nevada ranges and arranged for others to be transferred from other Eastern farms to his own. In addition, seven foals have been born at his farm.

Another Montgomery County resident, Helen Polinger, whose farm near Norbeck is home for 70 horses, has two 8-year-old mustang geldings she said she took as a favor. Now, she wishes she hadn't.

"You just can't break an 8-year-old wild horse," Polinger said. "We fooled with them. But you can hardly get close enough to get burrs off them or a saddle on them.

"We did get a saddle on one, but then he broke through the fence and galloped out and up Georgia Avenue. These two were among the survivors of a stampede over a cliff," Polinger said, "but I'd love to get rid of them. oYou don't know anyone who wants two wild horses?"

Marilyn Grubbs, who owns a horse farm in Round Hill, Va., has had better luck with her three young mustangs -- two fillies and a colt -- from the Wyoming ranges.

"They're already halter-broken and we hope to break them all for riding," Grubbs said. "The fillies are very gentle. I hope to breed them to my quarter horses. (They) could make very good endurance horses. They're all smart and have extremely strong legs and very good feet."

Besides the horse-and-burro adoption program, the private, nonprofit Fund for Animals, headed by Cleveland Amory, has begun its own burro-rescue project in the Grand Canyon. There the National Park Service had been shooting wild burros that were destroying the fragile and sparse plant life of the canyon.

The group this summer carried out by helicopter 50 of the canyon's 300 burros and hopes to capture the rest this fall. The canyon burros are being kept on a Texas ranch and are expected to be adopted largely by farmers in the South and West.

For further information on the governement program write Adopt-a-Horse, Dept. 634H, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. For information about the Grand Canyon program write Fund for Animals, 140 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.