“…that Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
-Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
At the National Wild Horse and Burro Center in Palomino Valley, twenty miles north of Reno, the equines while away the hours pacing back and forth in their spacious pens, eating hay, drinking water, staring off to the surrounding mountains. Handlers come and go—a few visitors, too, keen on seeing the iconic wild horse before all the wild’s gone out of her. This is the animals’ introduction to domesticity, the stepwise cessation of their feral ways. Some will be adopted, some sold; the rest will live out the remainder of their days here. There are more than a thousand of them ambling about the 160-acre facility. Many have a haunted aspect, as if an inner, freer part of them has died—and in a very real sense, it has.
In that storied landscape of the western United States, all bobbing hills and verdant prairies and braided rivers, where buckskin-clad whites fought mightily to subdue native and nature alike—both recalcitrant, obstreperous, prone to troublemaking—struggling through parched deserts and mile-wide canyons, up forbidding passes wreathed in cloud and draped in snow—onto this hallowed ground of the American psyche, one four-legged creature trots dutifully to mind, as if (see epigraph above) by fiat. It canters, gallops in the imagination. It is not the pronghorn, the buffalo, though they were contenders for a time. It is not the wolf, coyote, or bear. It is Equus ferus caballus, the wild mustang. That of supple flank, flowing mane and lustrous hide, long of limb and fleet of foot, its unbound herds flowing hither and yon across the American plain. There is no animal more emblematic of the West than the mustang. There is no Western animal that sparks more controversy, acrimony, or ad hominem rhetoric than the mustang. It is exalted. It is vilified. It is misrepresented, overrepresented; it is so contorted in the public eye that all one sees is either a scapegoated symbol of American freedom or an eight-hundred-pound lawnmower with hooves.
The equine legacy in North America goes back a long way—some 50 million years—but it is a broken lineage, rent by geologic time, climatic shift and the meddling hand of humanity. It began, suitably enough, with Eohippus, the “dawn horse,” a dog-sized creature mucking around the humid swamps and forests of the continent’s interior 55 million years ago—the Ypresian stage of the Eocene. The dawn horse was eclipsed by successively larger species: Orohippus, Mesohippus and Miohippus in the Oligocene, Merychippus and Pliohippus in the Miocene, Dinohippus later. Each grew closer in mien to the modern horse, their snouts and legs lengthening, their teeth adapting to the changing vegetation from foliage to browse, their toes paring down from four to three to one. The latest incarnation—that is, the Equus genus, including all extant horses, asses and zebras—appeared between four and five million years ago. For reasons not known, horses vanished from the Americas around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene—the dawn of human encroachment on the continent. Crossing the Bering land bridge from Eurasia, those adventurous souls stepped into a whole New World, full of big, killable animals. It was as if the humans and horses swapped places. Modern equines persisted in Europe, Asia and Africa—presumably reaching the Old World on that same quondam bridge.
It was not until 1493 that the Americas would see the return of its horses: Columbus, in his quest for the East Indies, brought hundreds to Hispaniola in multiple sailings; other Spanish explorers would likewise traverse the mainland astride their remudas, from Baja to Boca Raton. Every emigrant passing from worlds Old to New seemed destined to bring along a horse. Thus E. caballus was reintroduced to the continent, burgeoning under the Spanish crown, the British crown, among others. Fast, intelligent, dependable, the horse was invaluable as a mount—a huge, lithe beast, a solid pack animal, a sinewy frothing pedestal from which to terrorize the awestruck natives. New Spain—that colonial expanse spreading across much of the western Americas in the sixteenth century—was rife with Spanish horses. By 1598 the conquistador Juan de Oñate had established a horse breeding program in present-day New Mexico, entrusting his many indigenous slaves with their care and training. The slaves took to stabling quite handily. Before long, horses began disappearing with slaves on their backs. In the late 1600s, the mounted native was well-known throughout the West. Tribes savvy in the saddle—the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Sioux—made a habit of raiding Spanish settlements of horses to replenish their herds. They would subject to similar treatment westward settlers, American cavalry, and each other—equines were currency, a status symbol, worth fighting and dying for. Horses frequently escaped from these captors, formed roving bands of their own. This was the dawn of the wild mustang.
Fast-forward to the late nineteenth century, Nevada. Wild horses are plentiful here as nowhere else in the West, and their numbers are a vexation on the ever-growing ranching interests. Sheep and cattle compete with horses for grass and water. Ranchers, with their considerable clout, pressure the state legislature into passing a law, in 1897, that allows for the unrestricted killing of “unbranded horses [which are] worthless and overly abundant” on public land. A bounty is placed on unclaimed mustangs; collectors accept pairs of lopped-off ears as proof of deed. Perhaps inevitably, people start killing branded horses and passing them off as wild. Horse owners are understandably upset. In 1901 the law is repealed.
Some two million wild horses populate the western range during this period. A million are captured and shipped to Europe for the First World War. Tens of thousands are captured and shipped to processing plants in California to feed dogs and foreigners. Railroads offer a special reduced rate for shipping these horses: Euphemistically called “chicken feed,” those destined for slaughter drink no water on their journey—it isn’t provided—and thus costs are cut. In 1905 Allen Bragg, editor of the Silver State, visits a processing plant and writes:
“There comes…a St. Louis horse buyer, looking for fat mustangs and range horses. The fat mustangs go into the eastern soup vat, the ‘corned beef’ can, the bones and blood into fertilizers to enrich the soil east of the Rockies and west of the Sierras, the hide into leather, and the mane and tail into bristles and brushes.”
American dogs in 1923 eat more than 150,000 pounds of tinned meat—a mélange of horse, mule, burro and mysterious, unquantified others. In seven years the consumption has shot up to 23 million pounds. Putting horsemeat into cans leads to a new, uniquely Western profession: mustanging, the practice of rounding up wild horses on horseback for slaughter. Mustangers pursue their quarry for pleasure and for profit; their methods vary from place to place. In Nevada it becomes popular to use a “Judas horse”—a trained stallion that lures harems of females into corral traps. With increased demand comes increased maltreatment—the specter of animal cruelty is raised. A number of laws pass, including the aforementioned Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which seek to protect wild horses from abuse. It is the dawn of the modern mustang and thus its crisis, its contention.
Fast-forward to today, the Western states. More than 37,000 wild horses inhabit public lands under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. More than half of those horses are found in Nevada. The BLM has created hundreds of what it calls “herd management areas” across ten states, tracts of land in which the number of horses present is weighed against the carrying capacity of the area. That is, calculations are made to ensure that all the animals present on said tract—be they cows, sheep, or wild horses—have enough to eat and drink. As ever, private interests prevail: sheep and cows belong to people, and are thus sacrosanct; the horses belong to no one. So if there isn’t enough to go around, the BLM conducts what it delicately describes as “gathers”—essentially modern-day mustanging using all the modern amenities, including helicopters to frighten horses into pens. Sometimes these mustangers shoot contraceptive-filled darts at females to lower the herd’s fertility. The end result is that herd size is reduced. The detainees, however, are not slaughtered as in days of yore; they are put into holding pens, such as the one in Palomino Valley.
It is a curious fact that while the West is home to 37,000 horses “wild and free-roaming,” unfettered by humankind, some 50,000 “gathered” ones spend their days locked in captivity, plucked from the plains and cared for by the BLM at taxpayer expense. Their Wild Horse and Burro Program—the entity that gathers and stables these animals and readies them for sale and adoption by the public—costs $78 million each year, double the program’s initial outlay of a decade ago. Adoption rates have since fallen, sales have fallen. Nevada sent away 70 adoptees in 2012 and sold zero. The program is hemorrhaging money; the BLM refuses to auction off the horses for slaughter. The program inspires intense hatred among many lovers of horses. Its practices—the gathers, the data marshaled to back them up—are anathema to the equine-inclined.
What should be done with the horses? Below is a smattering of quotes assembled to give the reader a glimpse into this long-standing debate. Because several of those I’ve talked to about wild horses are BLM employees wishing to speak frankly, they will remain anonymous here. The issues at hand are multifaceted and difficult to parse; it is impossible to fully encapsulate the range of sentiment that runs deeply throughout. Hopefully these provide a modicum of understanding.
“They’re an invasive species, plain and simple.”
“We allow cattlemen and hunters to shoot wolves, bobcats and other animals that would prey on horses. Then we scream that horse populations are increasing. How about letting nature take care of itself?”
“Since there are numbers of wild horses still alive, I can assure you they’ve adjusted pretty well to the North American ecology. Cattle aren’t native to North America, either, but they’re profitable.”
“The BLM, unfortunately, is in a ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ sort of situation when it comes to wild horses.”
“The BLM would like to see wild horses gone, because with no wild horses, end of problem…Wild horses will be managed to extinction.”
“Horses scare wildlife away from water sources…they stand guard at the springs and they chase off the pronghorn, the deer, the bighorn sheep.”
“Ranchers hate the horses because they compete with their cows, and the ranchers have the BLM’s ear. That’s really the core of it.”
“The result of overpopulated horse herds is seen day in, day out by the ranchers and recreationalists who are out there. Starving horses, crippled horses. Yes, wild horses are iconic of the American West. They were once majestic animals to be seen out on the deserts of the Western United States. However, uncontrolled and mismanaged, they have become a breed that is no longer desirable.”