Educational Series: Wild Horses are Being Persecuted and Squeezed Out of the West

By Nick Engelfried
Few images evoke the wide open spaces of the American West like a herd of wild mustang horses. Wild horses occupy a special place in the culture and history of this country–but their ability to continue roaming free on the plains of the West is far from guaranteed. For more than a hundred years wild horses have suffered from persecution and abuse, and today their fate is perhaps more in question than ever before. To truly understand the challenges facing these remarkable animals in the present, though, we must take a look at their conflict-torn past.

Members of the horse family first evolved in North America tens of millions of years ago, when dog-sized relatives of today’s horses roamed the grasslands alongside other long-extinct animals. Ancient horses are thought to have migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge into Eurasia, only to disappear from their continent of origin by about eleven thousand years ago. For more than ten thousand years North America was without horses. Only with the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 1500s did they return, transported across the Pacific Ocean in ships as domestic animals.

While the Spanish brought the first domestic horses, their spread across the North American continent was hastened by Indigenous people who traded with the Spanish and soon acquired herds of horses of their own. Horses soon became an integral part of some Native cultures. Indeed, they became such an important part of life in the American West that it is easy to forget they were ever absent from this continent’s prairies and high deserts.

Horses who escaped from herds managed by people–whether Native American or colonist–formed the first wild populations the continent had seen in over ten thousand years. They formed self-sustaining populations that became known as mustangs, and coexisted alongside bison, pronghorn antelope, and other animals native to the plains. But by the early twentieth century, the open lands of the West had been irreparably altered in ways that affected wild horses and all other animals living on them. As more and more land became designated for livestock ranching, urban areas, or extraction of natural resources, the land available to horses steadily shrank.

At the same time, other threats to wild horses were multiplying. In the absence of any laws to protect them, herds were hunted for their meat, the dog food industry, and even for sport. Over a million horses were taken out of the wild to serve in World War I. Like the bison, which almost went extinct around the same time, it seemed that wild mustangs were in danger of disappearing forever.

By the middle of the twentieth century, growing numbers of people were becoming concerned about the elimination of wild places and the creatures who inhabit them. One of the key figures in the fight to save mustangs was Velma Johnston, an activist who was horrified after observing the plight of mustangs that had been rounded up for the meat industry. Johnston and others launched a grassroots campaign to protect the last wild mustangs, which had at one time numbered some two million but by then dwindled to a population estimated at less than twenty thousand. Countless ordinary citizens spoke up in support of the embattled animals, flooding Congress with tens of thousands of letters. As a result, in 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.

The 1971 Act instructed federal agencies to manage public lands in a way that sustains wild horse populations, while banning the use of motorized vehicles to chase down mustangs (although the law was later amended to allow some forms of motorized roundups). While this put a stop to the wholesale slaughter of mustangs, it did not truly solve the central problem: that the area of land where horses could run free was still shrinking steadily.

In fact, one unintended side effect of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was that horse populations, now protected from hunters, were allowed to grow even as the size of their territory decreased. The Bureau of Land Management (the federal agency that manages most of the land where wild horses live) has attempted to solve this problem by rounding up thousands of wild horses and putting them up for adoption. However, there are simply not enough people looking to adopt mustangs; as a result, tens of thousands of once-wild horses remain trapped in feedlot-style holding pens far away from the open plains where they were born. While a lucky few may be given a better life on the land of a caring horse owner, the majority will never be adopted and will die under these sad conditions.

Mustangs are not, strictly speaking, an animal “native” to North America the way an elk or bison is. Although their ancestors did indeed evolve on this continent, mustangs are descended from generations of domesticated horses whose resemblance to the original wild horse has been at least partially bred out of them. Even so, wild mustangs today have re-adapted to life on the plains. Wild herds have a complex social structure, usually consisting of one adult stallion and as many as eight mares and their foals. These family-based groups are unceremoniously ripped apart when the horses are taken into captivity.

Wild mustangs have become a scapegoat, blamed for everything from competing with cattle and other livestock to degrading public lands as their populations grow larger than the land can support. What is easy to lose sight of among all the politics, however, is that the reason there isn’t more room for horses to roam free is that public lands have largely been designated for other purposes already. While wild mustangs–even at their current “overpopulated” level–number in the thousand, millions of domestic cows graze public lands so private cattle ranchers can make a profit. The political clout of the livestock industry is a large part of why there is not more room for mustangs.

While there may be no easy solution to the plight of the mustang, there are things animal lovers can do to help. One of the easiest and most important is to let your elected representatives know you care about wild horses and want federal lands to be managed in a way that supports their continued existence. And while most of us cannot responsibly adopt and care for a horse, if this is something you have the means to do you can make a vast difference to the lives of individual mustangs.

For hundreds of years, mustangs have been seen as a symbol of the open, wild spaces of the American West. They have survived up to the present despite persecution, shrinking habitat, and competition from the powerful livestock industry. While their fate now may be uncertain, it is the tireless advocacy of animal lovers that has helped keep them from disappearing. With our continued help, these icons of the plains can continue roaming the plains for many years to come.

Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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