Saturday, November 30, 2013


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

If you’re very quiet and very lucky, you might hear them on the wind or spot a herd running free through the dense morning mist in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and northern Nevada. Out in no man’s land, where population is scarce, where mountain streams and rivers are clear and the land remains untouched and untarnished. There was a time when their number could not be counted, when they ran free long before the numerous Native American tribes captured them and the white man settled in the American West.

The Eohippus (a prehistoric ancestor of the modern horse known as the ‘dawn horse’) roamed North America approximately 55 million years ago. Of course, the Eohippus was only the size of a dog, with toes instead of hooves and bore little resemblance to the majestic animals we call horses today.

Although considerably larger than a Eohippus, American Wild Horses weigh on average 1,000 pounds, with a lifespan of 25-30 years. Most are reddish brown with black manes, tails, and lower legs. Solid black, gray, and yellowish brown are other common colors. Some may have zebra-type stripes on the front legs, and even a stripe down their back. Yet, no matter the color or markings, they have a distinctively different look about them.

One witness to a herd of wild horses in Montana was quoted as saying, “They are like ghost horses from another era.” Another person who caught a glimpse of wild horses said, “I will remember the colors and sounds all of my life…they’re not the kind of horses I’m used to seeing.”

But where did these wild horses come from? How did they survive?

Their bloodline originated in Spain. They came to America with explorers who released the horses into the wild when they departed. Their numbers increased steadily over time. From 1600 to 1850, these herds of horses could be found from as far east as the Mississippi River, across the plains and mountain ranges of the west, and as far reaching as the Pacific Ocean.

In fact, one location inhabited for centuries by wild horses is located on a barrier island in the Gulf Coast of Texas. Herds of grazing horses were so prevalent on the island, it became known first as ‘Horse Island’ and later Mustang Island. Mustang Island is 18 miles long, and stretches from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi.

American Wild Horses are known for their intelligence, agility, strength, and endurance – all qualities bred into them in the wild as a means of survival. Indian tribes of the American West were the first to capture, break, and ride these wild horses, and they became an integral part of the livelihood and history of the Native American culture.

Sadly, the history of the wild horse is laced with cruelty and violence. Ranchers in the mid-1800s, who had already seized land from the Native Americans, viewed wild horses as a nuisance. The horses grazed on unfenced lands needed for their stock. As a result, the ranchers poisoned watering holes used by the wild herds. Since the stallion of each herd was the protector, constantly on watch to move his herd away from danger, he became a target, often blinded and rendered helpless – as would be the fate of his herd. As for the herds themselves, they were often chased off cliffs to their deaths. Even in Santa Barbara, California, herds were driven into the ocean to drown.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1897 the Nevada legislature passed a law “allowing any citizen to shoot a wild horse on sight”.

With the advent of the railroad in the 19th century, after 60 million buffalo were hunted to near extinction, guns of hunters were turned on the American Wild Horses as a means to alleviate ‘boredom’ on the long train ride.

The 20th century did not prove any better for the wild horses. In the 1920s, they became a food source for the pet food industry. In 1924 alone, 500 wild horses were being slaughtered each day. In 1928, 40,000 horses were slaughtered for pet food.

This mass destruction of wild horses steadily continued, reducing their number from 2.3 million in 1900 to 25,000 in the 1950s.

Then, in 1955, a Nevada woman named Velma B. Johnston orchestrated a movement (primarily with the aid of schoolchildren) to save the wild horses of the American West. For 18 years, Johnston (who became known as Wild Horse Annie), lobbied the State of Nevada and the federal government to stop the cruelty to the American Wild Horses.

Because of her efforts, the first federal law created to help stop cruelty to wild horses was passed in 1959. The Wild Horse Annie Act prohibited using aircraft and motor vehicles to capture mustangs and/or poison or pollute watering holes. It was a big step in the right direction, but a great deal more needed to be done.

In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, implementing federal law to protect, manage, and control wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands. The United States Congress declared wild free-roaming horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west”. As such, the capture, branding, harassment, or death of wild free-roaming horses and burros became illegal.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior, is responsible for wild free-roaming horses and burros, which includes managing the herds “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on public lands”. Yet, in order to keep a natural ecological balance, if over population exists on a designated area of public lands, the excess animals are removed from the range.

The original intent behind the thinning of the herd was to “restore a thriving natural ecological balance to the range”, and to “protect the range from deterioration associated with over-population.”

Initially, it was estimated the total number of wild horses and burros that could be sustained on allocated public lands was 28,849. In 2005, however, this number was reduced 20,000, which (according to an Amendment of the Act) means that the “Excess Animals” taken off the public lands may still be at risk for destruction. Although slaughter is not specified as the means to destroy these animals, the BLM may use a "humane, cost effective manner".

Unfortunately, atrocities are still happening, and even the government agency entrusted with preserving the American Wild Horses in their natural habitat seems to have lost its focus.

In Washoe County, Nevada (where none other than Velma B. Johnston was born) there is a 40,000 acre parcel of land known as the Massacre Lake Herd Management Area. This land has been designated for 25 years as home to a wild horse herd comprised of 160-180 animals. However, in September 2013, to accommodate a local rancher who wanted to graze his privately owned livestock on this public land, the BLM created a plan to remove 25-45 wild horses from this herd and send them to holding facilities, where they may or may not be adopted. Randomly selected, mares would be separated from nursing foals, as well as stallions from their family band.

Then, on 21 November 2013, it was reported that BLM would begin a massive roundup of wild horses on the 1.6 million acre Adobe Town Salt Wells Herd Management Area – once again, land designated as a preserve for American Wild Horses.

These roundups blatantly disregard the protective Act of 1971 and ignore the National Academy of Sciences recommendation concerning the welfare and future survival of the wild horse species inherent within each herd. Because wild horses are herd animals, they operate like a family unit comprised of one stallion and several mares along with their offspring. Apart from the trauma and physical risk to the horses during roundup, there are grave concerns regarding extinction of the particular DNA strain for the herd.

While most wild horses still have Spanish and Andalusian breed traits, DNA testing of some herds in remote areas showed they were descendants of Spanish horses from the 16th century.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) contends the BLM has orchestrated the roundup to benefit ranchers who enjoy taxpayer-subsidized grazing on these public lands where the wild horses live. It is believed this initial roundup is but the first Phase in a plan to “eliminate federally protected wild horses from 2 million acres of land in Wyoming”.

Once there were 303 herd areas where wild horses and burros were protected, able to run free in a safe habitat. Now, due to the ‘zeroing out policies of the BLM’, and special arrangements with private ranchers, there are only 184 … and that number continues to decline.

At the same time, an estimated 4.1 million domestic livestock belonging to ranchers are now grazing on public land that is supposed to be specifically reserved for the preservation of wild horses and burros in their natural habitat. There are over 17,500 public land ‘permit holders’ who graze their cattle and sheep on land designated to preserve the American Wild Horse.

Does anyone recognize the slippery slope we are on with regard to preserving American Wild Horses? Is this not a haunting reminder of the greed and ignorance that led to the near extinction of the American bison, or the countless broken promises and treaties between the Government and Native Americans?

Forty-two years ago, a federal law was passed to protect wild horses and burros from being hunted, rounded up, or slaughtered; to preserve their species in its natural habitat. Instead roundups are breaking up family herds, forcing these animals off land that should be preserved solely for them by law. And many of these "excess" or rounded up horses will never again run free.

Precautionary measures regarding the adoption process are also questionable. What steps are taken to ensure horses that are rounded up are adopted by responsible individuals dedicated to their welfare and preservation? Considering the amount of horse meat consumed as a delicacy in Japan and Western Europe, the threat of these animals being adopted by unscrupulous buyers who see dollar signs attached to each pound of horse meat, is a very real issue that cannot be ignored.

However, there is hope because of some wonderful organizations that are taking a stand to stop what is happening to the American Wild Horse. In central California, there is the 300-acre Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary. With unwavering dedication and compassion, they not only protect and preserve America’s wild horses, but strive to educate the public about these wonderful animals and their legacy.

Return to Freedom was the first sanctuary to rescue entire family bands of wild horses. They do not separate family bands or disrupt the natural behavior of the herds, which includes not castrating stallions into geldings. Their goal is not to destroy an already depleting genetic pool. Orphans horses that arrive are integrated into a family herd where they might thrive.

At present, six wild herds roam free across rolling pastures, separated by geographic origin to preserve their bloodlines. There are ten genetic strains to the wild horses at Return to Freedom, including rare Kiger horses, one of whom provided the inspiration for Spirit, the animated film by DreamWorks.

Return to Freedom is also home to the Wilbur-Cruce Spanish Colonial Mission horses, so rare they may be as few as 100 remaining. These horses are direct descendants from missionary Padre Kino’s herd that arrived in America during the late 1600s from Spain.

With their primitive markings of zebra-like stripes on the front legs and tri-colored manes, the Sulphur Springs herd has hereditary traits connected to the Iberian Sorraia, a rare species that dates back to 25,000 BC.

As the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary contends, there is little doubt that with every roundup that extracts horses from their genetic herd, “centuries of natural evolution are being erased.”

University of Kentucky Equine Geneticist, Dr. Gus Cothran, has stated “the minimum number of horses (and burros) protected in each herd management area (HMA) needs to be at least 150 animals” in order to preserve each species. Yet, about 70 percent of the HMAs will have fewer than 100 animals…and even that number continues to decline due to roundup plans.

At the present rate of decline, it is estimated that without intervention the American Wild Horse will be extinct by the end of this century. Yet there is hope to remedy this slippery slope and support organizations on the forefront of this fight to save American Wild Horses from being lost forever. With knowledge, comes power.

I truly appreciate you taking the time to visit and read this long post involving a matter of great concern to me personally as someone who has always loved horses, and as someone who believes in preserving history, including what remains of our natural wilderness and the animals who roamed free long before we were born. The American Wild Horse truly represents the Spirit of the West and their legacy must be preserved for future generations. I hope you agree. ~ AKB


Mustangs and Wild Horses – Gail Stewart, Capstone Press (1996)

All The Wild Horses: Preserving the Spirit and Beauty of the World’s Wild Horses – Dayton O. Hyde, Voyageur Press (2006)

American Wild Horse Preservation

Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary


  1. I am so glad to see someone fight for the preservation of wild horses in America. I hate to say it, but it seems the only concerns we have are in regards to money. God help any animals, no matter how precious, who get in the way. I find the knowledge that we have slaughter houses for horses in the USA appalling.
    I am a guardian member of several animal preservation groups and heard through them about the blatant abuse and destruction of wild American horses. The fight to save them never ends. This was a great post. I hope more eyes are opened.

  2. I had a difficult time reading this, and scanned a couple of places. It's just too horrible what man can do to any creature he can conquer--many more species than horses. I love to see horses in a field along the road--sometimes they are aging horses out there grazing and protected by someone's fences. Sometimes I see gorgeous healthy ones, and besides a newborn baby, there might not be anything so beautiful.
    But I am scared of horses. I got to right my uncle's palomino when I was about ten, but he walked beside and held the reins. I wasn't afraid of her--I knew she was gentle, and my uncles was right there.

    Remember the 1960 movie The Misfits? I've watched that probably 4-5 times, and it breaks my heart every time. Such cruelty, when the men didn't think of what they were doing as cruel. Only Marilyn Monroe's character cried for the animals.

    It's fortunate that wild horses are more protected every day. There's a horse sanctuary somewhere NE of San Marcos--can't recall the small town. A woman began it, and she's been on tv explaining how she gets the horses and how she brings them back to health. She always hopes someone will take one home with them.
    Superb post. Thanks so much.

  3. "The love of money is the root of all evil," and nowhere is that more apparent than in man's treatment of so-called "inferior" or "lesser" species. The hypocrisy and arrogance embodied in the euphemism "herd management" is sickening. Thanks for this post. Maybe it will make more people aware of what's being done to ameliorate an intolerable situation. :-)

  4. The horses are beautiful and it's such a shame they suffer so. When I think of wild horses I'm reminded of the movie MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER but I'm sure that is glamours compared to today. Thanks for the interesting post, Ashley.

  5. Thank you so much, Sarah J. It is appalling to think in the 21st century we have learned nothing about protecting animals, especially those at risk of extinction. I had no idea they were shot at with rifles by passing train passengers in the late 1800s, just for the so-called fun of it. And this on the heels of the buffalo massacres. It was commendable that citizens, including school children, took a stand in the 1950s and successfully lobbied for laws to protect and preserve these horses, only to see those same laws now muddied by greed. Once again it is up to the people to intervene and fight for the freedom and compassion these horses deserve, before they are lost forever.

  6. Hi Celia - I do remember the Misfits movie (Clark Gable's last film), and the scene in particular where they were trying to capture that beautiful horse while Marilyn Monroe's character was trying to stop them. The inhumanity of man was so stark in that film, and yet it continues. I appreciate the forum to share this information, and hope people will help support the horse sanctuaries that are working hard to preserve these rare horses. ((hugs))

  7. Hi Kathleen - Thank you for your comment, and you are spot-on in your analysis of the situation. I do hope that more people will become aware of this crisis, and do what they can to help the wild horses and the sanctuaries that are trying to ensure they healthy and free.

  8. Thank you, Linda. I appreciate you taking the time to read the post and comment. Not my usual fare on the blog, but I felt it was important to share this information.

  9. The wild horses are beautiful and full of grace. I wish their history wasn't such a sad part of history.

  10. Another great post. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Enlightening post, Ashley. Thanks for reminding us of the Mustangs plight.

  12. Ashley, thank you for reminding us just how precious and endangered our American wild horses are. It's such a shame that humans always think they have a right to eliminate any species that stands in the way of "progress" -- meaning the almighty bottom line for some individual or corporation.

  13. A very enlightening blog! I did not know about the plight of the wild horses. Thank you, Ashley, for educating us. I remember vividly watching a herd of wild horses in the AZ desert in 1970. It was an awesome experience and something I have never forgotten! Again, thank you.

  14. Thank you, Paisley. They are so beautiful, and I hope we all can bring awareness and make sure they run free and happy as they should.

  15. Thank you, Carra. I am sure you remember a time when wild Mustangs ran free on Mustang Island.

  16. Thank you for your comment, Lyn. It is heartbreaking that mankind has so little regard for nature and the animals who share this planet with us. And yet there is always hope that with greater awareness and compassion, things will change...before it is too late.

  17. Thank you so much, Karren. I truly appreciate your taking the time to comment and share your wonderful memory of seeing wild horses in their natural habitat. An amazing site that few of us will ever see unless we make a difference.


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