In my free time, I have been getting my master’s degree in Agriculture Education, Leadership and Communications. Yes, it is a mouthful and it is also a lot of work. My most recent master’s degree project was about how mustangs have been romanticized and designated the spirit of the West by legislation, a designation that has led to their plight.
I’d like to share some of my thoughts and readings on it, because it is a pretty misunderstood topic, and after hours raking over peer reviewed research papers, and writing a 13-page proposal, I feel like I have a better understanding of the topic than I did, say, last month.
Horses played an essential role in the manifest destiny, and the taming of the West. But, like we park our old cars out in our lawns, settlers would turn their old, unusable horses out into the prairie to rust. After a while, the horse herds grew, and at one point there were up to two million horses roaming the Great Plains.
Well, those horses ate up valuable feed, and so the “mustangers” came to be. These hired hands would run down mustangs and catch them. They would send them to slaughterhouses for dispersal. In the 1950s the level of brutality to catch the horses rose, igniting a preservation movement that would both save, and curse the free-roaming horse.
Currently, there are more “wild” horses in temporary and permanent holding pens funded by the BLM than there are free-roaming horses on public lands. Legislation established in 1971, designated the free-roaming horses as an integral part of the public land’s ecosystem and as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”.
Though mustangs can be an iconic concept to some, most have never seen them or experienced them firsthand, so for the government to paint a broad brush about an ideological definition of feral horses is framing, and romanticizing.
The fact is, wild horses are not wild. There have not been genetically wild horses on this continent since the Paleolithic era. Every horse that is on this continent was at one time imported here and now has the genetic makeup of domesticated horses, which means it has the ability and cognition to work with humans.
Of course, there are many individual animals whose behavior can be modified to work with humans, but it is not in those animals’ genetic makeup to work with humans. Horses have had that bred into them for millennia. Therefore, mustangs, burros, Chincoteague ponies, all can work with humans (with a few exceptions, which is the same in the domesticated horse world as well).
This means, by definition, wild horses are not wild. They are feral. They are a non-native species.
Now, the government has a protocol when dealing with non-native species. Organizations like the BLM and the Forest Service are tasked with preserving the natural state of ecosystems, and when non-native species enter the ecosystem, the government is responsible for their removal or eradication. Such activities will never, and have never happened with free-roaming horses.
Due to public outcry based on anecdotes, emotions, and personal experience, the wild horse has never been referred to as a non-native or feral species. They are wild. They run free with the wind in their hair. Because of this attitude, the mustang has been preserved, incidentally on the same arid, unsuitable land it lived on when the protective law passed in 1971. After being run off by mustangers, and forced to survive off poor land, horses died of starvation and thirst then, and horses are dying of starvation and thirst now.
The horses that are not dying, are overpopulating and the excess are being driven into holding pens where they will live the rest of their life as captive, domestic animals, as their ancestors did. A few might get adopted, but two-thirds are doomed to eat hay and stand around for the rest of their lives. How is that the spirit of the West?
Many will say that horses would be able to better survive if public rangelands weren’t dominated by cattle or sheep grazing, however the research would disagree with them. Horses are significantly more destructive to ecosystems than ruminants. The buffalo roamed the plains for ages, and the Great Plains thrived. Cattle are more selective about their forage than horses, they don’t cut plants as short, and they get more nutrients from forage. The plains were meant for grazers like cattle. Horses were naturally selected off the plains ages ago.
I love horses, which is why I feel like we made a big mistake when the government and wild horse advocates called for their protection and preservation because of what the horse symbolizes. There is no other misplaced species that the government would allow in ecosystems.
Because of the emotionalism behind the concept of the wild horse, free-roaming horses are now starving, overpopulated, and living on poor management areas with bad feed. Because the BLM cannot euthanize, or monitor their population like they would any other invasive species, most of them are living in dry lots until they die. It costs the BLM $1,047 a year to maintain one horse. Multiply that by 50,000. Then times that by 25 years, the lifespan of one horse. “Unsustainable” is the word that comes to mind.
I don’t really know how to make this better, but removing the framing, bias and emotionalism from it might help. Especially when making policy and trying to legislate a “spirit.”