The “wild” horses of the American Great Plains are not truly wild. In reality they are feral horses – domestic horses that were released or escaped from captivity and are surviving on their own. It is true that the distant ancestors of the horse probably evolved on this continent, but they were closer to the size of a big cat and unrecognizable as horses.
Long before they evolved into anything like the horses that we know, they crossed the Bering land bridge – moving in the opposite directions of the Europeans coming to North America. They spread out across the steppes of Europe and Asia and went extinct in North America.
On the steppes they evolved into the large animals that we are familiar with and that Eurasians domesticated to supply much of the power to build Old World civilizations. They returned to North America in the holds of Spanish Galleons, in the fifteenth century, as something quite different from the Lilliputian creatures that left many thousands of years before. The horses that populate some parts of the Great Plains are the relatives of those Spanish war-horses that escaped from the Spanish or were stolen by Native Americans who were responsible for dispersing them from Mexico to Canada.
These feral horses have been brought back into domestication and are now protected at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota. As too many of any grazing animal can do without pressure from predators, they have degraded the land.
For years a small band (75 or so) has run unregulated on the Buffalo Gap Nation Grasslands, just across form our Cheyenne River ranch, where our buffalo spend the winter months. It is rare that we see them and when they see us, they run like the wind.
A few weeks ago local cowboys held a round-up and gathered all they could to return them to their domesticated life of their ancestors. Although these are some of the best horseman around, we were skeptical of their success, but they were successful.
A few of these proud beasts were too quick and got away from the cowboys. So the "wild" horse lives on - living, breathing reminders of the freedom we Americans hold dear.
Note from photographer, Jill O'Brien: For the corral/horse shots, I was lying in the dirt, hiding behind a wooden fence, peaking out between holes and slats, doing my best to not disturb the cowboys work and to not upset the horses additionally by my presence. I want to report that I was so impressed with the horseman (women). They moved slowly, used gentle voices and were very patient with the loading.
Addition To Story:
If you continue to read the comments posted, you will see that this story has many readers upset. They have assumed that these horses are going to slaughter, which is simply NOT true. These feral horses were rounded from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, which is managed by the Forest Service. Grazing permits for livestock (cattle, buffalo, horses, sheep, etc.) are issued to local ranchers. The Forest Service determines the length of time and the number of animals allowed to graze. There are also times when no grazing is allowed, for pasture rest and recovery. These decisions are based on land conditions, species diversity (all of the other creatures that call the grasslands their home), rainfall or drought. No current permittees are currently running horses on the grasslands.
So, where did they come from? Our guess is that they either escaped from neighboring ranches or were purposely placed there by someone who could not care for them. Local cowboys did the gathering, most of whom were Native American. These horses will be returned to their former life and will be used as ranch/stock horses. Although this may still upset some, these horses will have a good life. Some may be used in rodeos and others may be trained as working ranch horses and will occassionally be asked to carry a rider on their backs to gather or move cattle. In their down time, they will live on the prairie much like they have been, in addition to having plenty of food and water.
The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands is not a Horse Sanctuary. The beginning feral herd was around a dozen and in the past years had grown to around 75 (a guess), as horses make more horses. And, as mentioned in one of our below responses, it is impossible to think that we can keep ALL of the animals. ALL animal numbers must be kept in check with lands available. Controlling any species can be done by, selling, harvesting, adoption or a controlled breeding program. To many of one species means less or the extinction of another species. Although we too think that horses are beautiful to see running across the prairie, these horses fate for a good life is more assured with the hands they are currently in. The cowboy culture is an American treasure, and you can’t have cowboys without horses.
There are several Wild Horse Sanctuaries across the U.S. some managed for sustainable healthy herds and land (which we are supportive of) and others not. For more info on wild horses that have not been managed well, you may want to read up on some of the outcomes. Here are a couple of links: