Wild Horses and the American Spirit

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.

Buckskin Stallion & HaremLong 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.
Wild HorsesOn 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.

Fighting StallionsWild Horses Fighting

Fighting Stallions
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.

Wild Horse & ColtWild horse

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.

Wild Horses

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.

Loading Wild Horses
Captured Wild Horses
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.
Wild HorsesNote 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:

Is the West's Wild Horse Crisis So Bad Only Euthanasia Can Fix It?

Employee: 30 wild horses died of starvation on South Dakota ranch

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  • Thanks for the story and photos and for presenting it in a thoughtful and educational way. Count me as one who believes that wild horses and house cats belong on our domesticated lands and in our houses, respectively. The ever shrinking public wild lands belong to the ever declining wildlife. Wildlife needs as much help as it can get, and invasive species like horses and cats just don’t help. Hooray for the roundup! I’ll keep my fantasy sentimentality in check and say: too bad some got away.

  • I was about to place a large order, as I do at least once a month. Yours is the only source of meat I feel good about purchasing from anymore. I am so pleased with everything about your company including the fact that you allow your buffalo to roam freely, live a natural life, and be harvested in the field. I love that the trampling and grazing (and fertilizing) of the buffalo stimulates grass growth, builds the soil, stores carbon, improves water infiltration and on and on.
    May I simply observe that wild horse herds do the same thing? Before the coming of the herds of domesticated cattle and sheep (who currently graze the west by the millions) the incredibly rich and intact native prairies supported millions of buffalo and countless herds of wild horses. Nobody had to ‘manage’ their populations. Far from being degraded, the ever-richer prairie was storing carbon, building feet of topsoil, and recycling water and nutrients thanks to the ‘ecological services’ of the wild grazers (balanced with healthy predator populations of course who removed the sick and weak).
    I am not saying that every wild horse can be left wild today, but I am saying that to blame wild horses for the continued degradation of the the western ecosystem is to throw out a red herring, and I am shocked and perplexed that this comes from you.
    And until we see the insanity of our current meat production system (plowing up native prairie to grow corn for millions of poor feedlot cattle or by turning them loose to graze destructively (kudos to those ranchers who are riding with their cattle to get them to bunch and move like wild grazers)) and change it for the better, the populations of herds of wild horses can be controlled without roundups via a dart delivered birth control called PZP.
    I find pictures of roundups to be just awful. One rarely sees clear pictures of them because the BLM and others control access, but when I do, my gut just plummets.
    Normally I see such beauty in the pictures you post of the prairie, of the buffalo. Today I see pictures of stressed wild horses who just lost their freedom forever. I had to double check that I was actually looking at your blog. Today I see terror. I see two wild males who are ready to fight for their survival and to keep their families safe.
    Yes you might be able to make a ranch horse out of some wild horses. Yes some will have a nice enough life if you think they are incapable of grief, of memory, of family bonds. But some won’t make the transition. They will be shuffled around. They will end up at auction. They will end up in the hands of a kill buyer. They will be shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter. It happens every day.
    Wild horses are wild. Yes I have seen them in the wild. You respect them and keep your distance because like any wild animal they are quite likely to go into flight or fight. And because they are not ours to decide whether they are native enough to be left free.

    May I also point out how surprised I was by the two links you shared? National geographic lost its credibility with me a few years ago when it went into full propaganda mode with a long article on how we need to go fully GMO to feed the world. The idea that killing wild horses will stop the degradation of the western ecosystem is just more of same. Do you really support euthanasia of wild horses rather than use of PZP??

    The other link is to a story on the terrible ISPMB tragedy. Unchecked population growth on a ranch with limited resources. Yes, terrible. But I’m not sure what your point is in sharing this? That wild horses have to be rounded up or euthanized because one wild horse sanctuary went off the rails? It seems incredibly one-sided to me. And frankly not at all in line with your ethics about the buffalo you raise. Couldn’t you also post links that provide more balanced information? Perhaps to some that outline the findings of the National Sciences Council study published in 2013 or thereabouts. Perhaps links to successful wild horse sanctuaries who use humane population control? Many like Return to Freedom (Return to use PZP so that a stallion and his mares can live in a herd as they would in the wild. Many like Return to Freedom worked so hard to feed and place and ultimately take responsibility for many of the horses rescued from ISPMB.
    Organizations like BLM Mustang Rescue Network (you can find them on Facebook) raise money to buy mustangs from auction so they won’t be purchased by kill buyers and sent to slaughter. There are so many good people who dedicate their time and money and lives to providing safe haven to wild horses who have lost their freedom. But I don’t think any of them will do anything but cheer when the never ending stream of formerly wild horses in need of saving dries up—that will mean that the round ups have stopped finally. And in accordance with scientific findings, humane (and cheaper ultimately) on the range methods like PZP will finally be employed.

    I don’t know if I expressed myself well or not. I’m not a writer. I’m not a wild horse advocate. I’m not an ecology expert. I’m just a (formerly) happy customer who is wishing to do her part to return our beautiful planet to a place of richness and plenty for all, for all our fellow creatures. I see a world flourishing again, with room for buffalo and wild horses and sage grouse and prairie dogs and all the rest (not just hungry cattle and corn and humans).

    With respect and thanks for listening,

  • Jill, here’s a wild idea… Could you follow everyone of these horses for the rest of their lives, since you probably have nothing else to do with your time & no other responsibilities?? ? People are funny!

    Your responses are admirable, Jill – much nicer than I would’ve been. I love horses too; I’m a lifelong horseman (more than half a century), & have managed rangeland myself. My biggest concern with the wild horse situation in the west is in regards to environmental degradation – damage to surrounding flora & ground water. And then, the physical suffering of the horses thru disease & starvation. The earth is the common bond between all of us though, that’s the aspect that should be considered first & foremost.

  • Jill, your pictures are outstanding!!

  • Thank you for clarifying Georgia.

    Wild Idea Buffalo Co.
  • I am a member from a ranch that neighbors the buffalo ranch. These ARE NOT wild horses. They do no graze on Forest Service land. Horses in these pictures are actually owned by a neighboring ranch who used these horses as bucking stock. The bucking horses grazed land on the Pine Ridge Reservation; occasionally they would wander through down fences onto Forest Service ground as would buffalo, cattle, and other livestock. These horses are not being brought back into domestication as they have always been domesticated.

  • May we visit these beautiful creatures?

  • I loved the common sense article on the mustangs! You are correct! City folks and tree huggers don’t have a clue! You would be willing to do an interview on International Internet News Broadcasting Network? It is just in the infant stage and I will host The Cowboy Life once a week. I will base the foundation of my show about the mustangs and my fist interviews are all about the horses and help find and promote solutions to doing the right thing and educate the public!

    Bob Masling
  • The piece reads very one-sided. In view of the privatization, fencing of open range and special interest conservation, I suspect the horses are in the way of some special interests. Leave the “wild” horses be. Preserve wildlife and open range.

    Walter Porembski
  • Once again THANKS for sharing!
    Sorry to see there are so many that don’t understand what Ducks Unlimited, NRA and so many other great people do for the benefit of nature and wildlife conservation. Not to mention the work of farmers and ranchers like yourselves.

    Chris Jorgensen
  • Jill and Dan, thank you for not only sharing this story and photos but for taking the time to educate and inform those who simply do not know the “big picture.” Here in MA and much of the northeast, the white-tailed deer population has exploded with no real predators—we humans used to be prime predators!—and the devastation they are doing to our forests is tragic. And yet uninformed citizens with sentimental ideas about nature and wildlife fight all means of reducing the population if it includes, surprise , surprise, culling the herds by extended hunting or hiring of professionals to do the job of shooting them. What happens to many deer, outstripping the land available, is starvation, disease, or death by auto. Luckily, the spread of coyotes in the northeast is helping to fill the predator niche now; fawns are often part of their diet. Oooh, I can just hear the outcry at my cruel comment—poor little fawns, But, people, newsflash for you: nature is harsh. And we as part of it need to realize that and support the best efforts of concerned KNOWLEDGABLE citizens to manage as best we can the precious environment we all live in.

    Linda Clark
  • The myth of wild horse over population is a creation of public lands ranchers and ag school grads that populate the BLM, USFS, USFWS park service etc. the millions of cattle and sheep and their poorly managed grazing have damaged our public lands By contrast wild horse number Around 40 to 70 thousand across the entire western US. The myth that tiny little equines left the country and returned as the horse we see grazing wild make it easy for the land manager to call them feral and remove them. I encourage you to read the book Wild Horse Conspiracy by equine ecologist Craig Downer. If you spend any time with wild horses, you will know that most of the myths perpetrated by public lands ranchers and public lands managers are completely bogus. The local BLM rep is usually the source for most of the misinformation foisted on the public in local news, usually in tandem with one of their round ups.

    Emil Stockton
  • Nice story but that is all that it is, an over simplification of a story told to us to leave out critical facts in the horses place in the natural way of things. Basically this is just a nicer way of dealing with the end result of what happens to them but the reason why they were taken off is the same which is they were eating grass that their cattle could eat. Basically it’s simple, if you take away all the predators because they might prey on the cattle, and then put twice as much cattle on there as you are supposed to, you then blame all destruction of the habitat on the horses and it’s an excuse to get them off the area as their population also temporarily explodes because of lack of natural predators all while not using the science to actually see that horses and cattle eat differently and it is the cattle causing widespread destruction while the horses are re seeding. Horses take a bite of crass, clipping it off and then take a step, moving on. Cattle do not clip but wrap their tongue around the grass, often pulling it up by the roots. There are also countless cases of evidence proving that the horses did not in fact die out (Often with oral histories from Indigenous Tribes) but were always here. Whether they died out and are a reintroduced species or were always here, the only reason the FERAL label is pinned on them is to make it easier to get rid of them when some interest wants their land. Go to the Facebook site “Native Horses of the America’s” to get more info on this. The “Sanctuary” issue is a whole another ball of wax… best to actually get the facts direct from the source and not the bunch of so called rescues now bawling for their own handout. This story is basically a children’s book with all outdated facts and no science to back it up.

    Duane White
  • They belong wild and free, Not captured into slavery, or sent to slaughter. They will self regulate as any wild animal does although the cattle lobby would have the public believe otherwise, as the welfare ranchers deem that they are entitled to all our public lands and water to graze their cattle which deplete the ecosystem of those lands, unlike the buffalo which evolved there. Federal law is in place to protect our wild horses and burros and it is our American duty to do so.

    Gina Obrien
  • Jill and Dan — A very informative and interesting article and outstanding photos. You understand so well how damaging overgrazing and overpopulation can be to a herd — of any species of animal — other species occupying the same ground, and the natural environment itself. As a native South Dakotan, I have such respect and admiration (as it is evident you do as well) for the fine skills of these good cowboys, who not only understand the horse, but appreciate and respect it as well. I was so encouraged and happy to see the magnificent stallion with his harem, knowing that the family group was kept together in the roundup, much calmer and reassured as they make the transition to a new lifestyle. This is the price we have paid for extirpating from the prairie the large predators, especially the wolf. It is evident that you appreciate that some of the herd deftly eluded capture, who will live better lives, with less diseases and parasites, on wild pastures that will recover and flourish. The captured horses, too, will be well-cared for and will live out their lives better in controlled and healthy environs. Even a cursory review of the sanctuary’s policies for care and adoption make it clear that these horses will be respected and honored. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story in words and pictures.

    Dan Stengle

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