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.
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:
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
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 Freedom.org) 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.