Wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park where no cattle are allowed.


By Janice M. Ladendorf

For thousands of years, humans and horses have co-existed. In the beginning, all horses were wild and humans hunted them for meat, hides, and other animal products. While humans saw horses as prey, horses saw them as predators. Equine sentinels watched out for human hunters so they could save their herds by running away from them. To protect their families, cornered stallions attacked and injured or killed some of those who hunted them. Human hunters soon learned to respect their keen senses, speed, endurance, and fighting abilities. Paleolithic cave art reflects this respect.

To survive, human societies who lived by hunting and gathering had to live in harmony with nature. When plants and animals were first domesticated, a new attitude emerged. As far back as Neolithic times, ecological damage to our environment began. Those who did this damage saw nature as something to exploit for maximum yield. If their abuse did too much damage, they simply moved on to new land. They also saw domestic animals as something to use and abuse. They could break and use them up because they were always more to replace them. Those who wanted to nurture the land and still sought to maintain harmony with nature admired the beauty and spirit of all equines and loved their own horses. These feelings were reflected in art and how they trained horses to cooperate with them. The Flying Horse shown below is one of the classic examples of this attitude.

The Flying Horse, China, bronze, 2nd century A.D.
The Flying Horse, China, bronze, 2nd century A.D.

When the horse was domesticated, their human riders found equine speed, endurance, and fighting skills useful in hunting, warfare, and sport. Horses died in hunting accidents and far more in human battles. Some humans figured out how to train their stallions to kill their enemies in battles. The Vikings used fighting stallions in gladiatorial contests where they fought until one of them was dead. The worship of horses was part of many primitive religions. Killing and burying favorite mounts with a dead warrior was common practice in many cultures.

The humans who first domesticated horses developed an adversarial relationship with the wild herds. They continued to harvest them for meat and new mounts, but some of their tamed horses escaped and were accepted back into the wild herds. Wild stallions also regularly raided their herds for new mares. Humans may have valued or even loved their tamed horses, but many hated the ones who still ran free. The gradual destruction of the wild herds by humans eventually succeeded in Eurasia.

Despite domestication, many continued to view horses as meat on the hoof. Whenever people get hungry enough, they will eat their horses first and then each other. Eating equine slaves may be acceptable, but eating equine friends is thought to be immoral. Horse meat is still regularly eaten in various countries today. In others, carcasses are regularly fed to hunting hounds. In the United States today, unwanted or useless horses are still sold for meat and shipped to meat packing plants in Canada or Mexico.

As human populations grew, wild horses had to compete with their herds or flocks for feed and water. Humans might tolerate the wild herds when the weather was good and feed plentiful, but whenever feed grew short, the killing began. When a drought hit the California ranges in the 19th century, wild horses were driven off cliffs to drown in the ocean, locked up in corrals to die of thirst, or murdered by the vaqueros.  Horses were viewed then as a threat to human profit, property, and survival. Today powerful ranchers in the West regard the remaining mustangs as exotic pests who should be removed from the public ranges to create more grazing land for their stock. They despise mustangs and ignore what they have contributed to other breeds, such as their quarter horses.  To them, horses have value as meat for the slaughterhouses or as slaves to work for them.

When the Americans reached the Great Plains in the 19th century, they found millions of buffalo and thousands of wild horses living well on the delicious and nutritious grasses. At that time, the herds of mustangs only contained horses descended from those brought here by the Spanish and they had already adapted to their environment. The bigger horses imported from the East needed grain and more forage than did mustangs and they could not begin to match their endurance. As long as open ranges existed, wild and feral horses often ran together. Feral horses were the least likely to survive and many were quickly caught again. Most of the ones who had escaped or been abandoned by humans were probably geldings, but there were undoubtedly some mares and a few stallions who managed to contribute to the mustang genetic mix.

Like grass and water, mustangs were considered free resources who could be caught and turned into cash. When mustangers harvested the wild herds, they expected to sell their catch to someone who would turn them into domestic horses. Mares were rarely broken to ride, but bred to imported stallions to upgrade ranch horses. They were also bred to donkey jacks to produce the mules who were the draft animals of the southwest. The males were initially gelded, broken to ride, and used as cowponies. After the Civil War, hundreds went north with the cattle herds or were shipped east to be sold.searching-frank-hopkins

In 1899, the Boer War began and British buyers bought thousands of range horses to ship to South Africa. Many of these horses were unbroken mustangs. During World War I, more thousands were bought here and shipped to the European battlefields.

Early in the 20th century, when factories began canning horse meat to sell as food for dogs and cats; horses suddenly regained their value as meat.  When this new industry paid good prices for horse meat, catching them suddenly became profitable and was supported by ranchers who wanted more and more range for their cattle. When mustangers wanted to sell wild horses to serve humans, they had to use some care to keep them sound enough to be useful. When they wanted to sell them for meat, only volume mattered. The suffering of the animals was irrelevant. The wild herds were decimated and survivors driven back onto marginal land.

Wild Horse Annie

Velma Bronn Johnson was driving to work one day in Nevada and saw a trail of blood coming from a truckload of mustangs on their way to a slaughterhouse. When she followed it, she saw the condition of the horses who had been jammed into the truck and a yearling who had fallen down and was being trampled to death.

She discovered mustangs were chased by airplanes until they were exhausted, then trucks took over and cowboys roped the horses to a heavy tire. When the horses finally collapsed, they were trussed up, dragged in a truck, and prodded onto their feet. During the dragging process, the hide was often stripped from the horse’s side. Badly injured horses and abandoned foals were left to die. Truckloads of terrified and injured mustangs were often hauled for long distances without food or water. When they reached a slaughterhouse, inhumane methods were used to kill them.

As a horse lover and mustang admirer, Johnson was outraged by what she observed and began a political campaign to establish protective laws for the mustangs. Her opponents were pet food manufactures, ranchers, and bureaucrats from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At that time, the government supported mustang harvesting as an expedient means of range clearance to better serve the interests of vested interest groups. One of her opponents called her “Wild Horse Annie” and she quickly adopted that name. Another one stated it wanted to see her in a can of dog food. During the early days of her campaign, she never answered the door without a gun hidden behind her back.

“Wild Horse Annie,” Velma Bronn Johnson
“Wild Horse Annie,” Velma Bronn Johnson

Her publicity campaign was extremely successful and drew a response from people of all ages, in all walks of life, and from many countries. The “Wild Horse Annie Act” passed in 1959. Public law 86-234 forbade the use of an aircraft or motor vehicle to hunt for the purpose of capturing or killing, any wild unbranded horse, mare, colt, or burro at large on any of the public land or ranges. This law did not include Johnson’s recommendation that a program be initiated to protect, manage, and control wild horses and burros. Her campaign continued, and in 1971 The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) became Public Law 92-195. Her campaign made her famous and books have been written about her life and campaign.

Ever since plants and animals were domesticated, the struggle between exploiters and nurturers has never been resolved. Wild Horse Annie’s struggle was simply one battle in this long war. She won, but not for long. The conflict over the fate of our wild horses continued, but with somewhat different adversaries.

The Antagonists

1) The Ranchers

As soon as the buffalo herds had been destroyed, exploitive ranchers moved far too many herds of cattle onto our western plains. They made money, mainly for foreign investors, but overgrazing began the process of destroying the ecological balance. The ranchers may not have realized the bovine species was not a native one. Cattle are an exotic species which had evolved in Europe in a cool, wet environment.  They were initially brought to the New World by Spanish and English settlers.

Cattle devoured the rich, nutritious grass on our prairies, but did not roam them like the herds of buffalo and wild horses had done. When the wild horses were pushed into marginal areas, they survived because, unlike cattle, they are browsers who can thrive on any type of forage. Cattle have no instinctive knowledge to help them deal with winter. Unlike horses, when they were thirsty and had no water, they died because they refused to eat snow.  When they were hungry, they stood and starved because they would not paw through snow to reach the grass underneath. When a bad winter came in 1886, most of the horses survived, but cattle died by the thousands. That year the ranchers learned they had to provide water and hay if they wanted their cattle to live through the winter. Wild horses, of course, can and do survive without human assistance.

Overgrazing may no longer have occurred in the winters, but did continue through the rest of the year. From 1886-1920, more damage was done to the ranges, but those responsible for it were almost impossible to identify. Ranchers had long yearned to use public lands to gain additional grazing for their cattle and sheep. In 1936, they finally gained legitimate access to them through revocable grazing leases granted by the federal government Ranchers currently hold 18,700 such leases. In 2005, the subsidy program for these ranchers cost the tax payers $123 million. Lease holders pay nominal fees. In 2012, this fee was $1.35 per cow per month and it could be raised to help cover the cost of this program.

Over five million cattle are now authorized to graze on public lands, but in 2014 only four million cattle actually grazed there for about five months of the year. On public lands where both cattle and horses are authorized, cattle are allocated from 97-99 percent of the forage. Ranchers naturally want to cleanse all the public lands of wild horses because it would increase the acreage available for their cattle and thereby increase their profits. Since they do not own this land, they have no incentive to protect it or to maintain the fencing and water troughs built on it.

Both land and animals can be exploited and abused. Despite our romantic view of culture in our western states, most of them have a reputation for animal abuse. Today some cattle are just driven onto the public lands and ignored until the time has come to bring them back to the home ranch for the winter. When horses were cheap and easily replaced, cowboys could use them, but gave them minimal care. Many broncos bucked when ill fitting saddles hurt their backs. Cowboy breaking methods were quick, brutal, based on domination, and destroyed many horses. Today most ranchers and cowboys still think of horses as equine slaves or as meat for the slaughterhouses. In recent years, men such as Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance began the natural horsemanship movement to educate Western riders about more humane methods of handling and training horses. The rodeo circuit is where the worst abuses continue to occur.

2) Others

Pet food manufactures had withdrawn from this battle because, regardless of what WFRBHA said, humans have always found ways to get mustangs to the slaughterhouses. When people no longer wanted horse meat to be in what they fed their pets, this group retired from the fray, but new groups replaced them.

Some wildlife societies regarded wild horses as an exotic species which did not belong in North America, but equids, including zebras and donkeys, had spent five million years evolving on our plains. They share this honor with the pronghorn antelope. Equus callabus migrated to Eurasia from here and was domesticated there. Unlike other species, domestication did not make any significant changes in equine physiology. This fact explains why domestication dates for equines remain so controversial. What returned here with the conquistadors was still Equus callabus. Some associations of hunters also actively supported the removal of all wild horses because they believed horses would eat some of the forage needed by the population of the species they wanted to hunt.

Scientists use two criteria to define a native species. Fossil evidence has to show the species evolved in a specific location and they must be able to thrive in the local ecology. Cattle meet neither of these criteria while Equus callabus meets both of them; as do bison and bighorn sheep, whose ancestors migrated here from Eurasia but adapted to their new environment by evolving into new species. Elk, moose, mule deer, and white tailed deer also migrated here, but adapted without any need to evolve into new species. Therefore they are not native to North America yet or laws still give them special protections denied to wild horses. Only non-scientists believe all the species found here by European settlers were native to this continent.

Mustangs near Simpson Park, Nevada
Mustangs near Simpson Park, Nevada


There are also three groups of wild horse advocates. The first and most adamant group is made up of associations of horse lovers who do not want to see any horse abused and admire the mustangs for their beauty and spirit. The second group is the general public who responded so well to Wild Horse Annie. Freedom-loving Americans see wild horses as symbols of themselves and living representatives of our Western frontier. Where wild horses can be viewed, they are popular tourist attractions. The Smithsonian Institute recommends visiting the wild herds in the locations listed below:

Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada
Assateague Island, Virginia and Maryland
Pryor Mountains, Montana and Wyoming
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Virginia Range, Nevada
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

The third group is comprised of those who realize humans can no longer find geographical solutions to damaged ecologies and moving to new locations is no longer an option. They are deeply concerned about the damaged ecologies in the 13 western states where wild horses still roam. These states include four unique ecologies:  the northern plains, the southern plains, the high plains, and the semi-arid deserts. None of them are well understood; partly because they had been damaged so badly before they could be studied. We now know healthy ecologies must be complex and based on the interrelated activities of many species, some of whom humans have either killed-off or are trying to kill-off. Some ranchers are making sincere efforts to improve the ecology on their ranches and lease allotments, but most still believe simplifying these ecologies will best serve their interests.

The Conflict Continues

Before WFRHBA was passed by the legislators, dedicated scientists began studying wild herds at multiple locations. These studies were an ideal subject for Ph.D. theses. Much to the surprise of these scientists, the behavior of these intelligent and adaptable animals varied considerably from location to location. What has been learned from studying wild horses can do much to help us better manage their domestic cousins. When a domesticated species returns to the wild, it will gradually revert back to the initial form imposed by evolutionary survival. Some evidence has been found to indicate this change has already begun in the wild herds in some of the more isolated locations. We still have much to learn about wild horses, but so far little research has continued into the 21st century.

“Feral” is a term with both narrow and wide definitions. The narrow definition can be applied only to those who have escaped from human control. The wide definition can also be applied to their descendants who are born wild. In the days rangelands were more open, feral and domestic horses often ran together. When WFRHBA defined specific habitat areas as homes for the wild horses, it created several problems. Extracting branded and reclaiming horses from the wild herds became much more difficult. Many ranchers still had wild horses mixed with their domestic stock. When they caught them, they were free to sell them for meat. Any wild horse who wanders outside of the legal boundaries of his habitat is considered a stray who can be caught and sold to kill buyers. Every year, this still happens to a few unfortunate wild horses.

1) Roundups

The respite from abuse did not last long for the wild horses. In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act gave the BLM and the US Forest Service (USFS) the right to capture wild horses by using planes, helicopters, and motor vehicles. The BLM is under the Department of the Interior, while USFS is under the Department of Agriculture. Most wild horses roam on BLM land, but some also inhabit USFS land.

BLM policy makers believe the helicopter roundups are humane and claim few horses are killed during the roundups. Their roundups are managed at the field office-level and carried out by hired contractors who are paid by the number of horses caught:  alive, dead, or injured.  Actual deaths are reported, but may not include horses euthanized at the roundup sites for injuries or unacceptable defects, such as club feet. Information on deaths is kept by the field offices and is normally both incomplete and inaccurate. It is not available to the public on the BLM national data base. Furthermore, strict limitations are imposed on what the public may view at roundups and how long they may stay. These restrictions have been enforced by armed guards.

Mustang family in Arizona
Mustang family in Arizona

Wild horse advocates believe roundups are inhumane and they claim abuse occurs at each one of the individual points listed below:

a) Panicked horses may accidentally injure themselves or die of exhaustion during the long chases by helicopters. Afterwards, wild horse advocates have found corpses they attribute to these chases.

Every wild herd lives in their own section of range and resists leaving it. Their ranges will lie within a BLM management area. When the catch pens are set up, the herds who have the farthest to go will fight against leaving their range and the helicopters will be used to force them to head towards the catch pens. Observers may be sent away before these exhausted horses reach these pens.

b) During the chases many foals are unable to keep up with the herds and are left behind to die. When an effort is made to rescue them, they are roped and dragged to the roundup site. As any cowboy should know, roping baby horses may permanently injure their necks.

c) When the helicopters drive the wild horses into small corrals, space is limited and the horses are packed closely together. This procedure makes less work for the handlers, but forces multiple herds together. Attempts to add just one new horse to a domestic herd can be dangerous for him or her. When horses are jammed together, they may react by fighting with each other. Equine kicks and bites can cause mild or serious injuries in both domestic and wild horses.

d) Horses form close emotional attachments to each other and they are particularly strong among the families in harem bands. When the handlers forcibly separate these bands by sex and age, they are allowed to use electric cattle prods. As the wild horses struggle to stay with their families, many will resist and some will be injured.

e) After separation, the horses are forced to get into crowded trailers. Again, electric cattle prods are used and any horse who continues to resist may be killed.

f) Trailer loads are taken to short-term holding sites where each horse will receive a freeze brand on his or her neck. All of the stallions are gelded and if the surgery is badly done or the site becomes infected, they die.

g) Within six months of capture, more deaths occur. They may be caused by the cumulative effect of severe stress, grief, roundup injuries, or exposure to clouds of alkaline dust.

Due to lack of funding, in 2016 the roundups have been temporarily stopped. The BLM has also tried bait-trapping, but unfortunately most of the trapped horses died of thirst.

Recommendation: If the roundups are to be started up again, then first some research should be done to find the most humane and cost-effective method. In the past, skilled horsemen have used a variety of methods, some of which are non-abusive. Whatever method is used, it should be based on what we now know about equine behavior.

2) Mismanagement Begins

a) In 1976, The Federal Land Policy and Management Act required the development of multiple land-use plans. To help formulate such plans, the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act required inventory records be maintained for all of the horses and burros in each of the management areas where WFRHBA gave them the legal right to live. The Act also required an annual evaluation of the available resources in each area to determine how many equids the land can reasonably carry. The resulting number was the animal maintenance level (AML). If the population of equids was higher than the AML, then the Act allows the excess animals to be removed from the public lands.

b) Validity of BLM Statistics

The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2013 which states the BLM:

“…has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to access the availability and use of forage on rangelands.  …Therefore, it seems that the national statistics are the product of hundreds of subjective, probably independent judgments and assumptions by range personnel.”

A review by PEER (Protecting Employees Who Protect Our Environment) commented on similar problems with land evaluation records. They were kept at the BLM field offices and were incomplete, inconsistent, error-prone, and poorly maintained. At the national level, data was manipulated to conceal the poor rate of improvement. The PEER review stated the true figure was 2 percent.

The BLM’s annual population census has included only one-fourth of the equids on public lands. For the other three-fourths, an increase-rate of 20 percent has been used to estimate their population numbers. One of the major factors in the calculation of this rate has been the age of captured horses; but this is another set of estimates. Once a horse has his permanent teeth, they will not necessarily reflect his or her age. They have also used foal birth rates, but ignored the low life expectancy of wild horses, as compared to domestic ones.

Some research has already been done on several of the critical factors controlling population growth. Depending on the location, pregnancy rates can vary from 45-80 percent and the foal death rate can vary from 25-50 percent. The overall rate of abortions is about 25 percent. This information suggests population statistics must be based on multiple factors which will vary within each individual habitat. Wild horse advocates have claimed the BLM’s population statistics are far from accurate and there are good reasons why they question them. In one case, the BLM estimate was 24,000 horses, but a private count showed only 8,000.

Once the available forage and the animal population have been estimated, the animal unit per month (AUM) is used to calculate the number of allowable animals in each management area. According to the BLM website, the AUM for cattle is one 1,000-pound cow with a calf; for sheep it is five ewes; and for horses it is one horse. Since wild mares typically nurse their foals for at least one year, a mare with foal should be defined as one horse just as one cow with a calf is defined as one cow. These unfair definitions have been justified by the unproven assumption that horses eat more forage than do cattle. Even if this was true, wild horses typically weigh from seven to eight hundred pounds.

c) In 1992, the Code of Federal Regulations 4710.5 and 4710.6 specifically provided for the curtailment or cancellation of livestock grazing privileges on public lands in order to ensure thriving and healthy herds of equids in their legal areas. This regulation has essentially been ignored. In 1990, a report issued by the General Accounting Office stated horse removal decisions were rarely based on solid information about range conditions, but on recommendations of  advisory groups composed mainly of ranchers. When inadequate forage supposedly exists, wild horses will be the first to be removed and cattle may be moved onto their vacated rangeland.

d) In 2001, the BLM obtained a 50 percent increase in their annual budget to implement an aggressive removal campaign.

e) In 2004, the infamous Burns amendment facilitated the disposal of equids to slaughter buyers for those horses who were either over ten years of age or who had been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times.

f) In 2006, the BLM budget was increased by another third. In 2010, it received another 30 percent boost. The increased funds paid for the increased costs of more removals and maintaining more wild horses in short- or long-term holding areas. By 2016, the number of held horses had increased to almost 50,000.

3) Excess Horse Crisis

In 2016, the BLM announced the number of unadoptable equids in their holding facilities had reached a crisis level. They were full, and supporting these 45,000 equids would consume 67 percent of their available funds and leave them with no funds for further removals. In response, the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recommended these be sold or humanely euthanatized. Public outcry quickly forced the BLM to cancel this recommendation. If it had been implemented, most of these horses would probably have been sold directly or indirectly to kill buyers. If the BLM and the ranch community wanted to kill all of the wild horses, a similar outcry would probably stop them.

Thousands of mustangs have already been taken off the range and ended in slaughterhouses. Horses sent there have never died a humane death. Since 2006, there have been no slaughterhouses in the United States and the ones outside of our borders are well known for their exceptionally cruel methods. Whenever inhumane slaughter is proposed, wild horse advocates will fight it first with publicity and then take legal action to try to stop it.

What is needed to deal with this crisis is accurate information and it does not appear to exist. Some facts drawn from official BLM reports are given below:

a) The BLM issues a detailed report every year on Public Land Statistics. In the one for 2015, there is summary information on the removal and adoption of wild equids from 1971 to 2015. In this time period, 250,521 wild horses and burros have been removed from public lands and 239,374 have been adopted, giving a surplus of 11,147 equids. What the BLM claims they have in holding facilities is 45,661 equids. These reported facts require investigation and explanation.

b) The BLM Quick Facts function summarizes information and allows access to detailed holding reports. In 2015, the amount spent to support the reported 45,661 equids averaged $1,048. The BLM has two types of off-range holding facilities:  short-term corrals and long-term leased pastures. Using the highest rate BLM pays to lessees, the average cost to support a horse in pasture was $547 per year. When this was multiplied by the total number of horses held in pastures and subtracted from the total cost, the average cost to support a horse in the corrals turned out to be $2,570 per horse. What goes into this high cost needs to be investigated.

c) The BLM currently holds 12,430 horses and 1,081 burros in off-range corrals. Their total capacity is 24,650 equids, and is about half exhausted.  Although there is less demand for older horses, the BLM chooses to not include the ages of the horses in their holding reports after 2012. In 2012, only 469 of the equids in this corral were over ten years old. It needs to be investigated why the rest of these horses have been defined as unadoptable.

d) The BLM currently holds 31,588 horses in leased pastures. Each one contains either mares or geldings. Their total capacity is 33,269 horses. These facilities are almost full. In 2012, only 54 percent of the horses were more than ten years old. The current age groups in these pastures need to be investigated, and why the younger horses have been classified as unadoptable.

e) Since the short-term holding facilities are not at capacity and the long-term ones are close to it, the excess horse crisis probably affects only the 31,588 horses in pastures. The BLM reported statistics may or may not be accurate. Since wild horses have no records, their ages must be estimated by examining their teeth. Once their adult teeth have replaced their baby teeth, any determination of age is an estimate. Some concerns have been expressed as to whether or not the BLM can legally euthanatize crippled or aging horses. This question needs to be legally resolved, but they have been euthanatizing injured horses for years at their roundups.

f) Currently the public is not allowed into all of the short-term facilities and none of the long-term facilities. There are numerous photographs of the horses in the off-range corrals, but almost none of them in the off-range pastures. This policy has negatively affected the BLM’s credibility in the eyes of both mustang advocates and the general public.

g) For each one of these holding pens or pastures, a local committee could be formed to verify the number and condition of the horses in each one. These committees should include mustang advocates, appropriate officials, veterinarians, professional trainers, and any other interested people.

With the help of veterinarians, they should determine if there are any horses living in this pen or pasture who could be humanely euthanatized. This classification could include crippled horses or those in poor condition because of age or various medical conditions. To avoid shipping costs, if the committee’s recommendation is approved by the BLM, the horses could be euthanatized by local vets and the disposal of the bodies handled by the normal local procedures.

With the help of professional trainers, they should determine if there are any adoptable horses living in this pen or pasture. If there are, what would it take to make them more attractive to adopters and would there be any local resources available to help in this process?

4) The Adoption Program

The basic problem with this program has not changed. Wild horses grow up learning how to survive in the wild. Domestic horses grow up learning how to live with humans. Wild horses need to be tamed or gentled before they can be halter trained. The older they are or the more dominant they have been within the herd, the more difficult and dangerous this task can be and few amateurs have the necessary experience or skill. Fortunately various volunteer groups have been organized to assist adopters and recommend helpful trainers or clinicians.

The adoption program began in 1976. As wild horses were rounded up and taken off the public lands, some were shipped to adoption centers throughout the country. Many of these horses found good homes. After training, some did extremely well in various types of equestrian events. How adopters feel about their mustangs is revealed in the poem below:

My Mustang and Me by Karen Molosky.

Mounting steed
Best in breed
Gripping mane
I call your name

Like the wind
You come unpinned
Holding tight
You are my Knight

Rounding bend
Thru the pine
Forever friends
For all of time

Horses who did not get adopted have been kept in both short-term and long-term holding facilities. From the beginning, the adoption program has been marred by a series of scandals. Until 2001, the removal and adoption rates stayed relatively even, but wild horse advocates believed 90 percent of the adopted horses had been illegally sent to slaughterhouses.

In 1997, an investigative reporter inflamed the public when she exposed wide spread corruption within the BLM in a series of newspaper articles. In the same year, PEER (Protecting Employees Who Protect Our Environment) issued a white paper documenting the institutional complicity of the Department of the Interior in the continuing slaughter of federally-protected wild horses. Their investigators found evidence confirming numerous people at both the management and employee level had been involved in the activities listed below:

a) Theft of wild horses during BLM-sponsored roundups. These animals were often the best quality ones, and often sold at auctions by the thieves for $300-$500.

b) Multiple use of the same brand to conceal the disappearance of horses into the slaughter market.

c) Manipulation of wild horse adoptions to allow one person to hold proxies for many and send all the horses to slaughter.

d) Use of satellite ranches to hold horses. The BLM continued to pay for the support of these horses long after some of them had been sent to slaughter.

e) Fraudulent use of wild horse sanctuaries subsidized by the federal government as fronts for commercial exploitation.

Unfortunately, this report was suppressed and the corrupt behavior continued because various high-level officials supported these illegal activities. Those in power presumably wanted to continue sending what ranchers deemed excess mustangs from the public ranges to the slaughterhouses.  Some who had participated in this study suffered for their actions.

In the most recent scandal, the BLM allowed a Colorado hauler to adopt over 1,700 horses for a $10 fee and he sold the horses to kill buyers who sent them to slaughterhouses in Mexico. The Office of the Inspector General has confirmed delivering these horses cost the taxpayers $140,000. The hauler netted a profit of $154,000.

Wyoming mustangs

5) Scapegoats

For far too long, wild equids have been used as scapegoats by the government officials and the ranching community. These people believe they are an exotic species who are responsible for all the damage done on the public rangelands. Horses evolved here and domestication did not change anything about their species (Equus callabus). In 1926, a North Dakota rancher commented that horses were the only class of livestock who could successfully adapt themselves to the natural conditions on our western ranges. Without any help from humans, American mustangs are able to survive in all of the environments where they still roam. This ability may be one reason why they are hated by so many people.

The real truth is that cattle and sheep are exotic species who did not evolve in North America. They came here from cool, wet ecologies. Unlike horses, they must be managed by humans to survive in Western environments. For well over 100 years, their numbers have been held at a level where profits have been maximized at the expense of the land on which they grazed. The ecological damage done by cattle has been well documented, but there has been little or no research done here on the impact of free-roaming horses. Rewilding projects in Eurasia have demonstrated Equus callabus can be a keystone species in the preservation and regeneration of grassland ecologies. [For more information, please see the article, “The Ecological Impact of Horses as a Keystone Species Critical to the Regeneration of the Earth,” The Valley Equestrian News Online, Aug. 31, 2016.]

Four examples of scapegoat blaming are given below:

a) A recent comment issued by PEER criticizes the BLM report on endangered greater sage grouse. The BLM claims the wild equids have double the impact on grouse habitat as compared to cattle, but it includes only those cattle who have been allowed to graze on the most damaged land. The amount of this land has been grossly understated. In reality, the impact of cattle is more than six times that of the equids.

b) Much damage has been attributed to the “sharp” hooves of the wild equids, but research has shown the hoof walls of wild equids are not sharp, but round.

c) In England, horses are known as ecological mowing machines because they can crop grass at the right level to promote future growth. If too many horses are penned in too small an area, they can crop it bare, but so will cattle.

d) A Canadian reporter states in Alberta, 980 wild horses have been blamed for all the overgrazing despite the fact there are tens of thousands of other animals on the same ranges.

By ignoring WFRBHA, the BLM has managed to remove all of the wild horses in some management areas from their legally mandated ranges. Since 1971, wild horse habitats on public land have been reduced by 41 percent.  On other ranges, the BLM has reduced equid populations well below the viable level needed to maintain long term genetic health in their herds.

6) Population Control:  Nature versus Humans

The BLM and the USFS apparently believe no natural controls exist to stop equids from overpopulating their habits. They claim equids will destroy it by overgrazing and their removal policy prevents starvation. They have reported several attempts to rescue starving horses from areas with inadequate forage, but wild horse advocates observed only horses in good condition in those same areas.

One of the basic principles of biology is that nature will limit animal populations to what their habitat can comfortably support. The controls may vary with the species, but they do exist. Evolutionary evidence has established the original wild equids experienced dramatic swings in their population levels. The cause was probably temporary changes in weather patterns. The last one occurred about 25,000 years ago.

The 2013 Report by the National Academy of Science states:

“Management practices are facilitating high rates of population growth. BLM’s removal policies hold horse populations below levels affected by food limits. If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates. Decreased competition for forage growth may instead allow population growth, which then drives the need to remove more animals.”

Natural limits of population control have been observed by scientists in three of the management areas where herds of wild equids have lived.

a) The first group of wild horses still lives on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. This range had suffered serious historic damage from overgrazing, but it was done many years ago by sheep. For many years, the poor quality of the forage there kept the fertility level of the mares low enough to insure the survival of 175-200 horses.

From season to season, free-roaming horses move around their territory to find where the best forage is at any time of the year. When the introduction of fences limited the available pasture for the Pryor Mountain horses, natural controls were affected and the BLM arbitrarily decided to reduce their population level.

b) Before the second group of wild burros was destroyed, they lived in the Lower Canyon of the Grand Canyon National Park and had been self-regulating for over 100 years. A wild horse advocate found no shortage of forage in the territory they occupied.

c) Horses were first observed in 1753 on Sable Island. Their herds are the third group of wild horses and they still live there. Their island lies off the coast of Nova Scotia, east of Halifax. Since 1961, these horses have been legally protected from human interference. Both before and after the roundups stopped, the equid population remained relatively stable despite the fact there are no predators on this island.

The role of the predator is often misunderstood. They keep herds of prey animals strong by killing the weak, sick, injured, old, and stupid ones. They do not normally kill the mature, healthy herbivores. To maintain the sustainable population limit, the defective ones they kill will automatically be replaced.

Another basic principle of biology is that feral animals will revert back to resemble their original wild ancestors. There is some evidence this has already begun to happen in the more remote mustang herds. Attempts to upgrade mustangs by the introduction of domestic stallions have generally failed because they cannot compete with the wild stallions for mares. A young stallion who grows up in a wild herd learns how to get mares and protect his family when he has one.

The Removal Program of the BLM and the USFS has been based on a false premise about how best to control the population level of wild equids. Both agencies use the same management practices and treat wild horses as though they were livestock whose survival depends on the imposition of human controls. Free-roaming horses born in the wild act like wildlife and are subject to natural biological controls.

Management has chosen to ignore far too many of the provisions in WFRHBA. Their inhumane roundups and corrupt practices have sent thousands of horses to slaughterhouses. Today more thousands are living in long-term holding facilities and supported by the government. The cost of these wasteful practices can only be measured in billions of dollars.

In 1974, natural biological controls would probably have worked well to control the population level of almost all of the wild herds. In some management areas, adjustments might have to have been made to the lease agreements held by individual ranchers. Since then, extensive fencing on the public ranges has complicated this issue.

Before any more removals are carried out, each management area where equids can legally live should be evaluated to determine what changes need to be made to allow natural controls to control their population levels. These evaluations must include scientifically accurate counts of population levels, the amount of available forage, and the level of degradation.

These evaluations should include wild horse advocates and affected ranchers, as well as appropriate officials and other interested parties. Once they have agreed their information is accurate, they can determine the most appropriate solution in that particular management area. Some of the possibilities are discussed below:

a) Reach an agreement as to how much forage and water is currently available and how it should be allocated among species.

b) Assign the equids and cattle to separate ranges. To make biological controls work, the horses need to have enough space to change pastures with the seasons. Corridors between fenced areas may be needed to give them access to grazing areas and water.

c) Determine if fertility control drugs, such as PZP, could be effectively used in this location.

d) Determine how many of the horses in this location could be captured and trained for the adoption program by local personnel.

e) Wild horses are tourist attractions.  Can a herd be included with other existing or possible new facilities in that area? The BLM has already placed 600 horses in three eco sanctuaries where they may be viewed by tourists. One is in Oklahoma and two in Wyoming.

f) Depending on how badly the land has been damaged, cattle could be removed from the most damaged ones, and the land left to the equids. Like horses, the elephants in Africa have inefficient digestive systems and free roaming habits. Both species have been identified as keystone species in grassland and restoration.


Ever since plants and animals have been domesticated, there has been conflict between exploiters and nurturers. One group wants to dominate and use nature while the other one works to create harmony with it. From an historical perspective, the current struggle over what to do with wild equids is just one more battle between these factions.

Are wild horses livestock or are they wild animals? The exploiters regard them as livestock because they have been killed for their meat. The harmonizers regard them as wild animals who need to be protected from the exploiters. WFRHBA gives them a unique status:  unlike cattle or sheep, wild horses and burros cannot not legally be killed for commercial purposes, so they aren’t like other species of livestock. Unlike elk or deer, they cannot be killed by hunters so they aren’t like other species of wild animals. For millions of years, equids evolved as wild animals. They have been domesticated for only a few thousand years and easily adapt to living free again. Like other wild species, they do not need human care to survive. The harmonizers admire their beauty and spirit and appreciate artistic interpretations of it.

Mustang Stallion at Water Hole, bronze by Candace Liddy.
Mustang Stallion at Water Hole, bronze by Candace Liddy.

WFRHBA has been subverted by the exploiters who have chosen to treat wild horses as livestock. The main exploiters are greedy ranchers who want the land grazed by wild horses for their cattle. Mismanagement by the BLM has allowed them to takeover land once grazed by wild horses.  But all ranchers are not greedy exploiters. In 2004, the BLM started recognizing ranchers who had worked hard to improve the ecology of their ranges.

Instead of using natural biological controls, the BLM’s removal policy treated wild horses like livestock. When their annual roundups took thousands off the range, the decreased competition for forage encouraged population growth and drove the need to remove more animals. Their adoption program succeeded finding good homes for some horses, but 80-90 percent of them ended up at the slaughterhouses. If equids could be redefined as wild animals, then natural controls could be used to manage their population levels.

The underlying problem is with marketing the captured horses. The adoption market has declined and there are no longer many who want to acquire untamed mongrel horses. The meat market has also declined. Over the years, the inclusion of horse meat in pet food has become increasingly unpopular and in 2006, all of the equine slaughterhouses in the United States were closed down, but horses can still be shipped to ones in Canada and Mexico.

In recent years, a new market has emerged. Tourists want to see wild horses and the BLM now has 600 horses in three eco sanctuaries. Along with tours, plans are currently being made to offer educational programs. This approach has been successful in Europe and hopefully it will prosper here. At these sanctuaries, wild horses are a crucial part of the profitable operation and cannot be viewed as livestock or pests who steal grazing from other species.

Study after study has confirmed the statistical data presented to the public by the BLM is based on incomplete, inaccurate, and biased information. Reforms, as recommended by the 2013 report from the Academy of Science, are badly needed. Their information on the current crisis in excess unadoptable horses is an excellent example of why better information is needed. Investigations have also confirmed corruption within the BLM, and many of their employees have been involved in illegally sending horses from the range to inhumane deaths in slaughterhouses. This process also needs to be brought to an end.

If the contributions made by wild equids to their ecosystems are recognized, then humanistic solutions could be found to their survival on our public lands. Experience with world-wide rewilding projects has shown success can best be achieved by involving the local people in the process of decision making. The conflict between those who want to kill all the mustangs and those who want to save them is one part of a much larger issue:  It is the restoration of the damaged ecosystems on our western ranges.

A Mustang Speaks

Living free,
I race with the wind,
Enjoy eating many grasses,
Drink or roll in the water.

Living free,
No hands touch me
No ropes bind me
No fences trap me.

Living free,
Some hate me
Some love me
For I’m a wild horse.


Photos one through six, courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo six and first poem with permission of the artist, second poem by article author.

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