Wild Horses of the Western United States
The stallion raised his head, testing the soft spring breeze that ruffled his mane. The mares closest to him quit their grazing to watch him. When one sorrel filly could stand the tension no longer, she gave a sudden jump that turned into a buck, and instantly the whole herd was in motion. The stallion, faster than the mares and colts, ran first in the front of the herd, then dropped back behind to his place as guardian.
There was no danger; just joy at being alive.
The summer continued hot and dry, with no rain for several months. Grass is scarce and what they can find is dry and brittle, with only slight nutritional value. The waterholes are dry. The stallion must find water for his herd, then travel many miles in search of patches of the dried grass that is shared with deer and cattle. The youngest foals and oldest mares have already died. The younger mares have no milk.
The stallion moves slow and tired, although still vigilant against danger. But the danger he faces now, he cannot fight. Starvation is a silent, cruel enemy.
The United States Government will spend almost $30,000,000 to provide for and protect the estimated 50,000 wild horses in the Western United States. A large portion of this money will go to finance the Adopt-A-Horse program, where horses are removed from overstocked rangelands through private adoption. Also financed are prison training programs, sanctuaries, and holding facilities for unadoptable horses. These are efforts by the government to find a balance between the conservationist who want the horses to run wild as they have for 400 years, and the reality of overstocked rangelands and the place of the wild horse in modern times.
The American wild horses originated as descendents of the Spanish and Arabian horses brought to the North American continent by the Spanish conquistadores beginning with Hernandez Cortez in 1519. As Mexico was conquered and settled, the Spaniards brought more horses of both bloodlines and bred horse equal in quality to those in Spain. Spanish horse herds flourished in the New World and were jealously guarded by the Spanish population, who realized the advantage that horses gave them over the local people.
It wasn't until the 17th Century that the Indians first acquired the horse and discovered a new and mobile way of life. The Indians stole their horses from the Spaniards and were the main contributor to horses running wild on the plains. According to J. Frank Dobie, in The Mustangs, there is no record of horses running wild until after the Indians made a lifestyle of stealing and trading them. Some horses escaped, while others found freedom when whole Indian tribes died from illness, leaving their horses to fend for themselves. These horses found the vast, fertile American ranges similar in climate and soil to the arid lands of their origin. There were a few predators, such as mountain lions, but not enough to slow the astoundingly rapid multiplication of horse numbers.
As the wild horses multiplied and became common place, they were called mustangs, a corruption of the Spanish word mestenas, meaning belonging to the Mesta. (The Mesta was a sheep herders organization in Spain that had the legal right to claim all lost sheep). The horses were called caballas mestanas, meaning strayed or lost horse stock.
As time past, the mustangs acquired the derogatory name of "broomtail," because of their thin, wispy tail (a result of inbreeding). Eventually the term became to mean an undesirable animal. With very little new stock being introduced to the wild herds and mustangers (men that captured wild horses to sell) taking the best of the animals, inbreeding caused the quality of the wild horses to diminish so that very little resemblance remained between the wild horses and their Spanish and Arabian ancestors. Dobie in The Mustangs says:
Absurd and ridiculous would be any person who tried to find nonexistent similarities between some hammer-headed, ram-nosed, ewe-necked, goat-withered, cat-hammed, sore-backed, hard-mouthed, mean-natured, broom-tailed bronco of the West at the close of the century and an Arabian of Kehilan (pure-bred) perfection. Just as absurd would it be to regard that bronco as representative of the Andalusian Barbs that Cortes and his handful of men rode to conquer the kingdom of Montezuma. One quality out of the original that never withered was hardihood (pages 13-14).
In the 21st Century, wild horses serve no practical purpose except to satisfy the romantic ideas of civilized people, for Americans today have a love affair with horses. Their beauty, power, intelligence, affectionate natures, and majestic bearing provide an attraction, a fascination, that is irresistible. Emotional bonds are forged between people and horses that are unique and special. Many people that have never owned a horse feel this mysterious attraction that has no reasonable explanation. Most owners are absolutely devoted to the species.
In Europe, Asia, and Latin America, horses are killed for human consumption, a practice that is considered appalling and unacceptable by many Americans. According to Marc Paulhus, 1997 Director of Equine Protection at the Humane Society of the United States: "The Humane Society of the United States views horses as companion animals, not livestockwe believe thatwe have a special debt to horses." Many people agree passionately with this point of view.
The mustangs are included in this special circle. Because of the magic and the romanticism of horses running wild and free, they have carved a special place for themselves. Many consider them a living part of Americas great Western heritage and as such should be protected. In keeping with this sentiment and because of a campaign by Velma Johnston, known (not necessarily with affection) as "Wild Horse Annie," Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 on December 15 of that year:
Congress finds and declares that free-roaming wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of lifeforms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people.
Also stated was the policy of Congress "that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death," and that they are "an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." (Nevada Factsheet)
For thirty years this law has been in effect, but not without ongoing major problems, the most prominent being the virility of the horses. With natural predators being almost non-existent, and man not allowed to capture them, the herds multiply rapidly beyond the capacity of the rangelands. And because these grazing lands are shared with wildlife and domestic cattle and sheep, overstocking has been an ongoing and controversial problem. To keep the horses from starving or being killed by irate ranchers, some adjustments had to be made.
The Adopt-A-Horse program was founded in 1973 as a legal and viable method of removing the wild horses from the rangelands as part of the effort to balance the ecology. The program allows an individual to adopt a wild horse for a minimal fee. The adopter then has the responsibility of providing humanely for the horse and is subject to government supervision for one year, after which time, the horse becomes private property. Foals born to adopted horses are not considered wild and belong to the owner of the dam.
Although the Adopt-A-Horse program has removed over 150,000 horse from the range lands, many problems have haunted it. First, the cost of preparing one animal for adoption, including veterinarian check, vaccinations, de-worming, transportation, and feed is astronomical (close to $1000). The adoption fee does little to defray these costs.
Another problem is that more horses are removed than are adopted. Many of these are "unadoptable" because of age, health, or disposition. Hundreds of unadoptables are placed in holding facilities, sometimes for their lifetime. Not only is this expensive, but some horse advocates claim that it is cruel to keep a wild animal under such conditions.
The creation of horse sanctuaries is another method by which wild horses are protected. Unadoptable horses are placed on privately owned lands and cared for by private individuals and organizations. Operators of these facilities are fiercely loyal to the horses they care for and in most cases, it is a labor of love, and not of financial gain. However, the practicality of finances controls much of what these sanctuaries can accomplish.
Overhead costs are extremely high. Supplemental feeding in the winter and in drought conditions, veterinarian care, vaccinations, de-worming, and farrier expenses on several hundred horses is extensive and ongoing. Especially with no product to sell to defray the cost. It was first believed that these sanctuaries would become self-supporting after a three-year period of government support, but this simply has not happened and some sanctuary programs have folded because of the lack of finances.
Controlling the birth rate of wild horses through contraceptives and gelding is another population control method that has been met with protest and controversy. Some activists claim that when humans interfere with natural selection, then nature is no longer natural. However, this protest holds little weight against the practicality of birth control that is cost effective and that would decrease the number of horses that must be removed through the Adopt-A-Horse program.
Another solution and the one that receives the most resistance is to allow the slaughter of some of the horses. For the horse lovers and the romantics this is totally unacceptable and appalling, but to people that are not emotional attached to these creatures (i.e. horse meat connoisseurs), this is deemed a practical and reasonable solution.
One thing is certain. Emotionalism and romanticism do not keep these beautiful animals from starving, nor do they provide enough financial support to maintain sanctuaries, feedlots, or the expenses of the Adopt-A-Horse program. Too often the very people who admire wild horses are the cause of their misery and the thinking they employ is at cross-purposes with what they claim to want.
First adopted wild horses are no longer a wild horses. They are contained, tamed, and trained, meaning they become domesticated. They no longer run wild and free to be seen and admired. The same goes double for the horse penned in a feedlot with no hope of being adopted or released.
Another consideration deals directly with the emotionalism and romanticism concerning Americas Western heritage. Most of the horses running lose today are not the descendents of the 16th Century Spanish horses, but are instead the feral offspring of horses lost by the U. S. Calvary and those turned lose by ranchers and farmers. I admit, this doesnt stop their beauty or attraction, but it does somewhat negate the claims of these animals being an American heritage.
Finally, allowing the rangelands to become overstocked is cruelty and poor stewardship. And expecting ranchers and other uses of public lands to abandon their professions and ways of life so that someone can admire 50,000 wild horses instead of 25,000 is impractical and selfish. In many cases, because they have a financial as well as emotional interest, these ranchers are the main managers and protectors of the land.
The American mustang, as a symbol of the freedom Americans honor should be allowed to run free, but common sense and practical means must be employed in controlling the population growth and overstocking. Gelding male horses and adding quality stallions to the herds is an excellent means of improving the quality of the mustang, enhancing their beauty and making them a more desirable animal for adoption. Educating people on livestock management, the grim reality of economics, and the tragedy of overstocked grazing lands could ease some of the controversy between the different factions.
Maintaining the wild herds under the current methods is simply supplying horses and burros for the Adopt-A-Horse program, while doing nothing to solve the problems.
So you want to adopt a wild horse. Before you do, please click to the following link and read the article written by Barbara Eustis-Cross.
A strong consideration should be the knowledge and ability of the adopting human to cope with a strong willed and able bodied wild animal. Taming and training these horses requires knowledge and understanding of horses as well as perfected skills. Most owners of domesticate horses hire a professional to do at least the initial training, and yet people that have never been around horses will adopt a wild one thinking they are doing something wonderful. Just remember, the horse may not be appreciative and may not conform to expectations.
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