During the 16th century when conquistadors crossed the ocean from the Old World to the New, their ships often became stranded along the equator at a place where the winds stopped blowing. To lighten their load, they would throw horses overboard. Eventually, the sails would fill with air and the voyage could continue. Over time, this part of the ocean came to be known as "the horse latitudes." It is said that about half of the horses on the early crossings perished in this region.
The horses that survived helped the Spanish launch their conquest. But unlike the conquistadors, the horses were not newcomers: After thousands of years, they were returning to their homeland, linked through their DNA to Ice Age horses found on this continent. Given our history, it would seem that their return was fated.
We all know the Longfellow poem about Paul Revere's midnight ride and the fearless steed who "kindled the land into flame" in April 1775. The poem tells us little else about the gallant animal, but we know from the record that she was a mare named Brown Beauty, and her forebears included Spanish horses that had disembarked on the Carolina banks as the conquest began. When Revere's ride was over, the mare was seized by a British soldier, who mounted her and galloped away. The horse collapsed and died later that night -- spent -- after launching the war for independence.
In the West, her historic Spanish relatives became the foundation stock for the mustangs that went on to blaze our trails and fight our wars. By the end of the 19th century, the day of the horse was over and the 2 million mustangs then roaming the range became a cash crop. An era known as "the great removal" ensued, and countless horses were sent back to Europe in tin cans or on boats to serve in foreign wars.
They would have vanished like the buffalo were it not for the efforts of a woman known as Wild Horse Annie. After seeing blood spilling out of a truck on a Nevada highway in 1950, she followed it to a slaughterhouse, and watched as dying mustangs were offloaded for rendering. For the next 20 years, she battled for legal protections for wild horses.
"We need the tonic of wildness," said Richard Nixon, quoting Henry David Thoreau as he signed the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971. "Wild horses merit protection as a matter of ecological right," Nixon added, "as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free."
Under that law, horses are to be "considered in areas where presently found as an integral part of the system of public lands." Oversight falls to agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, which often favor corporate cattle ranching in their policies. Many stockmen regard mustangs as "thieves" that steal food from other grazing animals (yet they often accuse defenders of wild horses of assigning human traits to the animals.)
Today, the free-roaming law is often ignored and mustangs are in peril. Cruel helicopter roundups are undertaken, sometimes based on outdated mustang counts or less than accurate studies. According to the government, there are about 38,000 wild horses on public lands today; quite likely, there are as many or more in the Orwellian maze of federal housing. Others, however, say that the number of free-roaming horses is much lower, and often find many fewer horses on the range than what is stated in official census reports.
Mustang populations also endure other stresses, such as unscheduled "gathers" during drought. (No other animal is rounded up under such conditions, and the horses aren't returned to the range after being given water.) More roundups are scheduled for this year, even though over 100 died in captivity after a recent one in Nevada. The situation is aggravated by a media that routinely reprint government talking points -- mustangs destroy the land, cost too much to manage, and constitute an invasive species (contradicted by some of the BLM's own Web sites, which refer to the wild horse as a "reintroduced" animal).
"We owe it all to God, and the horse," said Hernando Cortes when the conquest was over. That's still true today, regardless of your religious beliefs. A recent shift in the wind suggests that officials may finally be willing to listen to the old conquistador -- and act accordingly. But right now, nearly 500 years after horses returned to their homeland, we are still throwing them overboard, trying to lighten our load.
Deanne Stillman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, and lives in Los Angeles, California.