We're still throwing horses overboard

  • Deanne Stillman


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

autrocities and remedies
kathleen Hayden
kathleen Hayden
Jul 01, 2010 11:37 AM
On the range management utilizing water and feed traps should replace the helicopter gathers. Mares can be treated for birth control and decisons made as to which individual horse constitute "excess" horses.

Provisions for this management practice is already in the law.
The gather I was on covered over 500,000 very rugged mountainous acres. It took a week to bring in 325 horses by helicopter. No way 4 wheelers or wranglers could do this in a month. Elevations ranged from 5000 to 9000 ft. Two or three horses died that I knew about, but only the pilot would know if they died on the way into the trap.
The animals are so traumatized by the entire process of the round up, crammed into trap pens and pushed into trailers and hauled over rough terrain, then to the staging area corals. Tiny foals get separated from moms and it is an awful sight to see. Due to accidents etc some animals are shot at this stage of the gather. After the herd is separated by sex they are loaded in semi trucks and shipped, often a hundred miles, for processing at BLM corrals, separated again into more categories, and squeezed into hydraulic chutes for worming, trimming and vaccinations.
Pregnant mares foal in crowded facilities, most un natural.
 Its a miracle that these wild horses and burros ever get domesticated or trust any human after such brutal treatment.
Coming from an Idaho cattle ranch, not public lands, I participated in many cattle round ups and drives. Accidents happen. However wild horses and burros are a national treasure and do not re act like domestic livestock. Perhaps civil demonstration is in order
to take the horses in holding and put them back on herd areas. BLM broke the law by removing them from their critical habitat, and not improving /expanding their critical habitat. The common process Agencies use to correct deficiencies is Resource Management Plan amendments and NEPA
BLM insists that once wild horses and burros are removed they loose their wild status. However the law is clear about mistakes and remedies. If they were removed by guvmint oversight, then clearly the remedy is repatriation.
 BLM has to account to our elected officials NOT to the public. Write, call, email your electeds. Hold their feet to the letter of the law.


Jul 01, 2010 12:34 PM
Thank you for saying so much of what I would have. People are needed that care for the horses, to work side by side with the BLM and not just people who are involved with the Ranchers of cattle and see staight forward with no care for the well being of the horses. Oh they say they do but actions certainly speak louder than words. I wonder why it is they hold these work shops when all that is said for sure falls on a deaf ear. Is it just to say, well we listened but they did not hear..they do not care. It is the Peoples tax dollars being used and that is simply mind boggling as we have no say..They are wrong for assuming...they know what is best..They are also wrong for all the lies they spute saying the horses are starving and ruining the land. It is like a Mafia Gov't. These horses do deserve dignity and a fair share of their land, the BLM just don't want to admit it or change their old ways. It truly is an epidemic of the Horrific kind for the horses. Solutions can be thought of but only through ALL peoples working together.This is one of the saddest times for the horses as thousands are being abuse and done so not just by simple folks but also by our Gov't for allowing this to continue, round ups, slaughter with the captive bolt..Trucking them like sardines with no food water and my God they are all bunched together on a truck stepping on each other and I am sure fighting. I do not want to hear well if slaughter in the USA was still legal this would not happen..Please, they would still cram then into a truck like sardines and no food and water...I will continue to pary to GOD for a miracle..I will continue my justice for the Horses and then what I cannot accomplish the GOOD LORD WILL..No stronger pwer then HIS..
Our wild horses (our)
kathleen Hayden
kathleen Hayden
Jul 01, 2010 01:19 PM
The bible gives man dominion over animals and so does our laws which mandate humane treatment. Where are ANIMAL RIGHTS provided for in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution? We have legal heritage rights to our cultural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them. Check out Dr. Kings Book Our Unprotected Heritage: Whitewashing Destruction of Our Cultural and Natural Environment. February 2009. While we FEEL compassion we could be spending that energy on OUR Cultural HERITAGE RIGHTS by demanding that our electeds enforce several conservation and wild life laws: not limited to but including the National Historic Preservation Act,the ESA, NEPA, and the FREE ROAMING Wild Horse and Burro Act. Remember that BLM claims that once the horses have been removed they no longer have wild status. That is why the idea of sanctuaries (privitization) need to be revised as a partnership with BLM to retain the legal wild status of, and public access to, Wild horses and burros.
Our Wild horsed (our)
Jul 02, 2010 01:11 PM

Your awarness of the laws is almost impressive however, you left out the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Public Range Improvement Act of 1978. Further, horses do not fall under the purveiw of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended.

You should also check out the laws that established land grant colleges and universities and what they are supposed to do.

Just because land looks green and healty to you does not mean the vegetation is good forage for horses, cows, sheep, deer or elk. some of it is quite toxic to animals - and the BLM, in cooperation with various state wildlife and land agencies, is required to know which is which. That is why they hire botanists, range management specialists and wildlife biologists - all of whom are required to be very good at plant identification and knowing when the health of the land is not good.

Studies have shown that when roundups by helicopter are done right it is safer for the horses and the wranglers that try to round them up. We have to consider the safety of the people as well as the horses. Horses, in case you haven't noticed are a very renewable resource.
We're Still Throwing Horses Overboard
Mar Wargo
Mar Wargo
Jul 02, 2010 03:04 PM
Thanks to Deanne Stillman for this backdrop. If the BLM takes over 12,000 wild horses this summer they may be leaving as few as 4,000 on all the ranges in the West. That will zero out even more herds. We are on the brink of losing all of our wild herds. (Jodi Peterson has just told us she thinks we need fewer wild horses. So, many loyal HCN readers will likely agree with her. I do not. Like BLM she is suggesting we ignore the law and let the wild ones disappear in an inhumane manner. Go see for yourself, you are a newsperson!.)

There will be more wild horses on public lands than on private. The captives have been treated like POWs and the public not allowed to see them. The entire program, the gathers and the processing is being kept out of the public eye. Records are not forthcoming and sharing information is not done. The management has caused the stockpiling AND the increased budget needs. This has become such a quagmire it is almost impossible for anyone to untangle without spending months reading the background. BLM has recently suggested that the horses, rightfully, be allowed to be grazed on allotments. I am for this and any way we may get our stolen horses out of Long Term Holding and allowed to live in dignity.

Jodi, you have not done enough research. mar
OUR Wild Horses
Suzanne Moore
Suzanne Moore
Jul 03, 2010 08:58 AM
fyzuickman ~ You're knowledge of the law, on the other hand, is not so good. The Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 supersedes the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Public Range Improvement Act of 1976 does does not apply to the land already designated as the horses' ranges. In fact, there is nothing that invalidates the clear mandate of the 1971 Act.

I do NOT trust any "science" that comes from the BLM because they will report anything and everything that advances their own plans. It sure is strange that EVERY independent ecologist and range manager that ever checks the BLM's statements disagrees with them. In fact, the BLM frequently disagrees with itself. Makes a person suspicious, ya know?

And you say "studies" prove that helicopter roundups when done right are safe? Well, maybe their not being done right, because the ones I know anything about were any thing BUT safe OR humane. In fact, they were horrendous! Too bad you can't ask the foal at the Calico "gather" that had his baby hooves literally run off his feet if he thinks it's safe - he sloughs all four hooves and was put down.
Renewable resource?
Jul 07, 2010 03:09 PM
Are you serious - they are a renewable resource? Is your dog, your cat?

How dare you declare that, and who would condone this view? Not the public majority!

No life is renewable. Our wild animals, including the horses, have intrinsic value to the majority.

We need to find ways to ASSIST in the healthy management IF and WHERE needed, and those ways must become more humane. There are ways, we all know it. But those who prefer killing have bigger guns and stand in the way.

It is time to take back our wildlife. To demand equal representation and laws that respect OUR wishes, the general public. NOT the BLM, and not only the sportsmen.

State agencies syndicating abusive practices that clearly violate our state statutes against cruelty is BS! We want some Commissioners that are not killers on the State Boards for a change.

Please take time to read "Whose wildlife is it anyway", a Pace environmental review paper that is all true today, if not worse. And do not buy "wildlife" license plates or check that box on your IRS tax return.

Enough! no more malinging species, no more crap about "population control" or "disease". Wake up people! We are being duped and paying for it. Conservation is a JOKE.

And NO, I am not anti-hunting. I am in the majority who say if you expect us to accept "ethical hunting" then show us ethical standards - and enforce them!
Rez Horses
Rez Jimbo
Rez Jimbo
Jul 16, 2010 07:45 AM
We have about 60,000 feral horses on the Navajo Reservation and you horse can have them all. We will gladly just give them to you...we will catch them and even train them for you. They do not have a home and have eaten all our grasses, brushes, trees, and etc. For more info. on how to get them call any of the 110 Navajo Nation Chapter Houses, otherwise they will keep going to Mexico and also the firing squad.
Revere's horse
Jul 04, 2010 08:10 AM
Just a note-
Paul Revere rode a Narragansett Pacer borrowed from a wealthy friend. (There's no proof her name was Brown Beauty.)
Narragansetts did have Spanish lines, but from the Spanish Jennet (Andalusia), not the "wild" Carolina horses. They were considered the finest horses in New England area. Instead of the jarring two-beat trot, the Narragansett offered a smooth four-beat saddle gait, favored for its speed and comfort. In addition the breed had an amiable, courageous temperament vital in times of crisis. The Narragansetts were also a direct derivative from Old English Ambler (palfreys) which had been taken across the Atlantic by the pioneers and later became extinct in Britain; and of course are the forerunners of today's American Saddlebred(Kentucky Saddler), Morgan and Tennessee Walker.
They were heavily exported to the West Indies; it's believed they contributed to the Paso Fino, and recent DNA tests have linked them to wild herds on the islands.
By 1812, there were no original Narragansetts in America.
Horses, Cows and ruined land
Mick Dee
Mick Dee
Jul 04, 2010 05:08 PM
I'll share two experiences that I will always remember. Both, happened this year.

1. While riding my bike on multi use trails near Wilson Creek in the Owyhee wilderness in SW Idaho I came over a rise and was face to face with a group of 15 wild horses. I had heard of wild horse packs, but had never seen them or even considered them as essentially wild animals. After a few moments of staring and considering each other, the horses turned and into a thundering full gallop and were far away in seconds into the lush growth further down the drainage. I still get goose pimples remembering it.

2. Last month my wife and I took a trip into a section of the Owyhee wilderness that is very sprasely populated and though public, mostly considered ranch land. We drove over 200 miles on 4wd roads and traversed a swath of land that touched on Idaho, Nevada, and Orgeon. In three days of traveling, and three nights camping we found it difficult to find a place in all that wilderness to pitch a tent on ground that wasn't dung covered, and denuded. To be fair there were some grassy, well maintained ranch areas, but those were all private.

I'm all for responible stewardship, and proper grazing technique, but lets talk about how the wild horses stack up to the frightening overuse and abuse of public lands from domesticated animals.
A few questions
Jul 11, 2010 08:54 AM
Deanne: If you are against wild horse gathers, how should wild horse populations be managed? A herd can double its numbers in 5 years. Do the resource impacts of that kind of exponential growth not concern you? Do you care about our ranges?

Horses are not the only animals rounded up. Livestock are as well (although not by helicopter), and the numbers of livestock permitted by the BLM has been steadily declining for some time now (although not quite fast enough for my tastes). Other grazers are not rounded up, they are harvested in greater numbers by hunters when they exceed carrying capacity. Either way, every grazer on public lands is managed in some fashion. Do you think wild horses should be the only animal not managed by humans? Again, how could you be okay with the environmental impacts of this approach of unchecked growth?

Also, could you clarify how the “free-roaming law is often ignored”? You speak of gathers in your next sentence. Are you saying gathers are contrary to the Act? I’ve heard this many times before, yet the act explicitly gives the Secretary of the Interior the authority to remove excess animals. Read it yourself here: http://www.wildhorsepreservation.com/resources/theact.pdf.
wild horses
wayne keehart
wayne keehart
Jul 11, 2010 09:12 AM
while wild horses envision romantic notions and visions, i wonder how much money these authors contribute of their own funds to the horse's care. I see both sides of the issue but how many millons should be spent that could go to needy people? I do believe the numbers need lowered. there are numerous people who have the knowledge to determine what the range can support while competing with other native species.
But Do They Belong Here Now?
Jul 11, 2010 07:49 PM
I understand your concern over the welfare of wild horses, but how about all the other native wildlife that they displace due to their habitat degradation. You say the are returning. You forgot to point out that they went extinct because the ecology of North American changed and the land no longer supported them. In addition, the horses of tens of thousands of years ago thay you refer to were much smaller with different life histories. They were not the present day horse.

Horses are part of our history. They are magnificent animals that coevolved with us. But we are also blessed with present day native species that are declining due to the introduction of the non-native horse by humans. We have responsibilites to the hundreds of other species that occupy our wild lands and are suffering because of growing numbers of wild horses we put upon them.

Nothing romantic about horses
Kenneth Keffer
Kenneth Keffer
Jul 12, 2010 11:40 PM
What the Conquistadors did to the people of the new world was a travesty and they could not have done their dastardly deeds without the horse. I have seen the damage horses can do in Nevada they are as destructive to the land as they were to the people the Conquistadors slaughtered. These horses that are on public lands are domesticated horses gone feral they are not the same critter that roamed the Americas 12,000 years ago they have been bread by humans to suit their needs, they are man's creation. If left alone these animals will over breed their food and water source and go extinct like their ancestors did so in reality they are still domesticated.
Pleistocene Rewilding?
Jul 14, 2010 04:55 PM
It sounds like what many of you are advocating is Pleistocene Rewilding


Well, if that is what we want, should we import wild horses from Mongolia rather than the ones we have now which are descended from domestic animals? Also, what controlled their population when they were here before? Lions? Wolves? Humans?