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for people who care about the West



I’ve been thinking about horses lately. Actually, I think about horses a lot, often when I should be thinking about something else, like work. Usually my thoughts involve my eccentric gelding, Rex, and other horses that I know. However, some recent coverage of the wild horse roundups in Nevada and California has reminded me of the much bigger picture. Where do horses fit?

It strikes me that horses just might be a perfect symbol of conflict in the 21st century West. Of course, you’re thinking that they were also important western symbols in the 19th and 20th century, so this is no big epiphany, right? And yet their symbolism has changed radically. They’ve always been idealized, but horses used to be necessary to humans. Even well into the late 20th century, everyday ranch work required them, as there was simply no other practical way to deal with cattle and rough terrain. Ranchers still use horses for these purposes of course (to their credit), but for the most part they don’t need to; specialized quads and other ORVs can do much of the same work.

Image of Colorado wild horses courtesy Flickr user iversonic.

With their last traditional purpose diminished, horses are anachronisms. For all their beauty, versatility, and historical significance, they play no role in most people’s lives. Think of the bipartisan group of well-meaning U.S. representatives who signed on to a bill to halt the roundups – how many have likely ever seen one of these animals on the high sage plains near the Oregon border? How many have ever used a hoof pick or bought a bale of hay?

I’m not trying to be smug about my own experience, mind you; unlike ranch folk, I’m a suburban hobbyist-equestrian, a life-long amateur who clings to a childhood fantasy born on the pages of Marguerite Henry’s books. People are often surprised that I keep a horse, and ask:

·        Isn’t that expensive? (Answer: “Cheaper than psychotherapy”)

·        How do you have time? (Answer: “I don’t; I steal some from housecleaning”)

·        Will my daughter ever get over asking for one? (Answer: “No”)

That’s the thing: horses are victims of their own myth. Everybody likes them, but few people know much about them. In addition to the ongoing tragedies of wild-herd overpopulation and abuse, many have been abandoned during this Recession.

So what can we do? BLM pragmatists insist on culling wild horse herds, and, at least environmentally, they have the better argument. But then what happens? Some animals get adopted, but mustang training is no job for novices, so that solution is limited. We can donate money to rescue organizations, which is a great idea if you have any left over from your natural disaster relief fund. We could eat them, like some cultures do, but … ick. We’re stuck with a symbol we don’t want to relinquish.

To my mind, a more sustainable option involves accepting the new role of 21st century horse. Sure, some can live out in the wild lands, but not the vast herds of yore, as a recent HCN article made chillingly clear.

We westerners need to take responsibility for them, wild and domestic, and that means more people must let go of their horse stereotypes and step up to the plate. First of all, small-scale horse ownership is not out of reach for middle class people. As with any pet, you can spend a fortune if you want to, but you don’t have to. You don’t need vast acreage or silver-plated parade saddles or specialized knowledge. Most neighborhoods, even in the city, have reasonably-priced boarding stables, and used gear is all over Craig’s List. Horse care know-how is a must, but good books, videos, and convenient courses are readily available.

Here’s the biggest misconception that needs rethinking: riding. Not all horses need to be ridden. I’ll take some flack for saying that, but consider – the horses who really need help are the healthy but un-ridable ones at shelters, like some of these. Riding is great fun, but it’s a serious skill that takes time and effort to master. If you want to go that route, good for you, but if you don’t, consider bringing a gentle, well-mannered mare or gelding into your life. They’ll need exercise; you can walk them like dogs and get some exercise of your own. You can brush them and hang out with them and play with them and they’ll enrich your life and bring you and your horse-crazy girls joy, plus you will have made a spot at the shelter for another cast-off or mustang. Now there’s some justice for you.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.