Mustangs | Spirit of the Shrinking West, National Geographic Magazine

Americans have a love affair with horses—especially the wild horse. Mustangs are a mythic symbol of freedom, heroism, romance, limitless possibilities, and the vanishing West.  Along with that fantasy, wild horses also embody some of the intractable complexities and contradictions of modern American life.

It is believed that two million wild horses roamed the largely unfenced American West in the early 1900s. During the hundred years since, a growing human population’s expanding urbanization has eaten up much of their range. Today fewer than 30,000 wild horses are squeezed onto public lands in ten western states.

Horses are prey animals with a well-developed fight or flight instinct, although their first response to a threat is to flee. Mustangs are highly social and a …

Mustangs | Spirit of the Shrinking West, National Geographic Magazine

Americans have a love affair with horses—especially the wild horse. Mustangs are a mythic symbol of freedom, heroism, romance, limitless possibilities, and the vanishing West.  Along with that fantasy, wild horses also embody some of the intractable complexities and contradictions of modern American life.

It is believed that two million wild horses roamed the largely unfenced American West in the early 1900s. During the hundred years since, a growing human population’s expanding urbanization has eaten up much of their range. Today fewer than 30,000 wild horses are squeezed onto public lands in ten western states.

Horses are prey animals with a well-developed fight or flight instinct, although their first response to a threat is to flee. Mustangs are highly social and a linear dominance hierarchy is established when they live in a herd. Bands or families are formed and organized in a harem mode that consists of a male and several females. Young studs challenge the lead stallion, particularly during mating season. Though some of the aggressive behavior is posturing, stallions battle fiercely for dominance in the herd and to protect their mares. Bachelor bands wait for a chance to steal a mare from the lead stallion.

Fossil evidence shows that horses evolved in North America and roamed the continent with woolly mammoths, but then disappeared12 million years ago.  It is believed that the horse likely survived extinction by moving into Siberia and Asia across the Bering Land Bridge.

Horses were brought back to this continent at the time of European exploration. Some of today’s mustang herds descend directly from horses brought over by Spanish Conquistadors in the late fifteenth century. Other herds’ ancestors escaped or were let loose by settlers, ranchers, and Native Americans. Their reintroduction in 1519 has led detractors to claim the horse is not a “native species” deserving protection.

The United States Cavalry used horses for mounts until 1942. They supplied ranchers throughout the west with thoroughbred studs to run with the ranchers’ bands of mares in order to raise horses for the army. Introducing well-bred stallions into the herds helped prevent inbreeding and improved the gene pool.

No longer used as transportation or beast of burden, the horse plays a different role today. Some are still used on ranches and farms, but most domestic horses are pets. Some mustangs that are tamed develop deep and trusting bonds with humans.

With the changing role in our culture, there is increased pressure on the wild horse. As cities spread further into the countryside, wild horses are pushed onto smaller and smaller parcels of public land, where wild fires and reoccurring droughts make life increasingly harsh. Horses compete with cattle for resources, and for open land in the West, which is going quickly for oil and gas exploration. 

Velma Johnston, aka “Wild Horse Annie,” is credited with pushing for 1971 legislation that first protected wild horses and burros. Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spends $40 million annually caring for wild horses. Most visible are the gathers, or roundups, performed by contractors who use helicopters to drive horses into a trap to be culled. After their capture, mustangs can be adopted by the public, but few are. Much of the BLM funding is goes to providing care for the once wild horses in long-term facilities. More wild horses are held in captivity than those running wild and free. And there they stand, at the heart of a bitter debate.

 

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Steel-gray storm clouds create a dramatic backdrop for a mare and young foal as they crest a hill in a gallop across plains in South Dakota. The wild horses run from the thunder as the fight or flight instinct kicks in to save them from danger.
 
Wild horses thunder across parched desert wilderness in the Jackson Mountains. Dust kicks up as their hooves pound the scorched, barren rangelands. Horses are prey animals with a well-developed fight or flight instinct. Their first response to a threat is to flee. A mythic symbol of freedom, mustang herds roam on public lands, but half of the 35,000 wild horses are in Nevada.
Photograph was published in National Geographic magazine for a story on mustangs.
A charismatic white stallion named Phantom roamed free in the Nevada wilderness for 17 years. Development in this rural area, however, brought more traffic, and cars on a busy road hit two of his mares. He was captured, much to the dismay of locals who had watched him over the years lead his band (or family) out of the mountains and through the valley to water.
Because of his age, Phantom was headed for slaughter, but public outcry launched a frantic search for a home and he was rescued and moved to a private sanctuary. Phantom has not been seen since the time this picture was made on the 5,000-acre Wild Horse Sanctuary near Mt. Lassen in California where he was released.
Refuges can be part of a solution for the conflicts that arise with wildlife and man. But there are fears that after horses are rounded up, removing too many of the older but stallions from will take away the herd wisdom slowing younger stallions to breed with very young fillies. It can also diminish the strength of a varied bloodline that keeps mustangs from being interbred.
Wild Horse Sanctuary began in 1978 when wild horses were rounded up for the Modoc County Forest Service. Of the 300 horses captured, 80 were going to be destroyed at a government holding facility in California, but were rescued.
Hiding behind jute screen fence, a cowboy watches as a helicopter drives horses into a trap. A “Judas” horse trained to run into a corral dupes the frightened horses into following. Then they are captured.
Contractors hired by the Bureau of Land Management gathered nearly 900 horses that competed with cattle for the sparse water and food available in the Nevada desert. After their capture, a few healthy horses were released back into the wild, but most were shipped to Palomino Valley for evaluation. If they are not adopted, they are trucked to farms and ranches where they are housed by the federal government.
Cowboy photograph was featured in the article on Wild Horses in National Geographic magazine.
A curious yearling approaches a bit warily, but followed by another horse, both are wind-blown and shedding shaggy winter coats as spring arrives in South Dakota. Although watchful, the horses’ ears are forward showing interest and openness. Horses are very social creatures, and the youngsters play fight and gallop showing little fear as they test themselves. They quickly learn the hierarchy that evolves among members of a wild horse herd.
 
An intruding stallion is met at the edge of the group by a dominant male with ritualistic posturing, which may lead to fighting. The stance includes an arched neck, raised tail, prancing gait, and stomping. The pattern of responses includes approaching and investigating, covering of voided urine, pawing and sniffing.
The fight or flight instinct is strong in wild horse behavior. Studs challenge harem stallions for status and to win mares from the dominant horse.
Dust rises in dry summer heat as a herd of wild horses moves to the waterhole in northern California. The alpha mare decides when the herd will go, but social hierarchy determines the order in which groups of horses will drink. A young foal spritely walks in the center of the herd protected from predators.
In the wild, a horse can survive by filling up on water just once every other day.  A thousand pound horse, however, can consume approximately 10 gallons of water in a single day. Drought and wild land fire place pressures on the wild horse that competes for resources with wildlife and cattle in the West.
After ritualistic pawing and sniffing, an aggressive gray stallion goes for the throat of another wild horse in a confrontation for dominance. Fur flies as the stallion rears back, caught off guard by the attack.  Serious injuries can occur as stallions fight, and most studs have missing ears, their bodies battled scarred from bite marks as well as strikes from front hooves.
 
A band of wild horses crosses a stream after a heavy rain in South Dakota. Survival dictates that the herd members ultimately cooperate and stick together. As with many animals that live in large groups, establishment of a stable hierarchy or “pecking order” is important to smooth group functioning. A lead mare often determines when the herd moves and others follow.
Stallions fiercely battle for dominance in the social hierarchy of a wild mustang   herd. Studs establish a “harem” and defend their position by fighting to win the most mares. Most challenges occur in the spring during breeding season.
These fighting studs belong to the Gila Herd. Genetic testing shows they descend from horses brought to North America by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. They are mostly dun colored with a black dorsal stripe, a black mane and tail, and primitive, dark zebra stripes on their legs.
The Gila Herd is known to be wily—they hid in the salt cedars to escape capture for at least 100 years. In 1996, 75 of these horses were rounded up to be sold at auction. The photograph was made in South Dakota at the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros.
Photograph of horses fighting was the lead picture in a story in National Geographic magazine.
Horses are prey animals with a flight or fight instinct, although their first response is often to flee from predators. As these three stallions travelling across sagebrush high plains in Oregon crest a hill, one is startled by a noise. He sounds the alarm for danger, and begins to run. The middle horse begins to follow and gallop to safety, and the third alertly looks back to the perceived danger. Man is the greatest predator of horses, but in Steens Mountain the mountain lion is also a threat.
Panic and confusion set in as wild horses in the herd are driven into a trap and confront fences for the first time. Dust flies as the horses storm the corral.  A herding animal, horses have a “flight or fight” instinct when they sense danger.
The Bureau of Land Management hired contractors to capture the mustangs to reduce numbers on the land outside Winnemucca, Nevada. They believed that dry conditions and fire created a desperate situation so the horses had so little forage and water; the health of this herd was at risk.
Radio triggered remote cameras captured the low angle of the horses as they ran into the trap.
 
A ghostly white horse appears out of the darkness in the early evening illuminated by a full moon. The White Sands herd in South Dakota includes multi-colored horses, but they also a rare gaited gene.
Horses sleep only a few hours a night and are alert for danger, however, ears forward 
is an alert and attentive sign, often showing happiness or curiosity. Body language is the predominant means of communication for the horse. They use ear position, neck and head height, movement, and foot stomping or tail swishing to communicate with each other.
 
 
 
A full moon illuminates a band of illusive wild horses as they crest a hill on western lands. Small families travel together, sleeping only three or four hours at night, always alert for danger. Darkness comes late over the White Sands Herd in South Dakota.
ISPMB is the oldest wild horse organization in the country. Wild Horse Annie (Velma Johnston) was the first president. Annie, along with Helen Reilly, worked for the passage of the 1971 Wild Horses and Burros Act to protect horses from slaughter and inhumane treatment.
 
Harsh, cold weather means survival of the fittest. As night falls, a lone horse paws through deep snows in the Ochoco National Forest in search of something to eat.  Depending on the horse’s body condition, a healthy horse can go quite a long time without eating—a month or so—provided he already had a great amount of stored body fat. The horses eat snow for a water source.
The horses in the Ochoco are remnants of the Indian and settlers’ horses that roam the Big Summit Horse Territory in the mountains of eastern Oregon.
The thick blanket of fog makes it difficult for the harem stallion to keep a watchful eye over his band. A stud challenged the dominant stallion, trying to steal mares and to take advantage of the confusion brought by the weather. Sometimes studs in a bachelor band will work together to outwit the dominant stallion.
The wild horse herd grazes in a South Dakota prairie.
A wild, blue-eyed mare stares with wariness and curiosity. Horses have a well-developed fight or flight instinct and their first response to a threat is to flee. This horse is a descendant of the Catnip Wild Horse Herd that consists of paints and palominos with blue eyes, which were bred for the American Cavalry in the 1800s. The first use of horses for warfare occurred 5,000 years ago.
 
 As evening slips into darkness, a stallion chases a maturing colt from the band in South Steens Mountain in the high desert near Frenchglen, Oregon. As young studs mature, they begin to challenge stallions for dominance and show interest in the mares as they come into season. It is believed that the young males are driven away at this point, to prevent a challenge as well as inbreeding. If aggressive enough, a young stud may find a mare to mate with and they will begin their own band. More often, the stud joins up with other males to form a bachelor band.
Hungry wild horses forage at an abandoned industrial site a few miles east of Reno, Nevada. Mustangs are protected by law and are assigned herd management areas. Increased pressures on public lands make the American West more fenced and water and food sources even more rare. Wild horses can be found in desolate places like this, just trying to survive.
Photograph was featured in the National Geographic magazine story on Wild Horses.
Summer heat brings horses to water on a trek once a day as the herd travels to drink at the waterhole. Bands are led by a mare that is dominant in the hierarchy of the herd. She is called the “dominant mare,” the “lead mare” or “alpha mare.”
A thousand pound horse needs about 10 gallons of water daily. Generally a healthy horse cannot survive more than 7 days without water, and may well develop impaction colic going even 24 hours without water.
The camera was set off by a remote to capture wild horse behavior in a natural setting, although the sound of the shutter draws this curious horse closer for a good look.
 
Strong winds blow rain from a storm cloud that violently erupts with loud claps of thunder that sends a band of horses running for safety. The young foal runs behind, following her mother and another mare.
The wild horse herd nervously watched as a storm approached in central South Dakota. When lightning and thunder began, they galloped to a far away fence where they could go no further. The fight or fright instinct of behavior is strong for horses to panic and flee when they sense danger.
 
Storm clouds brew over a South Dakota prairie as a wary foal stands close to his mother. She watches out for his protection as the bond between a mare and her offspring is quite close until he is weaned.  Small groups, families or bands of horses with young foals, graze nearby.
The Gila herd is of Spanish origin and came to North America with the Conquistadors.
Young studs spar and play-fight, practicing for the day they’ll challenge a grown stallion and win their own band of mares. Colts tend be more aggressive, using their teeth when they fight, whereas fillies are more likely to kick.
These yearlings were aggressivley playing when the battle became more serious and a real fight began.
 
 
 
Born under the cover of night, a newborn foal takes his wobbly first steps beside his mother, a mustang who keeps her eye on the nearby horse herd. The freeze brand on her neck indicates the mother was a wild horse who was captured by the Bureau of Land Management before she was moved to the South Dakota prairie.
Baby horses are born after a gestation period of approximately 11 months.  Birth takes place quickly and usually at night, consistent with other prey animals. Foals are born with the ability to escape from predators. A foal can stand and nurse in the first hour after it is born, and can trot and canter within hours. A newborn foal’s legs are nearly as long as that of an adult horse.
Wild horses create a cloud of dust as they run across dry, sagebrush-covered land. Trails mark paths the horses follow in their trek through the barren desert of the Jackson Mountains searching for water and food.
Nearly half the wild horses in the U.S. live in Nevada where they compete for food, water and territory with cattle, other wildlife, and oil gas and mineral exploration. Drought and wild land fire place greater pressures on the scrappy herd that survives on little to nothing.
Photograph was published in article on Wild Horses in National Geographic magazine.
 
A cloud of dust rises as two helicopters guide 870 horses across the desert into a trap. They are being removed from the Winnemucca Rangeland Area after the Bureau of Land Management determined that the number of horses there could not be supported. Drought and wild fires have created a dire situation for the horses, but advocates of mustangs believe horse herds are systematically being eliminated from western lands.
Although there were as many as two million mustangs at the turn of the century, their numbers are much smaller and reduced regularly by these BLM gathers.
Mustangs run in a tight pack as hired contractors herd large numbers of horses into a trap using helicopters. Nearly panicked, they are tricked with a tame “Judas” horse let loose in the confusion. The tame horse runs along the jute fence and into a corral expecting food and the wild horses follow and are captured.
The Jackson Mountain Herd consists of mostly brown and dun colored horses. Most were dehydrated and hungry from drought conditions in Nevada.
Young wild horses stand together for protection in the corner of a corral after they are captured in a roundup in the Jackson Mountains of Nevada. Mares and foals are marked so they can be reunited after being sorted and separated into makeshift pens.
Loaded into trucks, they are moved along with the stallions to Palomino Valley. There, they are given food and water along with medical inspections and injections. They receive a freeze brand and are shipped to another facility or made available for adoption by the Bureau of Land Management.
This picture was published as part of the article published on Wild Horses in National Geographic magazine.
 
An inmate rides a horse in training near tall barbed-wire fences under the watchful eye of a skilled trainer. Wild horses are gentled at the Warm Springs Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in Nevada. Hank Curry ran the horse-training program, selecting and training over five hundred horses and only five have been returned. Horses learn from repetition and adjust to new things during the training. Curry said, “It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. We bore them into submission.”
Similar programs exist in Colorado and Wyoming where it is believed that horses and inmates both learn life lessons involving trust. The public adopts the trained horses during auctions. Some horses that are trained by inmates are used by the U.S. Border Patrol on rugged borders in Montana, Washington and California.
 
 Kitty Lauman nuzzles one the mustangs she has trained while her young daughter rides another that is her favorite. Highly respected for her gentle but firm manner with difficult horses, Lauman started her career as a trainer at the age of nine and under the guidance of her grandfather, John Sharp. She later became a top Pee Wee and High School Rodeo contestant, competing in barrel racing and cutting, and won the title of Miss Rodeo Oregon in 1994.  
Lauman earned high esteem as a trainer when she placed second in the first Extreme Mustang Makeover, a competition where thirty trainers from all over the U.S. were selected to trained young, unhandled wild horses over a 30-day period.
 
Former mustang Dot waits patiently while a herder stops to upright a sheep that was stuck on his back in a road rut on the high plains landscape of southwestern Wyoming. A calm, steady horse, Dot was adopted from a prison-training program in Wyoming to work on a sheep ranch.
Dot is credited with saving a young Peruvian shepherd’s life after they were lost in a blinding snowstorm. The nearly frozen rider dropped the reins and Dot found his way back, just one month after being brought to live on the ranch. The rugged horse survived years on the open range living as a wild horse in the desert before his capture.
 
 
Galloping in circles and creating a dusty cloud in the golden brown desert in Nevada, Tom King trains his horse for the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition.  King says he is gentle but firm with Jimmy, who is spirited, willing, and full of energy. The three year old was born in Palomino Valley in Nevada and adopted after the contest.
The Mustang Makeover is held annually to raise awareness for the adoptability of wild horses. Approximately 100 trainers are given unhandled, wild horses, and compete after 100 days to show off their skills.
 
 
A young cowboy—ready for action with red cape, badge, and his mustang Paiute—takes a stance under a full moon on the ranch in Oregon. A skilled rider, winning many awards with his former wild horse, he learned much from his mother, a respected trainer, who works “with the horses, not against them.”
 
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