Mustangs | Spirit of the Shrinking West, National Geographic magazineBy Melissa Farlow
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.