Wild mustangs have captured the thoughts and imagination of almost everyone at some point in time. From pictures of wild horses silhouetted against the sunset, to visions of the Wild West and the Cowboys and Indians that rode the wild mustangs and ponies. But how much of these stories are true and what part is pure imagination?
My grandfather was a farmer for many years in southern Nevada, and although he was never a “mustanger” he used to tell me some very exciting stories when we would go back to the farm for a visit. I remember as a child looking out across the horizon, and thinking, if I looked hard enough, maybe, just maybe, I would catch a glimpse of the wild horses that ran through those parts. And as a child with a great imagination, I was sure that I saw them -just beyond the horizon! My grandfather has long since sold the farm, moved to town, and passed away.
But the stories that he told me and the pictures that I made in my head remain as clear as day and they are what brought me to my topic. I wanted to know where the wild mustangs came from, and what has happened to them.
One of the first reported sightings of a wild horse in Nevada was by John Bidwell in the narrative he wrote as a member of the first emigrant train to California in 1841. The train had been following the Humboldt River and at a stop he writes, “we saw a solitary horse, an indication that trappers had some time been in the vicinity. We tried to catch him but failed; he had been there long enough to become very wild.”(Amaral 15) Another early siting was made by Dan De Quille, who was on a prospecting trip as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise that was published in Virginia City. He reported that his party saw seven wild horses feeding in the valley of the Stillwater Range, east of Fallon. De Quille surmised that the horsed were “American horses strayed from the droves brought across the plains by emigrants.” (Amaral 15)
Are the wild mustangs that have been fantasized about for so many generations really just “stray” or feral horses? Well, as I was a little disappointed to discover, yes they are, but they have a very interesting history.
The modern horse that is found in America was introduced by way of Europe, not only by the Spanish but also by the settlers along the Atlantic seaboard. Horses were among the first animals brought by these people to America. The Spanish brought horses to America as early as 1514, when the Spanish first arrived in Mexico. Over time the horses spread northward into the American West. Other horses also migrated west from the eastern seaboard. These are the same horses that were acquired by the Indians through both trade and theft. This history makes the horses know in the west not a wild mustang but feral horse, a horse that formerly had been domesticated, or its descendant. These horses may have developed some markings and senses that characterized its ancestors living in the wild, but it was still the modern equus. (Wyman) The introduction of the horse to America by the Europeans was not the first time horses had roamed the Americas.
The true wild horse is a remote ancestor of the domesticated and feral horse of our era, and was indigenous to the American continent. In those years so long ago, when semitropical woodlands and lush vegetation provided a hospitable environment, and after the dinosaurs had been gone, the first horse was about the size of a fox. Its forefoot had four toes and the back had three. Scientists have found thousands of crushed skulls and skeleton fragments of this tiny animal, called Eohippus. (Haines 5) Another distinct type of the early horse was a three-toed creature the size of a sheep. These animals developed and adapted over time. The last believed stage in this development of the horse shows the size of the skeleton to range from the smallest Shetland pony to a large draft horse. There is a skeleton mounted in the Yale Museum that stands fifteen hands high and is said to have “somewhat the proportions of a western broncho, but with a very large head and with teeth greater than the modern dray horse…”(Wyman 20). This one-toed animal roamed not only the North and South American continents but also Europe and Asia. Evolutionary data shows the gradual change in bones, teeth, and the skeleton of the horse, as well as the development of special parts of the body affecting its ability to run and eat. It is unknown why the horse disappeared in North and South America but not in Asia. There are several theories, but none seem to hold as it is evident from the amazing way in which the few imported horses multiplied and spread, that the environment was right. We therefor look to other reasons of extinction such as insect-transmitted disease. It is likely that we would be without horses at all had there not been a migration of the prehistoric horse to Africa and Asia, where the line continued to develop into the modern equus and also the zebra and the ass.
There seems to be no agreement as to the ancestral home of the horse. Claims have been made that the Tarpan or the Equus
Przhevalski, found on the Gobi Desert in recent years, is the true progenitor of the modern horse. This animal was found by the Russian army officer, Przhevalski, and brought to the United States and England to be studied. These horses can still be found and caught in the steppe country of Asia, but there is no evidence that they can be domesticated.
Modern horses are presumed to have their origin in several wild species, and not just the Tarpan alone. Regardless of their definite origin, and line of decent, they thrived and spread from Asia to Europe. In Europe the development of the horse is that of its incorporation into civilization. This incorporation eventually led to the return of the horse to North America.
As stated before, the Spanish were the first to bring the horse to America. In fact, Columbus deserves the credit for being the very first to introduce the horse to the New World. On his second trip to the West Indies, Columbus brought a few horses to establish ranches in Santo Domingo. Apparently Columbus had a firm belief in ranching, as for several years, every ship then carried horses to the New World and it is probable that by 1500 a fair beginning in ranching had been made.
Though the Spanish were the first to introduce the horse to America, the English settlers also brought their own horses. In 1609 there is a letter from Virginia to England that shows that the first horses had been introduced there. On July 1, 1630, John Winthrop noted in his journal that of the two ships that arrived that day, that “their passengers were all in good health, but most of their cattle were dead; wherof a mare and a horse of mine.” (Wyman 30)
Once the horses had been reintroduced to America, it took very little for the population of the horses to take off. By the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803, horses existed in large numbers throughout the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. In the decades that followed, “as one enthusiastic writer of the 1930s put it, horses ‘captured the West’ in one of the worlds most ‘momentous’ development.” (Paskett x)
In the years after the Civil War, wild horses ranged in large number throughout the West. They became both a resource and a nuisance to the advancing white settlers. They were seen not as just a symbol of the American West, but as a competitor of domestic livestock for feed. Wild horse numbers surged first on the Plains, as the buffalo were exterminated, and then reduced as livestock and homestead frontiers advanced. Horses had been killed for their hides or for population control as early as Spanish times. “Now a generation-long chase ensued as cowboying Americans gradually forced wild horses into more remote localities.” (Paskett x)
Nevada became one of those “more remote localities” for a number of reasons. First, the ecology of the Great Basin area, of which most of Nevada is the heart, was very inviting to the horses. Nevada was one of the last areas of the West to be explored and settled. And the Indians in this region lacked the social organization of those on the Great Plains. In his book, Anthony Amaral said that it would be more likely that the Indians in this region would devour a horse they found than that they would put it to use. (17) The combination of these factors made Nevada a prime area for the wild horses to live and Nevada’s horses became the epitome of what people called the “American horse”.
Now, what do I mean by “American horse”? Well, there were really three kinds of wild horses: Spanish horses of good quality (from Mexico, California, and Texas), Indian ponies, and American horses, which were the most common in Nevada. Because Nevada didn’t draw the Spanish settlement, it didn’t have a large number of Spanish horses nor was there many Indian ponies as the Indians in the region did not use horses. That left the area open for the American horse. A horse that was a product of the multiple functions desired of a horse on an eastern or midwestern farm. The American horse was a mixture of European breeds, predominantly cold-blooded draft types and because of heavy importation of the draft horse; size became the principal trademark of the American horse.
The pattern of ranching in Nevada also contributed to the wild horse population. It was the era of the open range. There was thousands of square miles of flatlands and mountains, canyons and valleys covered with a variety of grasses, and most importantly, no fences. The attitude of early ranching in Nevada looked at raising hay as “detrimental to the cattle’s initiative to range and find its feed.” (Amaral 23)
For instance, in 1880, only 520 acres of hay were cut in the entire state. Horses and cattle simply roamed and many were never claimed in the annual roundups. Ranchers even turned horses out during periods of drought, when they had little of no feed. The horses would then range for feed, and eventually join together to form bands.
As long as horses were loosely ranged they were constant attractions to the wild herds. A rancher named Wilkinson turned out fifteen hundred mares on Diamond A Range of Elko county to range for the winter. When he and his crew returned that spring to collect them, they found that many had joined the wild herds and were virtually impossible to catch. Only a few were actually reclaimed. (Young 17)
Horses were continually being added to the wild herds it seemed. During economic slumps, horse ranchers turned out their stock to be gathered at a future date. Only many of those horses ran wild for the rest of their lives. When mining camps folded or small ranchers went bust, the horses that were not needed were simply turned loose. Numbers of wild horses were largest in Nevada, likely over a hundred thousand by 1900. There were enough of them to warrant legislation in the 1890s to dispose of wild horses which ranchers considered predators of diminishing grass on the range.
With wild horse numbers steadily climbing and the quality of the rangeland steadily diminishing, ranchers in Nevada followed the rest of the West and launched what seemed to be an all out war against the wild horses. A new form of cowboys arose for this time, a group of hard riding horsemen called mustangers who made their living capturing mustangs.
Charles “Pete” Barnum was a well-known early mustanger. He came to Nevada from South Dakota in 1903 and joined the roundup. He was a bright guy, and noticed that the methods of capturing the horses currently used were wasteful. One such method was called “creasing”, where a rifleman would attempt to graze the spinal nerve along the top of the neck in an attempt to stun the horse long enough for the hunter to tie it up. Obviously more horses were killed than captured by this method. Another technique used was to “walk down” a herd. For this method two or more riders working in relays and would follow a band until the horses became too tired or footsore to resist. As it can be imagined this was a very inefficient method as it was a waste of time, (it usually took eight to ten days to wear out a herd) and this method too, often resulted in the injury or even death of a horse.
Barnum began to look for alternative methods. He had noticed that the horses would not attempt to jump through or over anything that they could not see through. This gave him an idea. Corrals had been used before, but they took several days to set up, and the construction would often make the horses in the area nervous and drive them away. Taking these elements into consideration, Barnum came up with his canvas corrals. Not only were they safer for the animals, but they were lightweight, easy to transport and could be set up in only a few hours. He became quite successful at this business and retired at the age of thirty-eight in 1914. (Young 24)
Progress, however, is inevitable and it was not long before airplanes joined the industry. Archie Meyers attempted the first aerial roundup in 1930 in Oregon and failed. But one Floyd Hanson flew the mountains of western Nevada from 1936 to 1938 and was successful. With his “siren wailing he would chase the horses, flying so low that the plane’s wheels would almost touch the backs of the horses.” (Young 25)
The plane proved to be quite effective, in fact too efficient. As the plane became a great tool in the horse roundups, a large market for marginal quality horses opened up in the growing pet food, and chicken feed business. And as Young said, “a pattern was established: planes kept supplying; the feed industry kept utilizing; the horses kept disappearing.”(26) As the success added more and more people to this industry, the incidence of horse abuse increased. This abuse is what eventually caused an end of aerial roundups and indirectly contributed to the passage of laws, which essentially closed the door on mustanging as a business.
The horribly cruel and inhumane methods that were used to remove large number of horses from Nevada went virtually unnoticed until Velma Johnston brought the issue before the public. She had seen a truckload of exhausted and literally mutilated horsed on their way to slaughter one day in 1950 on her way to work. When she learned that they had been rounded-up by airplanes, her fight that earned her the name “Wild horse Annie” began.
Later in 1952, when Velma learned of a proposed airplane roundup in the Virginia Range near her ranch, she and her supporters took a stand. Permission was needed form the Storey County Board of Commissioners before the roundup could take place. Velma and others attended the meeting and expressed their views. They were convincing enough that the Commissioners denied the permit for that roundup and “a week later they passed resolution prohibiting the use of any airborne equipment during a roundup of wild horses or burros in the county.” (Young 26) From this encouragement, Velma took her ambitions even further. In 1955 she succeed in the passage of a law prohibiting the use of airborne and other motor-driven vehicles to hunt the wild horses, and making it illegal to pollute the watering holes to trap the horses.
This was some protection for the horses, but not enough, more federal regulation was needed. Velma and numerous witnesses testified at the congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. helping easily pass the Wild Horse and Burro Act. Pres. Nixon signed the bill into law in 1971, and with it assured the wild horse a legal home on the range. Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston died in 1977 after a long, tough and successful fight.
“Wild Horse Annie” was not the first to be concerned with the destiny of wild horses; she was simply the first to bring it to the nations’ attention. Her efforts included the formation of two protection organizations: the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) and Wild Horse Organized Assistance (WHOA). These groups and a few others have kept active in trying to improve the lot of the wild horses.
In that 1971 law wild horses were given the unique status of “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” This makes them neither wildlife nor livestock, they are “considered as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands”, but only on that portion of public lands that they inhabited when the law was passed in 1971. (Young 28) Most of the lands that the horses currently run on, however, are BLM lands, which puts the federal mandate to manage, protect and control the wild horses on the shoulders of the Bureau of Land Management. And as Young said “What happens in Nevada is crucial to the effectiveness and success of programs initiated through the Wild Horse and Burro Act since 51% of the protected animals inhabit this state.” (28)
The agencies in charge of the horses today are directed to keep a current inventory of the wild horses, to determine appropriate management levels, make determinations as to whether overpopulation exists and what actions should be taken. The public opinion is taken into account through citizen groups that meet with the BLM to discuss horse issues and to make recommendations. Final decisions, however, are made by the agency.
There are several methods currently in use to keep the wild horse population under control. BLM conducts humane roundups in determined areas using helicopters to capture and trucks to transport the animals. An Adopt-A-Horse program is also in use and is a favored mean of disposing of the healthy horses. The adoption center is located in Palomino Valley, north of Sparks. Other adoption facilities are maintained throughout most western states and a few scattered shelters. Unfortunately, more horses are rounded up than are adopted. Thus a form of stud sterilization has been experimented with and appears to be successful, though not yet practical, as there are so many horses. Amendments to present laws and new policies are still being enacted. Thankfully the wild horses and burros on the public range have been assured their right to existence by law. The dilemma remains what are appropriate population levels and how should those levels be attained.
“The western mustang of yesterday was a remarkably durable species. Through the centuries, he managed tenaciously to survive the persistent attempts to obliterate him.” (Amaral) The wild mustang has disappeared from the present day stories, as have the tales of the Wild West. But the horses that roamed the plains for centuries are still here, and will be here, hopefully for centuries to come. The wild mustang “captured the west” along with the hearts and imaginations of so many. It formed a union with Americans so intimate and profound that men still measure power by the number of horses. I hope that union will be remembered and with it, the wild mustang.