Wild horses are symbolic of freedom and are part of the mythology and legends of the American West. Yet growing herds are costing millions of taxpayer dollars as politics and society collide over how to manage them.
Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Dave Philipps of Colorado Springs digs into the history and the current battle over America's mustangs in his new book, "Wild Horse Country."
One argument against letting wild horses roam freely on western rangeland is that they aren’t seen as a native species. Many people say that they were brought to North America in the 1500s by Spanish explorers. Philipps says that the earliest prehistoric horses evolved in North America 55 million years ago and fossil evidence of them is found around the west.
It's possible that early humans hunted these wild horse populations into extinction, so he asks the question, if it was because of humans that a native species disappeared and it’s because of humans that the species returned, why isn’t that species native anymore?
Read an excerpt:
Just after dawn on a frigid January morning, I clambered to the top of a coffee-colored rock spine rising a hundred feet above the gray floor of a broad bowl of sage and alkali dust called Sand Springs Valley and looked out across an unbroken expanse of nothing. Legions of gray brush spread out for miles toward dark mountains that against the brightening dawn looked like a dark tear across the winter sky. What was out here? Beyond the fog of my breath, not much.
Sand Springs is one of those rare scraps of American West that has changed little since the glaciers receded. There are no towns, no houses, not even a shack. I saw no fences, no power lines, no road signs, no roads. There were no blinking antenna spires, no cell towers, not even really a tree. All the bars on my cell phone had long since disappeared and the radio was static. Most of the mountains fencing in the valley were not just unvisited but nameless. I had bumped in on a dirt road that had turned to a gravelly track, then eventually shrunk to two ruts. Brush screeched along the belly of my truck and the smell of crushed sage under tires rose up as thick as incense. It was the kind of place where, if you broke down, you could wait days for help before deciding just to walk out on your own.
I was in the middle of Nevada, in the heart of a region known as the Great Basin—a vast accordion of long valleys and jagged mountain ranges that runs down the interior of the West, through Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and a sliver of eastern California. On a map, the long valleys look as if the center of the nation had been hastily ironed into pleats. The Great Basin is some of the driest country in North America, and the emptiest. It gets its name from the fact that creeks and rivers here never reach the sea. They either sink into the sandy sage or run out onto salt flats where the ever-present sun dries their modest flow into a shimmering white alkaline crust. Locals like to say that what the West once was, the Great Basin still is: open range, cattle rustlers, ghost towns, gold mines, and land so seamless you want to reach out and touch it to make sure it is not just a painted backdrop behind John Wayne.
When I reached the top of the rock outcrop, it was just after 7 a.m. and 19 degrees. The only man-made thing I could see in the vast sweep of hundreds of square miles of desert was some pink plastic tape—the type surveyors use. It had been stretched roughly into a rectangle the size of a walk-in closet along the uneven rocks on top of the spine. And I had been told to stand in it, and not to step out.
Standing next to me was a federal law enforcement agent with a pistol on his hip. He was tall, with thick forearms that he kept folded, and he wore inscrutable dark sunglasses even though the sun had not yet come up. Next to him was a public affairs officer from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): a somewhat pudgy, smiling man with gray hair and what looked like a twenty-year-old Thermos that he kept constantly unscrewing to pour tiny cups of coffee for himself. The law enforcement agent’s job was to make sure I stayed in the ribbon. The public affairs officer’s job was to answer any questions about it.
As we waited for the sunrise to warm us, I asked him why, in such a remote place, we needed to stand within the ribbon.
For my safety, and the safety of the operation, he told me, never dimming his smile.
“What would happen if I stepped out of the ribbon?”
“The ribbon is here for you and you need to stay in it,” he said.
“But couldn’t we just move a little outside the ribbon, to a slightly better spot on the rock?” We were, after all, in the middle of nowhere. Who would know?
The law enforcement agent, who had not said more than a few words since I had met him a half hour earlier, slowly shook his head and said, “Just stay in the ribbon.”
So we all stood inside the ribbon. I wiggled my toes in my boots to keep them warm and looked out at the sweep of the valley. I was there for one reason. I had always wanted to see wild horses. And this was the place to do it. As the first sunlight spilled into the valley, I raised my binoculars and peered out into the distance. Miles away, I saw them. A string of eight dots running. So small they looked like no more than ants in the vast valley, but so fast that they could be nothing else.
Wild horses! Just saying the words sets off a stampede of images: echoing box canyons and dusty blue mesas, hooves flying through golden grass, the defiant scream of a rearing stallion, heat waves rippling the distance, speed and strength and cliffs and cactus and dust and grit, lonely places where big empty skies define the day and coyote songs define the night, wild places forever beyond the grip of civilization.
Wild horses! Even if you have never seen one, chances are if you grew up in the United States you know what they mean. They are freedom. They are independence. They are the ragtag misfits defying incredible odds. They are the lowborn outsiders whose nobility springs from the adversity of living a simple life. In short, they are American. Or at least they are what we tell ourselves we are, and what we aspire to be. If you think I’m laying it on a little thick, consider this: There are only two animals for which the United States Congress has ever specifically passed laws to protect from harm. The first was the bald eagle. The second was the wild horse.
And yes, unusual as it sounds, the United States still has wild horses. Real wild horses. Not just a few relics carefully curated in a national park, but tens of thousands. They roam free, cared for by no one and controlled by no one, nearly as wild as the deer and the antelope. Even in the twenty-first century, when the wild is steadily disappearing, wild horses are not just surviving, but thriving. They are expanding. What a wonderful and strange thing.
Today wild horses still roam on more than thirty-one million acres in parts of ten western states. But few people will ever see one, because wild horses generally live where we do not—the empty spots on the map, remote scraps of the country too dry or rocky or hot or all-of-the-above to be of much use. They once roamed the whole West from the Great Plains to the Pacific, but they have been driven to the sharp angled remnants of the West where there is still room for things to be wild: Rimrock. Cedar breaks. Salt flats. Shale barrens. Almost any unwanted scrap where open space reigns and order and fences are scarce, you will find them. Badlands. Sage flats. Even nuclear test sites and bombing ranges. These are the parts of America most people only see from plastic airline portholes at thirty thousand feet, where gradually the land shrivels and the grid of roads breaks down until it is just mountains and canyons crossed by a few lonesome strands of highway. Almost all of it is located in the dry bowl of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. This collective group of relatively pristine remnants goes by many names. On my repeated visits I began to refer to it simply as Wild Horse Country.
Wild Horse Country is almost all desert. Distance and aridity rule. Little has fundamentally changed in the century since Mary Austin wrote in The Land of Little Rain, “There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze.”
The official government names of designated wild horse ranges in Wild Horse Country give some taste of the landscape: Granite, Lava Beds, Slate Range, High Rock, Rocky Hills, Red Rocks, Sand Canyon, Sand Basin, Sand Springs, Black Mountain, Bald Mountain, Dead Mountain. Just reading them makes you thirsty. They are names that map the history of people who came looking for something and found only what a gray-haired curator with dirty bifocals at a one-room roadside Nevada history museum described to me as “nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles.” They are names of want, failure, hideouts, last stands, and wind. Names of places that even the hardy homesteaders we learn about in school sized up and passed over: Stinking Water, Salt Wells, Rattlesnake, Dogskin. Cyclone Rim, Devil’s Garden, Robbers Roost, Hard Trigger. Murderer’s Creek, Deadman Valley, Confusion, Harvey’s Fear.
It’s not the land the horses chose. It is just the land that was left to choose. Hardscrabble islands of desiccated emptiness that herds were pushed into. Put together the patchwork where wild horses are found in the West and you have an area the size of Alabama. And a human population near zero.
Actual road signs I have seen on the way through:
NEXT GAS 167 MILES
That’s Wild Horse Country. And yet, as Austin said of the desert, “Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.”
The legend of the wild horse—all that stuff about freedom and toughness, which secured its place as an American icon? It is well deserved. Like nearly all Americans, the wild horse is an immigrant. And like many, it prospered through sheer grit. The herds on the land now are the descendants of the painted war ponies that allowed a few thousand native warriors to hold off the industrialized American army. They are also the descendants of the cavalry mounts that chased down Crazy Horse and cornered Geronimo. They are the descendants of the Pony Express runners that whisked messages from the Mississippi to San Francisco in ten days before the invention of the telegraph, and the cowboys’ tireless sidekicks in the great cattle drives.
Somewhere back in time, they all descended from domestic horses, many of them of Spanish blood but likely as many or more from American stock. What you see on the range are ones that got away—the refugees, the outcasts, the fugitives. Their toughness is legend. One newspaper account from the early days of the California gold rush told of a mustang found trapped at the bottom of a dry well after twenty-two days—still doing fine. In San Francisco around the same time, a mustang rode five days straight during an endurance exhibition. In 1897, the United States Bureau of Animal Industry sponsored a 2,400-mile race from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Galena, Illinois. Any horse could enter. Two brothers caught wild mustangs, broke and saddled them, and, ninety-one days later—with no horseshoes and no grain—trotted across the finish line. The only survivor of Custer’s Last Stand was a mustang named Comanche. He had been shot seven times, not counting an arrow wound from a previous battle. He lived for years afterward, developing a taste for whiskey in his old age.
“If I had my pick between a $1,000 Arabian steed and a common fuzztail,” the cowboy and author Will James wrote a century ago, “I’d much rather select the one with the snort and the buck, cause I know the trail between suns is never too long for him, no matter how scarce the feed and water may be.”
Mustangs are the subject of hundreds of tales in pulp novels, movies, radio dramas, TV Westerns, and songs sung around the campfire. Goodbye, old paint, I’m a-leavin’ Cheyenne. Sure, much of the history is just legend and myth, which has grown with the telling, but as I eventually learned in Wild Horse Country, legend and myth can have as much weight as fact.
Officially, the Sand Springs Valley, where I had gone to see wild horses, gets just over seven inches of rain a year. But on the ground, which is mostly rock and dust with low, thorny brush, it is hard to believe. There are no creeks or ponds. The terrain is so flinty and remote that NASA once tested a Mars Rover here. It is textbook Wild Horse Country. The Bureau of Land Management estimated that hundreds of horses roamed in the valley, but in the dawn light I saw nothing but a half-dozen distant dots. You would think a vast herd of horses would be easy to spot, especially with binoculars and a wide-open view of a treeless plain running for miles. But the West is not always what you think, especially when it comes to its wild horses.
Wild Horse Country is both harsh and intensely beautiful. The view can suddenly stop you in your tracks. The sun can flood an empty valley as clouds trail violet veils of rain that fall but never quite hit the ground. Canyons that feel like a tomb can, with one fresh mountain-lion print in the sand, seem suddenly alive and full of movement. The deserts of endless thorns and dust can suddenly break on a hidden spring where a quick step startles a whole congress of butterflies. The light can glint on rail-straight highways, making them shine like silver thread twenty miles long, connecting your boots to the distant horizon.
Like a lot of things that persist both in the present and in legend, Wild Horse Country is a heap of contradictions. The intermountain West is the emptiest part of the country and also the most urban. It is the most traditional and also the newest. Here ranches and strip malls are sometimes separated only by a few strands of barbed wire. The locals tend to see themselves as rugged individualists, and suspicion of the government runs deep, but no other place is under as much federal control or receives as much federal money. The situation with wild horses, too, is a contradiction. They are truly wild and directly descended from the herds of the old West. There is nothing phony about them. But they are tightly controlled by federal bureaucrats in Washington, DC, corralled by lawsuits and directed by sheafs of government impact statements. The riders that have the tightest hold on them are the riders in federal budget bills.
Wild Horse Country also occasionally contains rectangles of pink plastic tape. This is because nearly all wild horses—at least all those that are legally considered wild horses (I’ll explain that part later)—are found on federal land and are controlled by the BLM, part of the Department of the Interior. Even though the BLM oversees 253 million acres of public land—roughly an eighth of the United States—I’m constantly running into people who don’t know it exists. It is the agency that took control of the land no one had wanted after the federal government gave away land through the Homestead Act: valleys too dry to farm and mountains too scraggly to log. Almost all of the land is sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies. The harsher the climate, the more BLM land there is. Some desert counties in Nevada are 90 percent BLM land.
In 1971, Congress passed a law to protect wild horses. Since the BLM oversees so much unwanted land, and most wild horses live on the same unwanted land, it has fallen to the agency to oversee the horses, too. When I say “oversee,” I mostly mean “remove.” In an attempt to keep the horse population stable, the agency rounds up thousands of horses a year using helicopters that sweep across the desert and chase the herds into corrals, where they are trucked away and put in storage.
That is what I had come to see in the Sand Springs Valley. I wanted to know how it worked, why we do it, and how the horses fared. I also wanted to know what happened after the horses were trucked away. Helicopter roundups have been blasted by animal rights groups as cruel and unnecessary since they started in the 1970s. The BLM has continued, insisting it has little choice. I wanted to see firsthand if roundups were really so inhumane, and if there was any better way. That had brought me to this lonely rock spine where a roundup was about to begin.
Over the years, various animal rights groups have tried to shut down roundups. They have sued. They have blockaded. They have buzzed the area with an airplane. By the time I signed up to see the helicopters work in the Sand Springs Valley, roundups had grown so controversial that the agency had started limiting public viewing to a specific area. If I wanted to watch, I had to sign up to stand in the taped-off rectangle, presided over by an armed guard. I figured it was a small price to pay. But when I got there after driving about twelve hours, I realized the BLM had set up the rectangle in a place where part of the rock outcrop hid much of the roundup from view. I wouldn’t be able to see the horses driven into the corral, or what happened afterward.
After spotting the first group of horses miles away through my binoculars, I lost them as they ran into a part of the valley hidden by the rock outcrop. I asked the public affairs officer if we could move out of the pink plastic tape again. He said no.
“Just a little, maybe up to the next rock?”
“Who is in charge? Maybe we could ask them?”
He explained that we had to stay where we were because if we moved closer to the corral, we would scare the horses.
“But aren’t helicopters chasing the horses?” I asked. “And aren’t they more likely to scare the horses than a guy crouched in the rocks?”
The public affairs officer shrugged. His job was not to engage in debate. We were staying where we were.
I was raised by parents with an orange VW bus and a sometimes-counterproductive resentment of authority—one I inherited and have nurtured through years as a newspaper journalist. I’ve learned that being gently defiant may not get you what you want, but it often gets you closer. I figured I could get the BLM to budge just a little by continuing to push, but it was no good. I argued for at least twenty minutes, but the pink tape never moved, and neither did I. It was a fitting introduction to Wild Horse Country. A lot of stuff the BLM does here makes little sense, and plenty of people have pointed that out for a time, but it hasn’t kept the agency from doing it.
While I was still arguing, we heard the distant whine of helicopters. I lifted my binoculars and scanned over the miles of seamless sage. At first I saw nothing. Not even the black dots I had seen before. The helicopter echoed, and a sudden change in tone suggested it had veered hard and shot off in another direction. I pulled down the binoculars searching for some clue to focus on—a whirling blade, a flash of light on metal, a sudden dark movement, anything.
Suddenly I spotted them. A distant smudge of golden dust bloomed in the gray brush. Then, cutting in and out of the dawn light, glints from a helicopter rotor. Then it was gone back into the shadows. Then it returned. I thumbed the focus on the binoculars and saw the white bubble of the cockpit. It cut low over the ground, bent forward, tail up, like a patrolling dragonfly. It turned and dove and turned. In the jostling circle of the binoculars, I finally saw dark dots rise out of the sage. First one, then many. Horses! They were galloping across the plain, flat out in a long line, kicking up a mane of sunlit dust! I was thinking in exclamation points! Here they are! Now run!
From the rock, the distant chase unfolded, slow and silent. A file of black dots stretched smoothly across the desert like a strand of beads. But up close it must have been terrifying. In my mind, I heard the throb of the helicopter beating down over the sage, the steel scream of the engines, the blast of dust, the horses thundering over hard, chalky earth. Hooves crashing through sage, legs cut by splintered branches.
I lowered my binoculars and saw that the band was still at least two miles away, but the helicopter was tight on them, driving steadily toward our rock spine. I glanced over at my partners on the outcrop, hoping to share my excitement. But the law enforcement agent was scraping at one of his nails with his car key. The public affairs officer sipped from his coffee cup. He was telling the law enforcement agent about how many years he had left until retirement.
This wasn’t their first roundup. The BLM does dozens every year, annually removing about ten thousand horses. The agency doesn’t call what it does “roundups.” It calls them “gathers,” which makes corralling galloping mustangs sound a bit like picking raspberries in the forest. People who oppose roundups—and there are many—call it “stampeding.” They say the practice is needlessly traumatizing and ineffective. They sue every year to try to stop it. But by any name, the roundups go on. Since the 1970s, the BLM has corralled more than three hundred thousand wild horses and removed them from the West. Some of the big roundups last a month or more. The season essentially never stops. I guess after a few dozen gathers you can get kind of jaded and start inspecting your nails, but this was my first. And it was probably the first for these horses, too.
I went back to my binoculars.
The herd was close enough now to really see. I counted thirty-two, backs rippling with muscle, coats shining in the dawn light, stringy manes flapping like banners as they flew over the thorny brush. The BLM usually justifies roundups by saying horse herds have gotten too big and are eating the range down to nothing. It is a common refrain in the agency that there are too many horses and they have to be removed before they starve.
I expected to see bedraggled wraiths in my binoculars. I thought life on such a harsh range with so little feed would leave the horses as craggy as the desert, patchy with scars, ugly from neglect, with dull skin rippled over sharp ribs. But as the lead mare ran, I could see how sleek and glossy black she was. She had full muscles and deep, bright eyes. She looked like something out of a movie. Two horses behind her were dappled gray with long, light manes. They had no ribs or hips jutting from their hides. The group galloped with the grace of a herd you might see in an old Marlboro ad. Some were the color of old bourbon or chocolate. Some were like honey in the light. Others had white blazes. Horse people have names for all these horse colors, but, I should probably admit now, I am not a horse person. I have never owned any horses and only rode a dozen or so times long ago at summer camp. I never read Black Beauty or dreamed of riding away on a stallion. I don’t know anything about conformation or breeding. I could not appreciate a fine, abundant cannon or prominent, capable withers. I wanted to learn about wild horses not because I love horses but because I love wildness. I always have. I love the wise and enduring simplicity of a life unbound. I have climbed hundreds of mountains, sometimes at night in the snow. I’ve explored canyons for days on end. Halfway through college, when I realized that much of what I was learning was of questionable worth, I withdrew for a semester, loaded a backpack, headed west, and walked and floated the length of the Colorado River. To this day, I love the parts of the West that remain untamed. And that is what brought me to Wild Horse Country. Mustangs embody the West that I love. Part of me just wanted to know that wild horses were still out there.
I also came to the roundup because I wanted to know how wildness on such a scale could persist at a time when everything seems increasingly penned in. How so many horses can live free when so much wildlife is threatened or disappearing. And I wanted to know what their existence said about the United States and the future of the West.
The horses galloped nearer. The shining white helicopter seemed to be right on top of them. It dodged left and right, low over the sage like a border collie, kicking up a halo of white dust. The horses thundered toward the outcrop where we stood. Right beside the outcrop, the BLM had set up a large, circular metal corral. The agency is an alphabet soup of acronyms. It calls the places where wild horses are found Herd Management Areas, or HMAs. It calls horse population goals for these areas the Appropriate Management Level, or AML. Before doing a roundup, it has to create an Environmental Impact Statement, EIS. It is common to hear BLM planners talk in a string of letters that makes no sense to outsiders. In a rare instance of clarity, it calls this corral simply, “the trap.” The walls are usually six-foot-high steel fences, arranged in a circle about forty feet across. Plastic netting is strung along the fence so horses can’t see through. A motivated mustang can clear a six-foot fence, and many would jump if they could spot their landing. The circular corral usually has a long V of fence angling out from a gate, like jaws. The walls of the V are called the wings. They are also six feet high, but they are made of feathery burlap strung between metal posts. The design makes the wings look solid to a galloping horse, but they give easily in case of a crash. The burlap is also light and easy to pack up for the drive to the next roundup. It’s a design that’s been used for a century, both by people trying to get rid of mustangs and by those charged with preserving them.
In the Sand Springs Valley, the wings spread out from the corral and around the corner of the outcrop where we stood, then opened wide into the sage, running at least two hundred yards. Now the whine of the helicopter had grown into a loud THWOP—THWOP—THWOP that I could feel against my chest. I put down my binoculars and watched the herd fleeing toward us. They crashed through the sage and jumped rocks. Their manes lashed their necks in the wind from the rotors. A mare stumbled and rolled head-over-tail before almost instantly rising into a run.
A lot of domestic horse lovers dismiss mustangs as ratty mongrels. A Thoroughbred breeder might look through the binoculars in this desert valley and see just stubby legs, short backs, and heads far too big for their necks. They might see horses too small for a respectable rider. Certainly they wouldn’t fetch much of a price at the sale barn. But there is a chasm between what is attractive to breeders and what is attractive to life in the wild. Thousands of years of captive breeding have produced racehorses that run faster than wild horses, pedigreed Arabians with more desired lines, and draft horses with more bulk. But breeding has also brought problems. Today’s domestic horses can struggle with bad teeth, rotten hooves, colic, joint trouble, jaw problems, parasites, and asthma. Many are wracked with anxiety disorders and bite themselves or pace endlessly. Several hallowed bloodlines are more inbred than a medieval monarchy. All Thoroughbreds today trace their lineage to just three stallions.
Domestic horses demand constant care: hoof trimming, shoeing, tooth filing, immunizations, worm medicine, mineral supplements. The only care wild horses get is natural selection. Parents are not chosen by studbooks but by the blows of competing stallions. The desert prunes any deficiencies. Wild horses may not look like much, but in many ways they are the best horses. The wild has given them no other choice. What emerged are animals that, according to their riders, have unparalleled intelligence, stamina, and overall resilience. Stories of their marathon runs are legend. One man on a mustang made the trailless, eight-hundred-mile ride from Santa Fe to Independence, Missouri, in fourteen days and said he could have done it faster if not for encounters with a blizzard and a group of banditos. To prove his point, the next time he and his mustang did the ride in eight.
Present-day owners of tamed wild horses joke that the animals can get fat eating tumbleweed and never need a vet. They are the choice of many modern riders in hundred-mile endurance races.
There is a well-known story in wild horse lore that was written down by a cavalry colonel in the 1860s on the Texas frontier. A band of Comanche warriors was visiting his fort and some of the officers goaded the braves into betting on a four-hundred-yard race between the two best horses. The soldiers wanted to test their prize Kentucky Thoroughbred, but when they saw a Comanche come to the starting line on a long-haired, spindly legged, “miserable sheep of a pony,” they were so disgusted that they instead brought out their third-best horse. At the sound of a gun, the two took off. The brave swung a “ridiculously heavy” club and hollered madly, driving his pony. The mustang left the third-best cavalry horse in the dust.
The soldiers immediately demanded another race, double or nothing. They brought out their second-best racer. The Comanche on his miserable little mustang won again. Finally the soldiers brought out their prize Thoroughbred. Triple or nothing. At the sound of the gun, both horses took off at a full gallop. They were neck and neck when the Comanche threw away his club and gave a piercing scream. His mustang shot into the lead. About fifty yards from the finish, the Comanche flipped around on his pony so he could face the trailing American and, with “hideous grimaces,” taunted him to catch up as he rode backward across the finish line.
The helicopter banked from side to side, pushing the herd toward the rock outcrop, letting not a one escape. Down below, two cowboys in chaps and hats crouched in the brush near the wings of the trap. One held a tame horse by a halter.
“See that one there?” the public affairs officer said to me. “It is called the Judas horse.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The herd galloped within fifty yards of the wings, and the cowboy let go of the Judas horse. It bolted straight into the wings of the trap.
“She’s trained to do that,” the public affairs officer said. “And the other horses see her and follow her right in.”
In the end, it seemed too easy. The helicopter brought the herd right up against the steep side of our rocky spine, then flared to scare the horses left into the wide wings of the trap. They saw the Judas horse leading the way and coursed smoothly into it. Maybe the horses saw the burlap walls as the banks of an arroyo that could lead to the way out. Maybe by the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. The cowboys jumped from the sage, hollering and waving their hats. The mustangs surged down the funnel of the wings and squeezed flank by flank into the trap. The chopper flared once more to scare them all the way into the corral and a cowboy ran in and slammed the gate.
Then it was over. The wild was gone. Only captives remained. I felt a deep sadness at the loss. But it wasn’t quite over. In the chaos, a spindly black foal had fallen slightly behind the herd. Just at the mouth of the wings, the helicopter passed over it, chasing the adults. The foal bucked and jagged to the right, missing the wings of the trap. The helicopter could not swing back without losing the other horses now running down the mouth of the trap. The little foal galloped out into the sage with nothing but fenceless desert beyond.
To myself I shouted, “Go!”
But after a hundred meters, the foal’s run slowed to a trot, then it stopped and turned. It could see its mother going into the trap. It watched, unsure what to do. Once the gate slammed closed, the helicopter whizzed off to find the next herd. In the quiet, the foal trotted to the corral and nuzzled the fence, smelling for its mother. I dropped my binoculars in surprise. I have always thought of horses as loners—solitary in a stall or under a rider. And in our world, that is how we tend to keep them. A horse is an individual piece of equipment. Little thought is given to their lives with other horses. But out here the animals band together in families with complex social roles that have evolved over millions of years. They thrive on intimate relationships among mares, foals, and stallions. “The cruelest thing you can do to a horse is keep it by itself,” one longtime wild horse watcher once told me. The words came back to me as I watched the foal pace back and forth along the fence, unwilling to run away, unsure what to do. After a few minutes, one of the cowboys walked slowly up and opened a small gate in the corral. The foal trotted right in.
“Can’t be away from his mama, isn’t that cute?” the public affairs officer said.
Once through the mouth of the trap, the horses swirled in confusion, turning and turning in the circular corral, looking for a way out before they finally came to a stop. I couldn’t see this, because the BLM had put the pink-tape public viewing area in a place where I couldn’t actually view much. But I could hear their hooves clomp, turning in the desert dust. Steam rose over the rocks from their hot, exhausted backs. The echoing shriek of a stallion cut the desert air. Then two more. The clang of a horse against the metal fence rang against the stones. Some were trying to escape. I watched the open desert beyond to see if any would clear the fence, but I saw only sage.
I heard the creak of the cowboys swinging open another gate and the horses cantered into a rear pen that I could mostly see from the pink-tape rectangle. The cowboys waved horsewhips topped with little white flags that I soon realized were actually plastic shopping bags. I looked over at the public affairs officer, who was pouring another cup of coffee, and asked why the bags were used.
“That way they don’t have to whip ’em,” he said. “For a wild horse, a plastic bag is scary enough to do the job.”
The helicopter roared back over our heads and out into the desert for another round. I stayed and watched all day as it made trip after trip. In eight flights, the crew brought in 121 horses from a valley that had looked empty. One horse, trying to escape, rammed the corral fence and broke its neck, and the cowboys shot it. I couldn’t see it, but when we heard the shot and I asked the public affairs officer what it was, he only said, “I’m not sure.” I only found out later. Deaths from injuries in roundups, while not common, are a regular occurrence.
The other horses were sorted in the rear corrals and loaded six or eight at a time into gooseneck trailers. After driving an hour down a slow, twisting dirt track, the trucks reached the highway. I followed them to another corral at the roadside. There the horses were sorted by sex and age. The foal that came back for its mother was separated from her anyway. Those instinctive family bonds the bands had lived with in the wild were broken. I had come to the valley with the idea that roundups were necessary and as humane as possible. I had believed the agency when it said wild horses are overpopulated. I knew above all that the priority should be to protect the long-term health of the desert. But watching the families broken up was wrenching, and it made me wonder what kind of system we had created.
As the sun slid low over the far side of the valley, some of the horses were pushed up a ramp onto a waiting semi-trailer. The truck pulled away with a loud gasp and headed down one of those straight, empty Wild Horse Country highways.
“Where will they go?” I asked the public affairs officer.
“They go for adoption,” he said.
“And what if no one adopts them?”
“Then they go to holding,” he said. And knowing that my next question would be what “holding” was, he added, “It’s basically pastures. Private ranches where they live out their lives, or at least stay until we figure out what to do with them.”
“It’s nice land, most of it in Oklahoma,” he added. “They live way better there than they do here.”
That day on the range, it became obvious to me that wild horses are like no other animal in America. I don’t mean biologically, although horses have some fascinating adaptations to living in wide-open spaces (including the largest eyes of any land mammal). I mean culturally. And legally. The public imagination gives more meaning and respect to wild horses than to nearly any other wild animals. We have given wild horses their own law. That law has led to a system where we remove horses from the desert with helicopters and load them onto trucks so we can send them a thousand miles to ranches in the Midwest.
The fallout of all this is remarkably strange. When I visited Sand Springs, there were nearly fifty thousand horses in storage. The annual cost of caring for them was $50 million. We’ve spent a billion dollars rounding up horses since 1975. Just caring for the horses now in storage is expected to cost a billion more. If it had the money, the BLM would like to remove another fifty thousand horses, adding another billion in holding costs. But the money has pretty much run out.
Every year the BLM puts more horses in storage. The more horses it has in storage, the less money for other parts of the program. The storage system now eats up 66 percent of the wild horse program’s budget, and it has pushed the program into a state of paralysis. Managers would like to improve grass and water on the land, but they have no money left for it. Managers would like to develop alternative population-control methods that avoid roundups, but they have no money left for it. In short, the BLM can’t get out of its cycle of storing horses because it is too busy storing horses. So the roundups continue.
It’s a practice no one much likes—not the bureau that devised it, not the ranchers whose cattle and sheep share the land with the horses, not the wild horse advocates sticking up for the rights of the herds. So how did it happen? And what, if anything, can we do about it? How did we get to a place where we spend $2 billion to gather and store animals that everyone agrees should be wild and free? I decided that afternoon, as I watched the truck full of mustangs pull away, that I would try to find the answers. I would scour the corners of Wild Horse Country to see if I could figure out how we got where we are, and where we should go.
President Richard Nixon, who was never a big backer of environmental preservation but was a shrewd politician who knew good press when he saw it, paraphrased Henry David Thoreau at its signing, saying, “We need the tonic of wildness.” He said wild horses “are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the Western Indians and the pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wildness seems all too scarce.”
The act protected the last remnants of the West’s wild horses, putting them under the watchful guard of the government. (As the law’s name suggests, burros are protected too, and though in many ways burros are even tougher and more independent than horses, they don’t have the same prominence in the American imagination. Suffice to say, however, the issues affecting the two species are largely the same.) But the law unintentionally made wild horses into legal misfits. They are stuck in a world between wild animals and livestock. They are considered “wild” but not “wildlife.” They are “fast disappearing” but don’t count as an endangered species. They are American but not “native.” And not all wild-born horses are protected under the law; only those that are born in designated areas of US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land count. These quirks can make for some confusing outcomes. For example, imagine a foal whose ancestors descended from escaped Spanish stock that has run loose in the West for four hundred years. Its parents are legally classified as wild horses. But if the mother wanders into a state park, national park, or Indian reservation to have her foal, the foal is not a wild horse. It is a feral stray and can be rounded up and sold to the slaughterhouse. Conversely, if another horse that is descended from captive domestic horses since the time of Homer gets free of the stable and has a foal on BLM land, that foal is legally a wild horse. In other words, the rights of a wild horse are a lot like the rights of citizenship. A lot of it depends only on where you were born.
That means not all horses that are wild are legally considered wild horses. Tens of thousands live on Indian reservations, state lands, and federal lands, including national parks and wildlife refuges, where protections don’t apply. They can be trucked off to slaughterhouses, and often are. (In the Grand Canyon, rangers shot thousands of burros and eventually got rid of them entirely by relocating the few that remained.) To keep things simple, when I talk about wild horses, I’m referring only to the statutory wild horses. When referring to all wild-born, free-roaming horses and their descendants, I’ll use the blanket term mustang.
The word mustang itself needs some explanation. In modern times among horse people, it has come to mean a horse of relatively pure Spanish blood—the horses that escaped from Spanish conquistadors centuries ago and still have the traits of Spanish Barb horses brought over by the first explorers. That definition is often used to devalue other wild horses. People—usually ranchers and government officials—will say that there are no true mustangs left, and that today’s modern horses are just a degenerate muddle of domestic strays. Part of that is true. But it’s also misleading. Almost all wild horses are a mix of different genetics, and some have little Spanish blood. But the Spanish, from whom the word mustang came, never used it to refer to their finest horses. Originally, mustang comes from the Spanish word mesteña—meaning stray livestock belonging to local herders, the mesta. Just like the wild horses of today, these stray mesteña were an outcast mix of high and low stock, some domestic and some that had been living free for generations. Sometime in the nineteenth century in Texas, the word mesteña jumped the fence to English, becoming mustang. And mustang became the preferred way to refer to the tough little wild-born, free-roaming horses, which often had Spanish blood, that populated the West.
The 1971 law was supposed to allow wild horses to roam the places where they existed at the time that the law was signed. The BLM was supposed to manage herds at levels that would maintain what the law calls a “thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship” with existing wildlife and cattle. Neither has happened.
Starting in 1971, the agency documented where horses were found and drew lines around the territory like so much pink plastic tape, designating 303 Herd Management Areas. Since then, it has administratively eliminated about a hundred areas, changing their designation from Herd Management Areas to Herd Areas. A Herd Management Area is where the primary use is supposed to be management of the horses. Herd Areas are where the BLM has decided horses are not supposed to be. The horses in those latter areas are slated for eventual elimination. Altogether, the areas that have been taken away from wild horses make up nearly thirteen million acres—a region about the size of West Virginia. Sometimes the agency said it was because of lack of forage or water. Sometimes the agency said it was because the horses would interfere with oil and natural-gas drilling. Sometimes, it appears, the agency did it just because locals asked them to.
Since taking control, the agency has struggled with the wild horse population. It set a goal for a total population in the West of about twenty-seven thousand horses, a number it felt could be sustainably managed on the land. The BLM has been rounding up horses continuously since 1977 but has never once met the goal. Over the years, under the guidance of a dozen different directors during both Republican and Democratic administrations, it has slipped farther and farther away. By the end of the Obama administration, there were seventy-seven thousand horses on the range—the largest population since the law was passed. The BLM says wild horses must be removed to avoid long-term damage to the land. Horse advocates have pushed back, saying the horse is a scapegoat for damage by cattle and sheep. The current system has led to both overpopulation and roundups, ensuring that no one wins.
The way we try to control wild horse populations only underlines their misfit status. With wildlife, federal and state governments either largely ignore populations, letting nature take its course, or set target populations and let hunters keep the numbers in check. Wild horses are the only species that the government captures in large numbers alive and then holds in storage. This is a stark departure from how we treat other Old World domestic animals that have gotten loose in America. Take feral hogs. The United States kills tens of thousands a year. Texas even has special helicopters specifically for gunning down hogs. It calls them “pork choppers.” Sure, feral hogs aren’t companion animals like horses. But consider our pets. We euthanize millions of dogs and cats each year. We even have programs to electro-shock feral goldfish. Wild horses are different. We don’t hunt them. We don’t euthanize them. We don’t eat them. More than perhaps any animal, we think wild horses deserve respect. The mustang is the closest thing in America to a folk hero of the animal kingdom.
This is not, by the way, a universal human instinct, or even one shared by modern, Western societies. It is uniquely American. In Canada, wild horses can be sold to slaughter. You can order horse steaks and burgers in some very nice restaurants in Montreal. In Western Europe, you can find frozen horse meatballs at the supermarket. The United States is even unique among nations that have large wild horse populations. Australia has a staggering half a million wild horses, which Australians call brumbies. (They also have about a million feral camels!) Law allows brumbies to be rounded up and exported as horsemeat, but Australian government scientists say the most efficient and humane “pest control” is to shoot them from helicopters.
The United States alone has chosen not to kill wild horses, even if that means warehousing the unwanted at a staggering expense. That has led to the bizarre situation in which we now find ourselves. When the BLM started rounding up horses in the 1970s, the plan was to find a home for every animal that came off the land. It never happened. While tens of thousands of people have adopted and trained mustangs, there have never been enough homes for all those that have been removed from the range. Several times, the BLM and lawmakers have proposed selling unadopted horses to slaughter buyers. That idea has provoked such outrage from the public that it has always been abandoned. Instead, the agency started storing surplus horses like the ones I saw in the Sand Springs Valley in a labyrinth of feedlots and pastures across thirteen states. It calls this labyrinth “the holding system.” Every year the agency adds thousands of animals to the system. Our unique relationship with wild horses has led us to this stunning contradiction: The United States now has nearly as many wild horses in captivity as it has in the wild.
For us as kids, the mustang was a symbol of power and freedom. It is a stunning reversal that the wild horse can now be seen as a welfare case entangled in a federal bureaucracy. The animal that carried the explorers, lugged tools for prospectors, pulled the plows, powered the great cattle drives, and empowered the tribes of the plains now is a burden on the taxpayer, a ward of the state. This slow crumbling of a cultural icon is not the horses’ fault, but ours. There is a fundamental conflict in how we approach wild horses that has gotten us into this mess. As one wild horse advocate said to me while we sat on rocks overlooking a roundup in Nevada’s Stone Cabin Valley, “People don’t have a wild horse problem. Wild horses have a people problem.”
The night after the Sand Springs roundup, I camped out in the empty valley. The BLM staff had rolled up their pink plastic tape and gone home, so I was free to wander the plain below, where thousands of hoof prints from the roundup still dented the dirt. It was cold and I built a small fire with silver wood ripped from old sagebrush. I sat watching the stars over the flames and thinking about the horses out in the dark heading down the highway in dim trailers toward the holding system. I wondered how many horses were still roaming free in the valley under the stars, and what the future held for them. It seemed to me that they could not go on like this very much longer. Eventually Americans would get tired of spending so much on gathering and storing horses. Their image of wild horses would cease to be wild and free. Public opinion would turn against the mustang. And then what?
Maybe the public would demand that we start killing horses. Maybe Congress would loosen the protections of the law. Maybe mustangs, which were saved from the brink of extinction in 1971, would again face destruction. Wild horses have always been a bellwether for the West. If we could find ways to live in balance with them that are good for the long-term health of the land, the local people, and our stories of who we are, then it will go a long way toward preserving what we love about both the horses and the place.
That night as the campfire died, I felt like the long history of the wild horse was at a turning point, where people either had to find a way to live with mustangs, and the wildness they require, or forever lose one of the last untamed parts of the West. What was the proper place for the mustang in the West, if any? And how could we find it? I intended to travel Wild Horse Country until I found out.
Excerpted from the book WILD HORSE COUNTRY by David Philipps. Copyright (c) 2017 by David Philipps. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.