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Wild horses in America: their diverse history and hope for the future

30 Aug 2022 | Written by By Tracy George

A black and white photograph of a group of wild horses on a grassy landscape. Two of the horses are on their hind legs, fighting.


Headshot of the author, Tracy, set against a dark green background with two American flags in the bottom corners and 'A bit of joy from across the pond' written between them.You will rarely catch a glimpse of them unless you go looking for them. I have only seen them a few times when visiting my grandsons on the Hopi Indian Reservation where some roam free on the range. But once you catch sight of wild horses, you long to see them again.

Wild horses have contributed more than any other animal to the building of America. Spirited, beautiful and strong, wild horses have evolved with a rich and diverse history to become a beloved symbol.

Although millions of wild horses roamed America in the mid-1800s, today they are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

If you love horses, read on, and even if you don’t, after reading about them you will find many things to admire. Their hardy perseverance will tug at your heartstrings and they will find a way into your soul.

The history of wild mustangs in America

There is much debate in the scientific and historical community as to whether wild horses are native to North America. Fossils have been found dating as far back as 2 to 4 million years. Horses were migratory according to the weather and would cross from the Americas into Eurasia through the Bering Strait. 

According to scientists and historians they eventually became extinct in North America due to the Ice Age. They were re-introduced to America by Christopher Columbus in 1493, along with burros as domesticated animals to the Virgin Islands.

Later in the 1500s, Herman Cortes, a Spanish conquistador brought horses to the mainland and they were known as mustangs. When the Spanish left, many of the horses were left behind or escaped into the wild.

The indigenous native American tribes claim horses never went extinct and that some of the original bloodline exist as part of their tribe. Further investigation is ongoing and someday we will know more.  

Characteristics of wild horses 

Mustangs stand 14-15 hands high (60 inches) and weigh around 800 pounds. Sure-footed and hardy they are grazing animals and can travel up to 50 miles a day in search of food. Living in herds, the stallion protects the mares and foals from other stallions that try to take over the herd. 

Mustangs are highly intelligent and with time, care and proper training can be affectionate and loyal to their owners. 

How wild horses Built America

Before the Industrial Revolution, the mustangs were prized by the pioneers and native Americans. Due to a lack of predators and reproduction, the horse population increased quickly and reached 2 million in the 1900s.  If you could catch them, they were yours and humans became their most dangerous predator. 

Although they weren’t easy to catch, wild horses were put into service in many ways. These iconic animals provided transportation, helped carry soldiers in war, delivered the mail, hauled materials, assisted farmers in the fields, herded cattle and bison and provided companionship for their owners. 

There were no laws to protect them, and their numbers began to drop.

The Wild Horse Protection Programme

By the 1930s the horse population was down to 17,000 and advocates were alarmed at the way the wild horses were being rounded up by trucks and aeroplanes and used for commercial purposes. Their numbers were dwindling. As more people settled into domestic life and became pet owners, the horses became the major source of meat for the pet food industry. 

In the 1950s an advocate named Velma Johnston, who became known as “Wild Horse Annie”, appealed by having school-age children write letters to members of Congress.  

A bill was passed that prevented ranchers from using motorised vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on public lands.  

The bill did not provide protection for the horses as Annie had suggested or keep them from being slaughtered. Advocates and public concern continued to mount and in 1971 the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was put in place.

The law put the protection and management of wild horses on public land under federal control. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service began to protect and manage them, and it was made illegal to slaughter a wild horse. Later the bill was amended to allow the use of helicopters for roundups.

Because native American Tribes are considered sovereign nations of their own, they don’t fall under federal law and the tribes manage the wild horses on their reservations. 


The controversy over wild horse protection

Today there is much controversy over the management and protection of wild horses.  Because the BLM is entrusted with managing public land, they have many people to answer to. Ecologists, advocates, cattle, private landowners, oil and gas companies and the public all compete for how they want the land used and don’t always agree. 

The BLM has set the number of horses allowed to roam free at 26,785. To achieve this, they track the wild horse herds aerially. When they become overpopulated, they are rounded up by helicopters into holding pens and kept till the end of their life or adopted out. 

According to the BLM there are approximately 82,384 wild horses and burros under their care on nearly 28 million acres of public lands across 10 western U.S. states, in 2022. Since 1971, the BLM has adopted out more than 270,000 wild horses and burros nationwide.

Horse advocates say the BLM favours cattle, keeping horse herd size down so they will have enough forage. They also feel it is inhumane to round them up by helicopter and keep the excess horses that are not put up for adoption in holding pens for the rest of their life. Other objections include horses being sold to slaughterhouses after being adopted. Advocates feel it would be less expensive and more humane to manage them with contraception.

Others say that the horses aren’t native but feral and they are ruining the habitat. There is also some resistance from the public about the cost of the programme to taxpayers. 


The future of wild horses in America

In 2018, under pressure from horse advocates and the public, the BLM instated a contraception program aimed at controlling the wild horse population in a more humane way. By using contraception to control the population they are aiming to reduce the amount spent on the program and eliminate the need to round up as many horses or keep them in holding areas.

There is no doubt about the contribution wild horses have made to America. These free-spirited animals have endured much in the making of our history. And although there is controversy over how they are managed, horse advocates and the BLM continue to work hard to ensure that these animals that are so much a part of America remain protected for future generations.

Know any surprising facts about horses? Drop them in the comments below!

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