I once read a book in grammar school titled “The Pacing Mustang,” written by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton. The main hero of the story is a black stallion, and the storyline is tethered in the horse’s ability to avoid capture by many a savvy cowboy. Later in the tale, a greedy cook cunningly entraps the horse, but even he is thwarted in the end. Basically, the horse’s speed and strength are its constant savior. An elusive loner, it retains a life of freedom in the expanse of wide-open country. It’s one of many romantic stories about wild horses and their place in rich Western mythology— tales of freedom, strength, and beauty.
I grew up across the bay from San Francisco in an area referred to as the “East Bay.” The town of Hayward, with its heritage as a farming community, featured corals and old barns that periodically broke up the monotony of suburban homes built in the 50’s and 60s. Today, most of the town’s (now city’s) farming remnants are long gone. My mother’s side of the family were farmers in rural Northern California, and exposure to equine culture was commonplace there as well. Even with this knowledge of the lives of horses, I didn’t realize wild ones still existed. Like most people, I thought they were mere thoughts and romantic memories of a time and place that had vanished long ago.
Years later, I experienced firsthand herds of wild horses while traveling Nevada’s wide-open expanses—they still lived, played, and survived in the high mountain desert. Exploring backroads with each of my children, every encounter with wild horses projected feelings of wonder, contemplation, and admiration for such graceful and resilient creatures. Images forever etched into my mind include large congregations of horses and foals gathered around watering holes, side by side with antelope and cattle; swirls of dust drifting across the desert floor from roaming herds; and a dancing stallion stamping his hooves in order to mark its territory in front of my daughter as she watched in respectful silence.
Wild horses originally descended from Colonial Spanish breeds but many other origins and lineages make up today’s herds. Because all of these horses have descended from once-domesticated horses, they are defined as feral horses, animals that escaped or were turned loose from domestic herds and the descendants of those animals. An often-heard argument is that wild horses are not “native” to North America, and only a small percentage are of colonial Spanish descent. But considering the fact that these animals have lived for many generations in these severe environments, surviving both blizzard conditions in the harshest of winters, and the blazing-hot-water-deprived days of desert summers, it’s difficult to imagine an animal more deserving of maintaining a wild and free designation. By most all accounts, these desolate areas are now their natural homes.
As with most all species, however, their areas of residence continue to shrink. Suburban sprawl and growing herd populations are two hot-button topics. Wild horse protection groups, environmental groups, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are among the many entities trying to figure out the best approach to these challenges. Answers are not easy, and a dark history of helicopter roundups, “kill buyers,” and massive slaughterhouses have created a sense of distrust and anger over the years.
Hunkered down within the sagebrush, one can spend many hours watching these wild horses as they graze or gallop across the desert landscape. Peering into their black eyes, or hearing their hoofs thunder across the land, one can feel a common heartbeat, a glimpse into the soul of something very special. They are more than a fanciful, mythical creature depicted in stories and children’s books. They represent a resiliency and spirit that can only begin to be comprehended by experiencing them in the wide-openness of their deserved home and natural habit. May they forever run free.
For more information about Nevada’s wild horses and their protection, please visit these websites:
• Wild Horse Preservation League and the
Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association (protection information and tours)
• Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund
• Education and Adopter Support: LRTC Wild Horse Mentors
• Bureau of Land Management
• Wild Horses of Nevada