Horses, Wild and Free - The Mustang Part 2

The dawning of the 20th century heralded changes that would directly impact the thousands of horses roaming free in America.

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

Large herds of horses didn’t pose much of a problem until the western United States became settled, introducing cattle and other grazing animals. Mainly arid, the lands in the west couldn’t support livestock as well as free-roaming horses so it became the policy to shoot mustangs. Another factor that saw the deterioration of the mustang population was the country’s involvement in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the First World War, which saw countless of these horses rounded up for use.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the mustang population was estimated to be in the region of 2 million; by 1926, it had almost been halved.

But there were those who recognised the importance of these mustangs, many who still possessed the blood of their Spanish ancestors. One of these was Robert Brislawn who, along with his brother, Ferdinand, started efforts to preserve the disappearing original mustangs. In 1957, they and Lawrence Richards set up the Spanish Mustang Registry.

By the 1930s, the majority of free-roaming horses were mainly confined to public lands still being administered by the General Land Office (GLO). Created in 1812, the GLO was an independent government agency responsible for the country’s public domain lands. Public domain lands cannot be sold because they legally belong to the citizens of the country.

In the early 20th century, the GLO’s function altered to focus mainly on collecting grazing fees from those who raised their livestock on public lands and royalties from minerals withdrawn from those lands. Remember this little fact and ask yourself, with the majority of free-roaming horses living on those same public lands, how invested was the GLO in the horses’ conservation?

As more and more livestock were being raised on public lands, the Taylor Grazing Act established the United States Grazing Service in 1934. In 1946, the US Grazing Service was merged with the GLO to become the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This agency is responsible for managing public lands still in federal ownership.

(Image by ‘mdimock’ - Pixabay)

(Image by ‘mdimock’ - Pixabay)

By the 1950s, the mustang population had dropped to an estimated 25,000. This was mainly due to violent ill-treatment linked to some capture methods, like hunting from airplanes and poisoning their water holes.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of people like Velma Bronn Johnston, an animal rights activist also known as ‘Wild Horse Annie’, the first federal free-roaming horse protection law was passed in 1959 – the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act – forbidding the use of motor vehicles for capturing free-roaming horses and burros.

In 1971, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed, increasing their protection and providing protection for some previously established herds. The Act covers “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States”. The BLM was given the mandate to oversee the protection and management of the free-roaming herds on the lands it administered.

In 1973, the BLM began a program, rounding up excess numbers of horses and burros and putting them up for adoption by private owners. This is still the primary method used to remove excess horses and burros even after the adoption rate stopped keeping up with the removal rate. The ‘excess’ horses are kept in long-term holding facilities.

The Act has been legally challenged, mainly by those who argue the legal status of the animals, stating they’re not ‘wild’ but ‘feral’ and therefore shouldn’t be covered by the act. Yet, the Act has continued to be upheld.

From what I’ve been reading, it would seem that the main threat to these horses and burros comes from livestock owners; they view the horses as competition, eating that which should be for their livestock, mainly cattle.

Mustang supporters argue that, despite not being native, the horses are a ‘culturally significant’ part of the American West, something I strongly believe. Another supporting viewpoint is that the mustangs re-inhabited the ecological niche left from the extinction of Equus 10,000 years ago. This supporting argument calls for the horses to be legally classified as ‘wild’, not ‘feral’, and managed as wildlife, reasoning that the horses that went extinct 10,000 years ago are genetically the same as the reintroduced species.

The main bone of contention seems to be the priority BLM gives to the free-ranging horses and burros. Mustang advocates want the BLM to increase the mustangs’ priority as too little forage is allocated to them. But the ranchers and those in the livestock industry want the mustangs to be given a lower priority because they depend on public land forage for their livestock.

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

A closer look at this so-called ‘competition’ between mustangs and cattle makes me wonder how true it is. Over the years, these horses have adapted to living in areas with vegetation that’s typically poor in quality. Cattle, on the other hand, haven’t. The areas mustangs generally live in aren’t suitable for cattle mainly because of lack of water. Unlike horses, cattle aren’t known for traversing vast distances to find food and water. In the vastness of the public lands that they inhabit, horses have a better chance of finding food and water than cattle. It’s also argued that the way horses digest their food compared with cattle – faster and more efficiently – means they are able to gain sufficient nutrition from poorer forage by eating more and, thus, have a better chance of surviving; conversely, cattle are more likely to starve.

As with most everything in this world, does it come down to the same old adage, ‘money talks’? Is that the deciding factor in the survival of the mustang?

Horses, Wild and Free - The Mustang Part 1

I’ve been considering posting more than a couple of times a week. The inspirational wild horse advocates I follow on Twitter got me thinking that I’d like to post more horse-related stuff. And that’s what Thursday posts are going to be about.

In my previous ‘horse’ posts, I’ve covered the more popular breeds and realised I’d yet to post about the mustang. How lax of me!

(Image by Jessica Rockeman - Pixabay)

(Image by Jessica Rockeman - Pixabay)

The word ‘mustang’ comes from Mexican Spanish ‘mestengo’, meaning ‘animal that strays’ and Spanish ‘mestengo’, meaning ‘wild, stray, ownerless’.

The modern horse – genus ‘Equus’, which includes all extant equines – evolved over 3 million years ago, with the oldest fossil to date, found in Idaho, being about 3.5 million years old. About 10,000 years ago, possibly due to the changing climate, disease or the arrival of human hunters, Equus disappeared from the Americas, along with other megafauna (large mammals) including mammoths and mastodons, short-faced bears, dire-wolves and the American cheetah.

It was the conquistadors – the soldiers and explorers of the Spanish and Portuguese empires – who were responsible for the return of the horse to the Americas, starting with Christopher Columbus.

An Italian explorer, Columbus’ voyages across the Atlantic Ocean were done under the patronage of the Spanish monarchs. This explains why he imported Iberian horses from Spain to the West Indies, and subsequently to South America and Mexico.

It was the expedition of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who brought about the fall of the Aztec Empire. With him came the first, domesticated horses to return to the main continent of what is now the United States of America.

Beginning in 1540, and for over 100 years, the Pueblo people of present-day New Mexico suffered hostile treatment at the hands of the Spanish, culminating in their enslavement. Used as servants, some were given the job of looking after horses. Although Spanish law prohibited Native Americans from riding horses, those whose job it was to look after the horses were able to learn horse-handling skills. Because the Spanish didn’t tend to keep their horses in fenced enclosures, a number of their horses wandered off and were eventually captured by the Native people. To begin with, the horses were usually eaten as the Natives didn’t appreciate how useful they could be. It was only when they were taught how to ride by those who had learnt and who had fled Spanish control that the tribes began riding horses and using them as pack animals.

The constant abuse of the Pueblo people finally drove them to rise up against the Spanish colonisers in 1680 in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. 400 Spanish were killed in the Pueblo Revolt and the remaining 2000 settlers were driven out. A consequence of this was that large numbers of horses were left behind. Instead of being rounded up, the horses were left to run wild.

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

(Image by Klaus Stebani - Pixabay)

The Pueblo people eventually began to trade horses to the Apache, Navajo and Utes. The Southern Utes and the Eastern Shoshone, who acquired horses from the Comanche, became horse traders. Thanks to them, horses and horse culture spread from New Mexico to the northern plains.

By 1690, horses had reached what is now southern Idaho, and by 1700 the Northern Shoshone people of the Snake River plain of southern Idaho had acquired horses. By 1730, horses had reached the Columbia Basin (Pacific NW), and by 1750 the Blackfeet people of Alberta (western province of Canada) had horses. By 1769, most Plains Indians had horses.

The Nez Perce people who lived on the Columbia River plateau in the Pacific Northwest became master horse breeders and were responsible for the development of the Appaloosa, one of the first distinctly American breeds.

The ownerless Spanish-bred horses that had been left to run wild in the Rio Grande soon met up with the European breeds of farmers and ranchers arriving from the East. Domestic horses continued to escape from their owners and joined together to form herds that roamed throughout the west. By 1787, their numbers had grown; a roundup gathered nearly 8000 ‘free-roaming mustangs and cattle’ (J. Edward De Steiguer – ‘Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America’s Mustangs’)

Although height can vary, mustangs are small, usually 14 to 15 hands. Their small size is likely due to their harsh living conditions, with all available food being utilised to produce body heat, not additional growth.

(Image by Steppinstars - Pixabay)

(Image by Steppinstars - Pixabay)

Again, because of their environment, mustangs possess stronger legs and higher bone density than domestic horses. To endure the demands of running wild and traversing all kinds of natural terrain, they tend to be medium or heavy boned with hard feet.

Wild horses form herds, staying together for protection. Each herd has a stallion and a lead or dominant mare. The stallion mainly engages in herding and protecting the herd from attack by another stallion or predator. He stands guard, alert and positioned slightly away from the herd, ready to challenge any intruder.

The one who usually leads the herd is the dominant mare. She’s the one who controls the daily routine, leads them to grazing and to the water hole, and guides the herd to sheltered places in bad weather.

(Image by Steppinstars - Pixabay)

(Image by Steppinstars - Pixabay)

As mustangs are descended from domestic horses who escaped, were abandoned or released into the wild, they’re usually referred to as feral horses, not wild. A wild animal is one that has no domesticated ancestors.

Mustangs may well be feral, but that doesn’t diminish their importance in terms of America’s culture and history. They are synonymous with the Wild West, as much as the Native American, as much as the cowboy. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the America that would have been shaped without the mustang would be very different to the America that exists today.

Next week, I’ll write about the fate of the mustang in the 20th century.