Wild Horses of America, a History
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December 06, 2013
By Bev Pettit Photography
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Wild Horses of America, a History

This summary of horse history is based on the book 

MUSTANG, THE SAGA OF THE WILD HORSE IN THE AMERICAN WEST by Deanne Stillman, www.deannestillman.com. 


Horses have been a part of man’s destiny more than any other animal.

I love horses. I have had the pleasure of having my own horses' for much of my life. I love to ride them, I love to photograph them. But most of all I just love being around them. They are so peaceful and extremely comforting to be with.

But more recently it is the wild horse that has intrigued me. In the past, I had very little direct experience with wild horses. A few years ago I witnessed mustangs roaming freely at the foothills of the Diamond Mountain range in NW Nevada. And this past June I spent 7 days, from sunrise to sunset, watching and photographing herds of mustangs on a private wild horse sanctuary in California. These experiences have led to my becoming aware of and then researching the complex history that has surrounded the horse and how that history has led to current wild horse conflicts.

Wild horses have long been considered a living symbol of freedom in America, an icon of independence. They have survived centuries of change. Wild horses have been used, honored, loved, wrangled, fenced, exploited and hated and today are at the center of controversy and debate.

Their future seems to be closely tied in with where they came from and when they are believed to have first set hoof on this continent, and what their value is, if any, today.


Ask a hundred people whether or not wild horses are important to America and you will get a wide range of answers. Those who have an investment in the grasslands of the West, will argue that wild horses are feral pests, barnyard escapees. That they eat and drink valuable resources that could otherwise be better put to use for grazing cattle, stocking wildlife for hunters, or drilling oil fields. Many say that the wild horse tramples winter wheat, muddies up water holes, turns grasslands into deserts, breeds like prairie dogs, and have deteriorated in bloodline to the point where they are a discredit to the horse’s name. Many believe that these horses are causing the taxpayer too much money and are of no value.

Others declare them to be truly wild, an indigenous and native species in North America, an icon of freedom and a symbol of the American West and that they should be protected at all costs.


Our fascination with the horse seems eternal. Even modern doesticated horses, living within fenced corrals or pastures, still possess a sense of wildness and freedom. A harkening back to the wild and free 18th century lifestyle in the American West. Even today we love the idea of the Old West, the glamour of the cowboy and the freedom of their style of life. The horse seems to represent the American self-image of a conquered West, progress and freedom.


So, where DID the horse come from? Why was the horse so important to man? And how did he end up in North America?

As a species the horse originated in North America and eventually spread to Europe and Asia across a land bridge. Then, thousands of years ago, the horse died out in North America. Opinions differ on the cause but they disappeared about the same time as man reached North America. So many think man hunted them to extinction. Others think that changes in climate could have wiped them out, or maybe disease. But the horses that migrated to Europe and on to Asia continued to thrive in partnership with man.


Horses were hunted and eaten, not ridden, as evidenced by early cave dwelling paintings showing sketches of horses pierced with numerous arrows.


And  far too useful an animal just to eat. Around 500 BC Greek pottery depicts bareback riders on bridled horses and horses pulling chariots. Roman emperors were posed as statues, riding tall, powerful warhorses in 165 AD. In 1000 AD medieval Europeans sheltered both themselves and their horses in the same wooden barns.

Horses were selectively bred for qualities such as size, speed and appearance. Arabs and Barbs were created in the Middle East and Africa. The larger Andalusian warhorse was bred in Spain. Soon the horse would return to North America on discovery ships. 

In order to fit the close quarters of the ships and endure the rigors of the journey, these new horses were bred smaller and with greater stamina than their large European counterparts. The mustangs of the American West today also have these qualities.



Christopher Columbus brought horses back to the Americas when he landed at Hispaniola on his 2nd voyage in 1493. But it was the Spaniards and Portuguese ships in the 1500s that imported large numbers of domesticated horses to be used in military conquests and in the exploration of the New World.

There were sixteen horses that survived the long journey across the Atlantic with Cortez and his entourage. For the next 50 years, there came more ships carrying more explorers with even more horse along wtih cattle, sheep and burros. 


The Indians now meet the animals that would transform their world. Some tribes were afraid of the horse initially. They assumed the figures on horseback were half man and half animal. Others, laid down ceremonial rugs in their path, some prayed for their power. Without horses of their own, the Indians would have been helpless against the raiding new settlers. 

As the noted cowboy writer J. Frank Dobie wrote in his classic work The Mustangs:

 “The horse dilated the imagination of the Indian as it has dilated the imaginations of millions viewing him horsed. It elevated him in pride and put motion into his spirits commensurate with that of his mount galloping over grass through which he had once crawled up to his game. It put him on a par with the Tartars, the Parthians, the guachos, the cowboys on the open range and all the other free riders of remembrance whose very names stir the gasolined and the seated towards a life of movement, freedom and spaces.”

In the late 1500s, a conquistador, brought an enormous caravan with 600 men and over 7,000 animals including horses, cows and mules, across the Rio Grande on its way from Mexico to Santa Fe. In less than 100 years,  3,000 horses were grazing outside Santa Fe. Wars between the Spanish and the Indians went on for decades. The Indians stole hundreds of the Spanish horses, which were spread amongst many other tribes. This was also the start of capturing herds in the wild for their own uses.

A missionary traveling north of the Rio Grande noted in his diary that bands of wild horses "are so abundant that their trails make the country, utterly unihabited by people, look as if it were the most populated in the world".

Texas ranger John C. Duval reported that he saw "a drove of mustangs so large that it took us fully an hour to pass it, although they were traveling at a rapid rate in a direction nearly opposite to ours. As far as the eye could extend on a dead level prairie, nothing was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hoofs sounded like the roar of the surf on a rocky coast."

Horses were escaping, multiplying, running wild and being recaptured by the thousadns. By Indians and settlers alike. It became much more difficult to capture large herds of horses and in many cases horses had to be tricked into capture. One popular trick used to catch horses was to run herds at high speed to the end of a canyon and then lasso them, one by one.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, priests and conquistadors began setting up the missions of California.As Spaniards moved their expeditions, herds of horses would escape. These escapees began to migrate from Arizona and other western states along the way to the missions of California. During the height of the mission era Spaniards became the first to breed horses, mules and burros in large numbers in the West, adding hundreds to the already growing wild horse population.


Large caravans of explorers, priests, traders, trappers, and settlers wound their way down a trail that led from New Mexico to the pueblo known as Los Angeles, a trail that became known as the Old Spanish Trail. This was a time of great horse thievery. Often by multinational gangs of American and French Canadian trappers, Native Americans, and traders. The Old Spanish Trail may conjure up thoughts of romance and chivalry but it was anything but that. The trek along the trail through the south end of Death Valley became known as the Jornado del Muerte through which animals were driven for up to 80 miles without water and the trail became littered with numerous skeletons of horses. That any horses at all would survive this deadly endeavor was a tribute to the stamina and will of the mustang.

As time went on more and more horses were stolen, traded, and sold. Missions were raided again and again by dozens of thieves, Indians and white men alike. Groups as large as 3,000 horses would be taken in one raid. Horses were now being driven eastward and into higher elevations. Witnesses observed mighty clouds of dust rising from the mountains as the horses passed. Some horses perished, others passed into the hands of tribes and trappers, and others escaped and established new herds in remote mountain ranges and canyons.

In nearly every painting of the western conquest there is at least one horse pictured. Many of these horses were once wild, living on the open range, rounded up and pressed into service by the U.S. Army.  Often they were not even give names, but they were numbered, and were enlisted by the thousands.

But there was one horse in Custer’s army that was given a name because he displayed such silent courage. This horse was severely wounded by an arrow in the hindquarters during a battle with Comanche Indians. In spite of his wounds he continued to let his rider, Captain Keogh, fight from his back. The horse was named Comanche to honor his bravery.



By Pony Express, horses relayed messages across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. The most famous of all Pony Express horses was Paul Revere’s horse, Brown Beauty. She was a mare whose fore bearers included Spanish horses from the early years of the conquest.


The era of the cattle drive began around 1864, when the range was wide open, and ended a little more than 20 years later. Those years brought us the cowboy.

In a QUOTE by DEANNE STILLMAN from her book Mustangs:

“The cowboy is a man’s man and a woman’s man; he’s tall, handsome, simple, bighearted, and brokenhearted; he’s striaghforward, doesn’t say much,has a code, follows a code, and follows the stars; he says yes ma’am and please and thank you, lives out there on the bluffs with the wolves and coyotes, makes good coffee, sings calves to sleep, and has only one friend in the whole world, and that’s his horse.”

Every cowboy had a favorite horse that performed a particular task with great loyalty and finesse, as is told in Will James’ book, Smoky the Cowhorse,

Smoky is born in the wild, but is captured and trained by a cowboy named Clint. Smoky is unusually intelligent, and soon becomes known as the best cowhorse around, and later is known as "The Cougar", the meanest bucking horse on the rodeo circuit. Smoky and Clint worked so well together that other cowboys would come from miles away to watch them. Smoky was Clint’s one true love, and the feelings were mutual:

In a QUOTE from SMOKY the COWHORSE by Will James:

“Once in a while …Clint would get sort of selfish and want Smoky’s company on that long half a day’s herding, and it was during them spells that the two got to be more understanding …Neither was so rushed for work then, and there was times when the big herd of beef steers and cows and weaners would want to graze and not to drift away or scatter. At them times Clint would rein Smoky up a knoll, and where both could see the whole of the herd. He’d get out of his saddle and stretch out in the shade Smoky made, and take it easy, and there with one eye on the cowboy, the other on the herd, and swishing flies, Smoky would stand.”

Often, after cowboys finished long cattle drives, they would gather to hold competitions to see who was best at cutting, roping, and branding. They would also enjoy seeing how long a cowboy could remain aboard a bucking bronco. Those who lasted the longest before being bucked off became heroes. Rodeos were always scheduled for holidays so peole could travel the miles on horseback and wagon to watch their favorite riders in action. In 1888, Prescott held a “cowboy tournament” which was added to the July 4 celebration program to increase attendance. Today, over a century later, Prescott’s cowboy tourament has officially earned the title of the World’s Oldest Rodeo.



The late 1800s gave way to the age of great showmen and traveling entertainers, of famous western figures and their horses.

Buffalo Bill Cody was an American soldier, bison hunter and showman. He was one of the most colorful figures of the Old West, and most famous for th shows he organized with cowboy themes at the turn of the century. 
His shows began with a parade on horseback. They included US and other military, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire.

Horses became Hollywood’s biggest draw in the early and mid-1900s. Try to imagine Roy Rogers without his beloved palomino Trigger or Dale Evans without Buttermilk, her trusty buckskin Quarter Horse. Or The Lone Ranger without Silver, “the fiery horse with the speed of light” which had been found near a silver mine in Nevada. What would television have been without Mr. Ed, our favorite talking horse? Or how would we have been entertained so wonderfully in our beloved western movies without the likes of Fritz, considered the first equine movie star, and his daring stunts.

“Fritz is the greatest all around horse that ever lived,” said his celebrated cowboy partner, William S Hart. Without a double, Fritz went to fall hundreds of times, had a near drowning, and survived numerous jumps in dozens of western films that he and Hart starred in together. Hart attributed Fritz’s stamina and endurance to his pedigree as a wild horse.

Tom Mix had a series of equine partners in his movies. But the most famous was Tony., officially labeled Wonder Horse.  At the height of his career, Tony was so well known that he received mail addressed to “Just Tony, Somewhere in the USA”.

And then how could we ever forget Gene Autry’s Champion, or the boy’s horses from Bonanza …Sport, Ginger and Cochise.

As Hollywood’s westerns flourished on the big screen and on prime-time TV the real western frontier was beginning to vanish, as was the mustang. Years earlier Will James lamented the plight of the mustang in Smoky. Down and out cowboys now had to eke out a living by rounding up wild horses and selling them to the slaughterhouse for dog food.  These cowboys were called Mustangers. In post-WWII America the mustang became the new silver mines of the west.


By the end of the 19th century, there were as many as two million wild horses running wild and free across North America’s western plains. Huge herds retreated to Nevada. When herd numbers kept growing, so did the pressure for their capture.

In 1897, Nevada passed a law authorizing the killing of wild horses. Within a year 5,000 mustangs had been shot and sent to a rendering plant, where they became fertilizer, glue, or hog food. Hundreds of thousands of horses were shipped overseas to battle on the front lines in foreign wars.

Had it not been for cattlemen and Indians, horse herds might have dwindled to almost nothing. Both groups had a stake in the wild herds as a source of riding and working animals. In tough winters, many a rancher opened their gates to wild horses and fed them hay, ensuring their survival. But later, when ranchers opted for tractors instead of teams of horses, it was common practice to turn their surplus animals out on the ranges, where they were soon absorbed into the wild herds. Now there were even more horses grazing alongside cattle on public lands.


By 1934 land was considered “harmed beyond all help” due to overgrazing in much of the West. The Great Depression and drought had gripped the country, making matters worse. Cattlemen called on the government for grazing limits and Congress worked to pass the Taylor Grazing Act.

The Taylor Grazing Act acted like an invisible fence that divided millions of acres of western public lands into allotments. A government agency was set up to study the lands and determine how many head of cattle each allotment could support. Ranchers were required to pay a grazing fee based on how many head of cattle or sheep it was allowed to have on a given piece of land. It wasn’t long before the wild horse was blamed for stealing food from cows and a another massive horse eradication program was undertaken.

Between 1935 and 1942 thousands and thousands of horses were chased from prairies, out of remote mountain areas and canyons by the new mechanical mustanger, the airplane. Mustangs were shot outright or sent to slaughter. After WW II more large-scale clearance operations continued and wild herds were decimated.

Mustang roundups continued unchecked until one day in 1950 when a Nevada woman by the name of Velma Johnston (nicknamed Wild Horse Annie) saw blood spilling out of a truck and followed it to a slaughterhouse outside of Reno. She was shocked by the mistreatment of the animals. This inspired her to do further investigation and bring it to the public’s attention. She began speaking to ranchers, businessmen, and politicians and in schools about the roundup methods and mistreatment of wild horses and burros. This campaign was instrumental in convincing Congress to pass an act that would protect these animals.

In 1971, Richard Nixon signed the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act into law and Congress gave the management of wild horses and burros to the Bureau of Land Management.

TO QUOTE PRESIDENT NIXON at the signing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act:

“In the past 70 years, civilization and economics have brought the wild horse to 99 % extinction. They are a living link with the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers to our own day… More than that, they merit protection as a matter of ecological right –as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free”.

And as Wild Horse Annie said of the horse:

“Of all living things that have played their part in the development of this country, except man, the horse has played the most prominent and beneficial role … he portrays the West as all people like to think of it; he is a symbol of freedom to us all.”


Not everyone was thrilled by Wild Horse Annie’s bill. Ranchers had to go out and reclaim their horses that they had turned out on public lands. Sportsmen worried that wild horses would have an adverse effect on wildlife, and cattlemen worried that wild horses would increase further and become more of a nuisance.

Even among those who loved wild horses there was disagreement as to the long-term effects of the act. In certain remote areas of the West, pockets of wild horses were able to retain unique characteristics and appearance of early horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. It was feared that wild horse bands left to themselves would overpopulate with escaped ranch horses and that any precious remnants of Spanish blood would disappear altogether.

Management of the herds proved very difficult for the BLM. Wild-horse populations increased from perhaps 15,000 to 60,000, necessitating frequent gathers of surplus animals and an adoption program that works hard to find homes for them. The BLM has a slim annual budget for managing the thousands of horses that live on our public lands or in holding facilities.

So is there a logical solution to the problem of the wild-horse surplus? 

Unfortunately, for the wild horses, any attempt by the BLM to cut down the herds to sensible levels has been met by public outcry form good, caring folks who think that this will lead to the demise of the wild horse. Setting emotion aside, what is needed is a tough but logical program consistent with good biology and range management in the opinion of many. In the end, it would be best for the health and future of the horses if those who contribute to management decisions could come to understand all sides of the overpopulation issue. These are our horses. Our tax paying dollars go to them. We DO have a say in their future.

Herds of wild horses still roam our public lands today. Wild horses also live on private sanctuaries throughout the country consisting of large acreage where they can roam freely as they did in the wilds. One of these sanctuaries is near Santa Barbara, CA. It is called Return to Freedom (brochures). There are 200 horses living on 300 acres here. Another is the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota.  Where there are 500 horses living on 11,000 acres. You can go see these horses. If anyone cares to learn more about where you can view wild horses in Arizona or other western states, I have books here that list those areas. 

All photos copyright © Bev Pettit. All rights reserved.
Copying or use in any way, without the permission of Bev Pettit, is prohibited and protected by US Copyright Law.
Photos taken at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary and Monument Valley.

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