By Ariadne Wolf
When I was seven-years-old, I started breaking the rules in a way that was, back then, most unlike me. I’d started riding at a stable and, to be honest, it was boring. I plodded around on a 20-something quarter horse who clearly thought she had better things to do than educate me on the ins and outs of horseback riding. As for me, my dreams of jumping five-foot brick walls were starting to fade more and more with every circuit around the ring on my unwilling mount.
Nonetheless, I began to cherish those trips to the stable more than any other part of my life. The reason was very simple: I had found a true friend, one my parents could not rob me of.
Her name was Savannah, and she was a three-year-old bay mustang mare. She stood in muck up to her knees most days, filth that had no place in that otherwise pristine stable. Her 13-year-old owner had quickly tired of the adopted BLM mare. For the most part, Savannah spent her days alone.
I’d never seen anything that tragic in my life. That poor horse had spent just enough time in the wilderness to understand what freedom was, and was smart enough to know she would never be going home.
Everyone belongs somewhere, and that includes animals. How we treat domesticated animals is bad enough, but domesticated creatures like cows and pigs are also incapable of survival without human influence. Wild horses, on the other hand, are present on nearly every continent of the Earth.
North America is an exception. Horses that Spanish conquistadors brought to this nation soon fled, as would have done any creature with its wits.
Many mustangs, however, did not start out their history roaming the range as they do now.
These horses were Native American ponies, some bred in careful and sophisticated breeding programs. The spotted horses of the plains are Appaloosas, product of the Nez Perce and Palouse Native American breeding programs. When gold was discovered on the land granted the Nez Perce in 1855, the white settlers began pressing forward into Native American territory. The Nez Perce lost the Nez Perce War of 1877 and afterwards fled the U.S. cavalry. The treaty they eventually signed stated they would be allowed to keep their surviving 1,000 horses. Instead, the federal government stole the horses and promptly sold them.
The horses the Nez Perce left behind combined with those who escaped the cattlemen who tried to tame them. These horses became the ancestors of the spotted members of mustang bands today.
As for the horses with visible splotches of white and either brown or black, these Paint horses, came from the Apache and Comanche tabes. By all accounts, Native Americans became in 200 years expert enough at horsemanship to rival what European nations took millenia to accomplish.
By some accounts, certain tribes preferred horse meat to horsemanship; by other accounts, the majority of tribes, particularly of the Plains, treated horses as honored members of the tribe. What is certain, however, is that calling the mustangs “Spanish horses” is a misnomer with its roots in a racist colonial history. The mustang populations peaked in the late 1800s, just after the forced removal of the majority of Native American tribes to reservation
There are 30,000 mustangs left in the wild, although some estimates place the number at less than 20,000. Nonetheless, prominent cattle ranchers continually lobby for increasingly harsh forms of population control. At present these include rounding up the horses via helicopter, holding them in corrals for years on end in a program paid for by taxpayer money and selling them cheap to anyone willing to pay the price. Savannah was one of the lucky ones; slaughterhouses have been known to bid on mustangs. The Bureau of Land Management operates with an $80 million per year budget, and currently houses as many mustangs in inhumane holding pens as roam wild.
Polls suggest three out of four Americans oppose horse slaughter, according to a 2013 poll the American Wild Horse Preservation conducted. Yet the President’s proposed budget for 2017 includes removing mustangs’ status as wild animals, giving the BLM the right to spay and neuter the horses or turn them over to local authorities at will, wrote Suzanne Roy in The Huffington Post. Her article is entitled “Tell Congress: Don’t Let BLM Slaughter 50,000 Wild Horses.”
Maybe the mustangs’ fate is inevitable, an unavoidable result of the push for progress for the elite few at all costs to the rest of us. Maybe it’s going to go the way of respect, love and every other sentimental thing that won’t help us succeed in STEM.
That horse was the first creature I ever really loved, and I’m not willing to let them go just yet.