Colorado-based writer David Philipps attempts to answer that question in his 316-page book “Wild Horse Country,” published in October.
The book sweeps across a span of time and landscape as vast as the range of the wild horse, delving into views and suggestions from horse-huggers and horse-disparagers alike, turning more than a few colorful similes and metaphors along the journey.
“Wild horses! Even if you have never seen one, chances are if you grew up in the United States you know what they mean,” Philipps enthuses. “They are freedom. They are independence.They are the ragtag misfits defying incredible odds. They are the lowborn outsiders whose nobility springs from the adversity of living a simple life. In short, they are American. Or least they are what we tell ourselves we are, and what we aspire to be.”
The writer crisscrosses Nevada in his trek toward understanding what should be done to and for the wild horses — discussing Nevadans from Reno secretary Velma Johnston who in 1950 cried after spotting a truck load of bleeding wild horses in Sparks being hauled to slaughter and went on to become nationally famous as “Wild Horse Annie” to interviewing Twin Springs Ranch owner Joe Fallini who has successfully sued the government nearly 30 times over its failure to rein in the wild horse population on his ranch and who curses “these goddamned horses.”
The problem is that the wild horse population on the open range has far exceeded what the land can sustain. The Bureau of Land Management’s answer — since Congress has prohibited using budget money to humanely dispose of excess animals — has been to roundup excess horses and warehouse them in corrals and private pastures where the stallions and mares are kept separate for all their natural lives. Such warehousing, Philipps notes, now eats up 66 percent of the BLM’s budget, leaving little to cover the expense of managing the horses still roaming wild and competing for forage with sheep and cattle and wildlife.
According to the latest BLM stats published in March, there are nearly 60,000 free-roaming horses in the West, with nearly 35,000 of those in Nevada. But the BLM calculates the entire range can sustain only 27,000 wild horses without leading to degradation of the forage and the horses themselves. There are nearly 45,000 “wild” horses being held in storage at a cost of $50 million a year.
“Wild horses are the only species that the government captures in large numbers alive and then holds in storage,” Philipps observes. “This is a stark departure from how we treat other Old World domestic animals that have gotten loose in America. Take feral hogs. The United States kills tens of thousands a year. … Sure, feral hogs aren’t companion animals like horses. But consider our pets. We euthanize millions of dogs and cats each year.”
To set the stage for how this came to be the author, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Colorado Springs newspaper in 2014 for a series on the mistreatment of wounded soldiers, delves both into the fossils of long-extinct horselike creatures that once browsed the Western plains and the “return” of horses with Spanish conquistadors.
Philipps’ research shows how the horse changed history. For instance, Francisco Pizarro defeated 80,000 Incas with 106 men on foot and 62 in the saddle.
Then, in the late 17th century the rise of wild horses on the range gave birth to Native American “Horse Nations” that thrived on horseback for two centuries — Apaches, Utes, Sioux, Comanches, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Blackfoot, Crow, Cree, Pueblos, Navajo, Pawnee, Arapaho, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Osage and many more.
“The Apache and Kiowa gave up lives of farming to hunt and raid on horseback. The Osage, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, living in the forests on the eastern edge of the plains, were drawn westward with horses, leaving behind wood lodges in favor of new buffalo-skin tents called teepees,” the book recounts, also noting that horse-mounted Indians managed to slow the westward migration of American settlers.
Philipps recounts how the automobile devastated the market for horses as beasts of burden and how mechanized pet food canning factories consumed 2 million wild horses in the 1920s. Though the slaughters continued over the years, in 2007 Congress defunded health inspections for horse-meat slaughter houses, whether for human or pet consumption, driving all such operations into Mexico or overseas.
Next week: The solution(s)?