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Mustangs Symbolize American Freedom. They’re Also Destroying the West.

Has the wild horse become too wild for us to handle? 

Having grown up in what some would consider the “country,” I’ve had the unfortunate displeasure of running over more than a few animals with my car. My first accidental victim was a snake I mistook for a stick — RIP — but by the time I was old enough to trade country for concrete, a handful of four-legged kamikazes had joined him in roadkill heaven. I can’t tell you how many rabbits and field mice I wiped off the wheel well of my Ford Explorer, but I can tell you this: I remember each in excruciating and gory detail as blemishes on my karmic record to be atoned for with monthly donations to the Humane Society. 

Still, none of them hold a candle to the horse I almost killed. 

It was mid-August of this year, and I was driving down a rural stretch of the USA Parkway on my way to Reno, Nevada. It was hot, the kind of scorcher where the sun hangs at 12 o’clock far past its cue, taunting you from above as you try to escape its wrath by hiding in whatever paltry shade the shelter of your car can provide. Fully hypnotized by the flaxen desert stretching out for miles before me, I drove with my left leg bent at the knee, foot resting on the seat to keep my exposed thigh from burning. As I passed the distribution centers, office parks and construction sites that flanked the highway, I wondered if all the industry rising up from the barren landscape meant I was finally nearing the seedy glitz of the Biggest Little City in the World

I was deep in thought and barely paying attention to the road when I saw it: Straight ahead, not more than 20 yards away, a group of what looked like horses — loads of them — were crossing the highway, trotting across the lanes in a single-file line within striking distance of oncoming traffic. As the car in front of me slammed on the brakes and veered off the road to avoid plowing into the herd, I realized I was about a nanosecond away from becoming roadkill myself. 

I pumped the brakes so hard I bit my tongue as I came to a screeching stop mere feet from where a chocolate-brown mustang with gleaming white socks and long, tangled black hair was standing (FYI: “mustang” isn’t a breed; it’s just a general term for “wild horse”). The squeal of my tires had sent the rest of her flock running, but for some reason, she stayed put in the middle of the road with her head held high, still as a statue in brazen defiance of the asphalt and automobiles that had rendered her obsolete to humans like me. 

My heart was pounding out of my chest, but it took me a moment to realize it wasn’t from the adrenaline of having almost died; it was from awe. Mustangs have always been a symbol of raw power and unbridled freedom of the American West, but there was something about this particular one that seemed both foreign and familiar. It wouldn’t be until later that year that wild horse advocate Laura Leigh would help me put the feeling into words. “When you look at a wild horse, it’s almost like you’re looking at a genetic memory,” she says. “They built the history of every country on this planet. There’s something in that that connects us to not just our personal history, but to the history of everything.” 

After a few seconds, I watched the mustang trot off to join her herd, too mesmerized to notice the smell of burning rubber from the jet-black tire marks that slashed across the road behind me. 

I hadn’t expected to see a horse on a four-lane highway any more than I’d expected to see one pulling slots at the smoky Las Vegas motel from whence I came, but in hindsight, maybe I should have. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the government agency responsible for handling wild horses and burros on public lands — the area around Reno is crawling with them. The entire West is, actually: There are roughly 88,000 mustangs and burros roaming the open space from Arizona to Montana, a figure BLM says is more than three times higher than what the fragile land they live on can handle. With few natural predators other than the errant Ford Focus to keep their numbers down, their impact on local ecosystems has apparently become dire enough that BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley has singled out wild horses as the “most important issue facing public lands” today. 

Because of this, BLM and some environmentalists say we’re in the midst of a mustang overpopulation “crisis,” one that’s pushing wild horses, the land they live on and the people they share it with to increasingly distressing extremes. “They’re eating us out of house and home,” Laura Snell, an agronomist at the University of California, told Smithsonian magazine in 2017, explaining how wild horses and burros strip ranges clean of essential plants, damage soil productivity and foul the streams and ponds that fish and other wildlife depend on. In doing so, they can starve and dehydrate sensitive species like sage grouse, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Meanwhile, ranchers like cattleman and Nevada state veterinarian J.J. Goicoechea complain they compete with livestock for forage and damage agricultural infrastructure, while other agencies like the Nevada Department of Transportation express concern that the growing number of mustangs on public land might endanger human lives. A quick chat with a representative revealed there were 57 horse-vehicle collisions in 2017 alone, twice as many as in years before. 

When considered alongside the fact that BLM estimates they’d need five years and $15 billion to reduce the number of wild horses down to a “manageable level,” it’s easy to see why the mustang’s reputation has begun to sour in recent years. Once revered as the ultimate symbol of freedom and American West, mustangs are now being framed by some as “alien species,” galloping “nuisances” as deserving of extermination as the common household pest.

So far, BLM’s only solution has been to conduct “gathers,” costly and controversial roundups in which low-flying helicopters are used to chase hundreds of terrified horses into trailers and pens. From there, they’re shipped to various privately owned holding facilities around the country where they’re sold, adopted or put out to pasture. In 2018, BLM had its biggest gather year ever, adding roughly 11,500 mustangs to the 50,000 already in holding. 

But gathers are far from a perfect solution. In addition to doing little to curtail a population that seems to spring back whack-a-mole style every time horses are removed — thanks, compensatory reproduction — the agency says caring for the captured horses eats up most of its wild horse budget and leaves little leftover for other, more effective approaches. 

More concerningly, advocates like Leigh — who heads up the organization Wild Horse Education — also believe they’re inhumane. Though BLM does have a comprehensive animal welfare policy intended to minimize injuries and fatalities during round-ups, some of the gathers she’s witnessed were so brutal that she says she’s taken up a personal crusade to fight for the horses everyone else seemed to ignore. “I’ve seen babies electroshocked in the face; babies run so hard their feet fall off,” she tells me, her voice quivering as she fights back tears over the phone from her home in Reno. “I’ve seen horses run through barbed wire. These gathers are just a senseless, unbelievably cruel thing to do to an animal, especially when there are better options like PZP [a hormonal contraceptive delivered via dart gun at no small cost]. The whole thing is a complete mess.” 

Just about everyone with a dog in the fight agrees, but without a viable solution, the situation is slipping out of hand. As advocates and adversaries scramble to come up with a happy medium that everyone can get behind, a question has begun to loom large over the sprawling Western land the horses call home: Has the wild mustang become too wild for us to handle? 

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, but when I pose it to Goicoechea, he responds with two words: “Event horizon.” As we speak, he’s parked his tractor out on the public lands in Nevada’s Newark Valley where he’s licensed to graze his cattle. Normally, the wide plain in front of him would be filled with cows chewing on the crested wheatgrass that blankets the earth for miles around, but right now, it’s wild horses as far as the eye can see. “I’m looking at about a hundred of them right now,” he says. “They’re here 12 months out of the year.”

Goicoechea’s family has raised livestock in this valley for four generations. The mustangs on his property are likely the descendants of his great grandfather’s workhorses, but though they’ve co-habitated peacefully with him and his cattle for over a hundred years, things have recently started to go south. As the mustangs in his valley grow in numbers, so does their impact on his ranch. Not only have they been chasing his cattle away from the streams and ponds they usually drink from, but they’ve destroyed several of the water pipelines he’s built and broken through the fencing he tried to put up around them, too. 

Still, even he admits he doesn’t have it so bad. Some ranchers, like his colleague and fellow Nevadan Ellen Rand, have had to sell their cattle and give up their ranches because there were so many wild horses eating up the forage on her property. “She died without a cow to her name,” he tells me. “If we don’t do something about this in the next year, we won’t be able to catch up, and then it’s just widespread habitat destruction from there. Horses versus everything else.”

Leigh, however, isn’t so sure that’s true. “You want to talk about environmental impact?” she says. “Fine. Let’s talk about livestock.” Currently, the BLM manages about 256 million acres of public lands in the U.S., 160 million of which are allocated for livestock grazing and are currently populated by 12.5 million “animal units” (one animal unit is a one cow and her calf, one horse or five sheep or goats.) By contrast, only about 30 million acres are dedicated horse-specific “herd management areas,” a figure that amounts to about 12 percent of public lands. Knowing that only a few thousand mustangs live in these areas — and that ranchers also erect fences for their livestock that obstruct the movement of wildlife, reduce access to food and water and isolate species — it becomes harder to see horses as the lone scapegoats for ungulate-based environmental degradation in the West. In fact, Leigh sees that packaging as nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by BLM to clear more space on public lands for mining, oil, gas and cattle, all of which it profits from through land allotments. “There’s no such thing as a ‘mustang overpopulation crisis,’ in this country,” she says. “What we really have here is a battle for resources on public lands.”

To understand what she means by that, we have to go back to the early 1900s, a time when over two million mustangs roamed the deserts and plains of the American West. The descendants of domesticated horses brought to America by Spanish conquistadors and passed through generations of Native American hands, they were cherished by most as living artifacts of human history and free to graze wherever the grass was green. 

Things changed in the 1940s when cattlemen realized they needed to clear the horses off their land in order to make room for cattle and other livestock. In an effort to rid their grazing allotments of unwanted quadrupeds, they hired specialized agents known as “mustangers” to chase horses down with motorized vehicles and deposit them at slaughterhouses where their meat played a starring role in America’s leading cat and dog food brands for almost 30 years. Though inhumane, mustanging worked: By the late 1960s, there were fewer than 18,000 mustangs on public lands.

This was devastating for everyday Americans, many of whom harbored emotional connections to horses and saw them as patriotic emblems of freedom and power. In response to public outcry over their killings, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 to protect mustangs and allow their population to bounce back. Declaring wild horses to be a “living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West,” the law made it a federal crime to harass or kill a mustang and allowed for the allotment of “herd management areas” on public land where they could live. By law, the only way they could be removed from these areas was if their population presented a threat to livestock, other wildlife and the habitats in which they lived. Previously, the wild horse population was low enough that this wasn’t an issue, but now that it’s reached record levels, it’s gatherin’ time. 

“There’s money to be made here in the American West off public resources, and horses stand in the way,” says Leigh. “So, what do we do? We blame the horse. What we need to do when we start to talk about the wild horse is to begin to recognize it’s not only the living symbol of the pioneer spirit in the West, as the law says, but that it’s the living spirit of corruption of the West, too.” Put another way, it’s not the horses that have gotten out of hand, here. It’s the people

Increasing adoptions from holding facilities is just about the only solution everyone agrees is a good idea. Last year, more than 7,100 mustangs were adopted through BLM programs, a 54-percent increase from the year before and the highest number to date. According to Lutterman, two-thirds of gathered mustangs are adopted, scooped up by everyone from trick riders to mounted police to competitive equestrians hoping to score big. 

Part of the reason adoption has become so popular is because BLM will literally pay you to adopt a mustang — their Adoption Incentive Program offers potential owners $1,000 per horse — but it’s also because the stigma of training and riding one has begun to fade. While some see wild horses as “pests” and write them off as feisty and untrainable once they’re adopted, a new wave of mustang-friendly advocates, innovative training programs and positive media moments have cropped up to rebrand the mustang’s image. In the documentary Unbranded (2015), conservationist filmmaker Ben Masters and three friends ride a small herd of freshly gentled mustangs from Arizona to Canada in an effort to prove their hardiness and worthiness as riding companions. 

Mustang gentling programs like BLM’s Wild Horse Inmate Program and the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Veteran’s Program add a humanitarian layer to the mustang-man relationship, leveraging the positive mental health effects of working with horses to improve the lives of prisoners and vets. There’s also an endless amount of Facebook support groups for mustang owners, mustang meet-ups and wild horse award shows, the most famous of which is a 100-day training competition called Extreme Mustang Makeover, which aims to prove that wild horses are trainable and just as good as any saddle-wearing equine on the market. 

That’s how how world-famous trick ride Ginger Duke found her comically named mustang, Who. Though everyone thought she was out of her mind for thinking a wild horse would let her do tricks like hanging from his neck or standing on his back as he ran around an arena, she says the mustangs she’s worked with have actually been easier to train than the fancier, more pedigreed domesticated horses you’d typically see at trick riding show.

“There’s something unique about the trust you can form with a mustang,” she says. “They’re a little more tough in the beginning because they’re wild and haven’t had experiences with a human, but once you start working with them, you go through so much together that you’re kind of bonded for life. With a domestic horse, you’re not starting from scratch. They’re used to being around humans, so you don’t go through as much.”

In 1985, endurance rider Naomi Preston adopted a beat-up mustang at a BLM event in Idaho. Though the horse had gone lame after being trampled during a gather, and Preston had no experience training mustangs whatsoever, there was something about her that just felt right. She took her home and gave her a name: “Mustang Lady.”  

Preston was thrilled to start training and riding her in endurance competitions, but the pair didn’t receive the warmest welcome from her fellow equestrians, most of whom viewed the sport as the eminent domain of the regal, expensive and conveniently pre-domesticated Arabian horse. Whispers of “she’ll never ride that thing” and “what did she bring that dirtbag horse out here for?” began circulating around town and at shows, generating a rumor mill fueled by surprisingly vicious horse people who seemed almost angry that she’d dare ride a mustang. For a long time, Preston felt so ostracized that she competed out of state for fear someone might hurt Mustang Lady. And in a way, they did. 

In 1990, Preston and Mustang Lady qualified to compete in the World Endurance Championships in Sweden, a big-deal event dominated by Arabians and a smattering of other high-pedigree steeds. But just when they were getting ready to leave, they received a message that they’d been disqualified. Apparently, someone had called the selection committee and told them Mustang Lady was lame. Later, she found out who it was: an Arabian breeder so concerned that a mustang might outdo one of her own that she lied to keep Preston out of the competition. “That’s the kind of thing I had to deal with for years,” she says. “There was so much animosity toward wild horses that it was honestly hard to compete.” That, however, only made winning that much sweeter — she and Mustang Lady cinched second place in the Tevis (widely considered to be the most difficult endurance competition in the world) later that same year, going on to become national champions with a snug spot in the Endurance Hall of Fame.

But as much of a happy ending that adoption can create, it’s still not happening fast enough. The demand just isn’t there. Horses are expensive, labor-intensive pets that need land, time and energy to care for; a fact no high-rolling government payout can change. As Goicoechea says, “You can take a dog or a cat anywhere you go with you, but you can’t put a horse on the couch.” 

And so, thousands of mustangs remain trapped in limbo, waiting out their days in holding facilities never knowing whether the pendulum will swing toward sale or slaughter. “We as a country need to think about what’s important to us to preserve,” says Leigh. “We need to preserve that wild place. We need that wild spirit. We need a place to go to remember how beautiful our country can be and what we once were, that resilient survivor, and nowhere is that more present than reflected in the eyes of the wild horse.”