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photo: Dustin Gasser




Horses Return to America


  • 1. The First Wave: Spanish Mustangs From Mexico

  • 2. Native American Horses

  • 3. The Second Wave: Modern Era Mustangs


MID-1800's - MID-1900'S
The Origins of most Modern herds:







  • Taylor Grazing Act of 1934

  • Decline of Horse Power

  • Development of the Pet Food Industry


The Development of Wild Horse Protection & Management:



    North America was the original home of the horse species. Horses evolved here, and a multitude of equine species thrived here for over 57 million years. About 8,000 - 10,000 years ago, for reasons not yet fully understood (meteors, climate change, disease pandemic, and human hunting pressures are among the possibilities), horses are believed to have become extinct in the land of their origin. Luckily by that time they had migrated to Asia, where they spread into Europe and North Africa.

    Photos from Beringea interpretive Center

    illustration from www.darwiniana.org/horses.htm  

    For more, see these:
    Yukon Beringea Interpretive Center
    Yukon Beringea Center Research on The Yukon Horse

    Dr. Deb Bennett's Horse Evolution article
    (very technical)

    Links to source articles and more information:


    During the Pleistocene Era, more than 50 equine species lived throughout the Americas. Many of these presumably migrated into Asia and from there, into the rest of the "Old World" where evolution and human actions continued to influence them.

    Donkeys, zebras and horses all evolved from a common ancestor about 4 million to 4.5 million years ago. Today there are, worldwide, only 7 remaining living species (or 8, depending on how you classify Przewalski's)


    Most animal species lack the "hard-wiring" in their brains and nervous systems to become domesticated, despite humans' best efforts.

    Throughout Human history, people have tried to domesticate almost every known species. They (we) have only succeeded with a handful.

    What do these successfully-domesticated species have in common?

    • They are social animals, living in organized groups with leadership ("pecking order")

    • They are versatile, able to adapt to a variety of habitats, climates and foodstuffs

    Even using that criteria, many animals, such as the deer, wolf, or bison, have never made the leap to full domestication, despite many attempts by people throughout history. The horse was able to be domesticated because of its innate hard-wiring to accept leadership, to live in a social unit, as well as its ability to adapt to a wide range of climatic and ecological conditions.

    The horse was originally hunted as a food source. It became valued for other purposes than a food source due to its size, non-predatory nature (it's very important for your working partner not think of you as dinner), plus its unique digestive system, that allows it to eat fibrous foods and still "eat and run" (unlike the ruminants, who must stop everything to take time to chew their cud).

    • Horses have anatomical features that people have been able to use to their advantage, such as the naturally occurring gap between front and back teeth, allowing placement of a bit for communication and direction, as well as a broad back that is strong enough to support human weight. 

    • Their digestive system allows them to derive nutrition from poor-quality grasses and forage that other animals cannot digest. Ruminants can also digest fiber, but ruminants must stop, sit, and chew their cuds for hours in order to do break down the fiber. 

      Horses can eat and run, which became useful to people who used horses for transportation.

    • The horse, along with the cat, goldfish, and perhaps the pig and parrot, is one of an even smaller handful of species that can survive in either domestic and wild situations. It can live happily dependent upon human care, or it can sometimes shrug us off and live on its own in the wild.

    • Horses are versatile, able to adapt to a wide variety of terrain and climatic conditions.

    • Horses are generalists, >which makes them able to survive in changing conditions. Although strict vegetarians, they can eat a wide variety of plants, and their ability to derive nourishment from even rough, poor-quality fibrous foods such as desert grasses and brush gives them an edge when things get tough. They can also thrive in a wide range of climate types, from hot dry desert to cold, wet Northern climates.


    • CLICK HERE for the Oxford Journal's article about genetic research into horse origins
    • CLICK HERE for the Oxford Journal's article exploring horse genetics
    • CLICK HERE to read a "Science Daily" article about prehistoric domestication of the horse

    • Are Wild Horses Native Wildlife? Some people think they should be classified as such:
    • Dr. Jay Fitzpatrick & Dr. Patricia Fazio: Wild Horses as Native Wildlife
    • Another interesting (and short) article: "Native Surviving Horse Hypothesis"
      From "Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape"

    Luckily for us, before their extinction in North America, horses emigrated across the Bering Land Bridge into Asia, and from there they spread across Asia, Europe, and Northern Africa.

    For many pre-historic people throughout Asia, Europe and Northern Africa, horses were first a prey species hunted for meat. Somewhere along the line a wide-ranging variety of human cultures in various parts of the world and different time periods all discovered that the horse had talents and usefulness far beyond "what's for dinner", and the horse became one of the most valuable of all species. Cultures with horses immediately gained an edge over their un-mounted neighbors, both militarily and in farming and commerce. The horse had a profound influence over the development of human history.

    Selective breeding for different needs and climates resulted in the range of breeds, types, sizes, and specializations we see today, from giant draft breeds to miniature pet horses.


    Current history and paleontology indicates that the Spanish were the first to bring horses back to North America, after a multi-thousand year absence.
    Photos: http://www.gifthorsegallery.com/breed.asp, etching by Jose Cisneros

    "The original horses brought to America from Spain were relatively unselected*.
    *(In other words, a wide cross-section of breed types, size, coloring, etc. that were available at the time.)
    These first came to the Caribbean islands, where populations were increased before export to the mainland. In the case of North America the most common source of horses was Mexico as even the populations in the southeastern USA were imported from Mexico rather than the Caribbean. The North American horses ultimately came from this somewhat non-selected base."
    - by D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, Ph.D

    What were these Spanish horses being bred in the Americas? Breeds were almost unknown in those days, only functional type, called landraces. Spanish breed types included the Barb (now extinct, and we really don't know what it looked like for sure), the Spanish Jennet (also extinct before the age of photography, but we do know that it included many spotting patterns, both of the pinto and leopard-complex types.) These breed types are "extinct" today as distinct breeds, but their genetics live on in the many modern horses and breeds who trace their origins to them.

    As Spain began to colonize the New World, their need for horses outstripped their ability to find enough in Europe to import. So they set up breeding farms in Mexico as well as the original breeding operations in the Carribbean.

    Spain was at its peak of world dominance for horse breeding when Columbus sailed to the New World. This dominance began to decline in the next century, due in part to Spain having lost too much breeding stock through sales and export to other countries, and in part to the oppressive policies of the Inquisition years. By the 1700's and 1800's, many European observers to the Americas noted that the horses being produced in Mexico were of far better quality than anything being produced in Spain by that time.

    Painting of a "Spanish Jennet" showing the leopard spotting pattern
    that we associate with the Appaloosa breed today.

    Evidence indicates that the type of horse being produced on Mexican breeding farms was a short (by today's standards), swift, spirited animal with great agility and athleticism, as well as tremendous hardiness to survive hardship. These were then exported to all the Spanish colonies in Mexico and the Southwest.

    In the West they travelled up El Camino Real into California and Oregon. Indians stole or traded for horses, and helped spread them throughout the country, especially in the West. In the middle and late 1800's, settlers and homesteaders to the Great Basin region purchased large numbers of Spanish horses from Mexican breeding farms, as also brought with them their domestic horses of many breeds and origins.


    Photo: Tracey Westbury

    "Although the basis of legends, escaped horses from the early Spanish expeditions were not the seed stock of the wild horse herds of the American West. Only after the mission system in New Spain was established did horses begin to populate North America. Native groups, like the Apache, raided the missions for horses, and undoubtedly a few horses would have escaped. "
    - Dr. Philip Sponenberg

    Although many have tried to find it, to date there is no evidence to support the idea that wild horses originated with the early Spanish Explorers and Conquerors.


    The first wave of Wild Horses originated in New Mexico, and spread North and East, across lower Texas and the Great Plains. This wave began with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. (from "The Horse in the New World" exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Museum)  Early maps sometimes simply wrote the word "Wild Horses" over large sections of the lower Great Plains, into the Rio Grande area of Southwest Texas. Horses brought up from Mexico by Spanish colonists took root in California's lush coastal hills and Central Valley. We are familiar with the "seas" of bison herds. At one time wild horses were similarly numerous.

    "The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the single most successful act of resistance by Native Americans against a European invader. It established Indian independence in the pueblos for more than a decade, and even after Spanish domination was re-imposed, it forced the imperial authorities to observe religious tolerance." 

    For an eye-witness account of the 1680 Pueblo Uprising, told by a missionary, click HERE; 
    For historical analysis of the Great Pueblo Uprising, click here

    The Revolt, in addition to driving the Spaniards from the Santa Fe-Albuquerque region for more than a decade, also provided the Pueblo Indians with several thousand horses. Almost immediately, they started breeding larger herds, and selling them to the Apache and Comanche Indians.

    Wikipedia reports the prevailing view that one result of the Revolt was that "The Pueblo Indians acquired horses from the Spanish, thus allowing the further spread of horses to the Plains tribes.[2]" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pueblo_Revolt

    The widespread use of the horse revolutionized Indian life. While mounted Indians found that buffalo were much easier to kill, some tribes – such as the Comanche – met with great success when they used the horse for warfare. http://www.latinola.com/story.php?story=2093

    (Note that The Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie account differs with this prevailing date for Native American possession of horses)

    From 1680 to 1740, horses spread across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes and by the mid-1740's the Native American Horsemen cultures were in full bloom. European explorers often noticed and reported seeing Spanish brands, and sometimes even Spanish tack and gear, on some of the Indian horses.

    Spanish colonists and missionaries brought horses from Mexican breeding farms into California and Oregon via El Camino Real. Central and coastal California had large herds of wild horses, similar in size to the herds of the Texas plains, by the mid-1700's.

    Map Showing Spread of the Spanish horse (Mexican-bred and born) in North America

    Map from
     University of Washington (As you can see, the Great Basin where wild horses live today was not part of this movement. That happened later, with ranching and settlement in the 1800's)

    Horses were essential for transportation during the European exploration, colonization, and ultimate conquest of American continent. When demand for horses exceeded European supplies, the Spanish set up breeding farms in the Carribbean and central Mexico, using conquered native people as slaves to care for the horses. In this way, the Indian people learned horsemanship and although they were initially forbidden to own a horse, they did eventually acquire them. By the mid 1700's, many native groups had developed their own breeding operations and actively traded horses with other native groups, and in this way horses spread throughout the continent. 

    Petroglyphs at Arches National Park, Moab, Utah. Since horses are depicted, these petroglyphs are assumed to be post-Colombian.

    The picture above is a pictograph discovered in Anubis Cave Number Two in Colorado from the book In Plain Sight Old World Records in Ancient America, by Gloria Farley 1994

    Lona Patton sent me these photos (left, with detail above) of a cave pictograph located in a remote area of Wyoming.


    Alternative Histories
    History is written by the Winners

    Alternative origins to modern wild horses is a concept that captures many people's imaginations. The subject attracts dreamers, romanticists, religious visionaries, and is even occasionally accompanied by some hard science and rigorous historical research.

    Here are some ALTERNATIVE THEORIES  - some popular and some obscure - and their supporting evidence, if any:


    Alternative histories, as well as documented facts of history that are not supportive of the majority culture's view tend to be marginalized, discredited, un-funded, unpublished, and generally suppressed - or simply ignored - sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.

    Here are some interesting Alternative Horse Stories from the ranks of current Non-Winners (Please note that in most cases this author is simply presenting these for your consideration, and the theories do not necessarily reflect this author's own opinions):

    The Book of Mormon contains references to horses in Mormon territory in antiquity. A summary of scientific and archeological research to support these claims can be read HERE (click)

    Here's another link about Mormon scientific inquiry into the origin if the horse.

    And another from "Wild Horse Conspiracy" by Craig Downer

    Click here for a collection of a whole lot of Alternative theories, Native American lore, Pre-Colombian explorers, etc.

    An amateur historian from Great Britain, Gavin Menzies, wrote a book in which he tried to turn the story of the Europeans' discovery of America on its ear with a startling idea: Chinese sailors beatChristopher Columbus to the Americas by more than 70 years. Although the 1421 theory has been largely de-bunked, he presents some tantalizing archaeological evidence for the existence of horses in America before Columbus. He does so to defend his idea of Chinese presence in the Americas. Nevertheless, here's his evidence: Some pre-Columbian native art found at Cofins Cave in Brazil and at Trujillo, Peru depict horses, and in one case, a cavalry on horseback.

    Another little-known part of history is the Norse/Viking presence in pre-Colombian America. There is some evidence that they might have brought their small horses with them (progenitors to Icelandic and Fjord horses of today), which Indians may have acquired far ahead of the Spanish arrival.

    The most compelling argument for this is Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie's 1642 account of meeting Indians with horses (see "Early Account of the Indian Horse" below)

    Some Native people say they always had horses.

    Some Native American people, particularly the Dakotas, insist that they had horses prior to the arrival of Spanish horses. Indeed, it is incredible that the Plains peoples, in the space of just a hundred years or so, became such highly skilled horsemen, as well as skilled breeders who had developed their own unique breed (the Appaloosa) by the time of Lewis and Clark. This is possible, of course, but I have always found it remarkable and therefore a bit suspect.

    This theory is attractive to romanticists, as well as to some wild horse advocates. The theory also makes a certain intuitive sense. Granted, the human species is highly adaptable, and when something new comes onto the scene - let's say, for example, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the computer and cellphones - life can change rapidly. Still, it does seem remarkable that Native people could have developed such a widespread and highly skilled horse culture in just 60 years!

    Two arguments in support of the Native American position include:

    (1) the fact that the Dakota vocabulary includes far more horse-related words and sophisticated horse-related concepts than would be normal for a culture that only recently acquired the animal, and

    (2) excerpts from the diary of Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie, a French explorer who visited "The People of the Horse" in Wyoming in 1642, almost 40 years before the Pueblo Uprising of 1680, which is normally considered the beginnings of both wild herds and Native American possession of horses.

    Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie: 

    Here is an excerpt from a research paper by Clare Henderson of Laval University in Quebec:

    "Between 1984 and 1987, this writer* conducted extensive research on the prairies to retrace the itinerary of Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie, who left a village site near Bismark, North Dakota, on 23 July, 1642, in an attempt to find the "People of the Horse." He traveled 20 days, guided by two Mandans, and on 11 August (1642), he reached the "Mountain of the People of the Horse" where he waited 5 weeks for their arrival. (Note by Webmaster: This account also appears in the book Among Wild Horses: A Portrait of the Pryor Mountain Mustangs By Lynne Pomeranz, Rhonda Massingham, and Hope Ryden)
    *"This writer" being Clare Henderson

    Note: What is interesting is that this account occured almost 40 years before the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which most historians consider the beginning of Native American possession of horses, and it happened in a geographic region far removed from the Pueblos of the Southwest. Yet these Indians were already well-known in these Northern areas for having horses, and being skilled horsemen.

    In trying to locate this campsite, Ms. Henderson used LaVerendrie's maps and diaries, as well as other documentation and interviewed numerous Elders and old ranchers. Eventually the site was located in Wyoming, and all of the people he met and traveled with were found to be Lakotas.

    According to the Lakota Elders, the aboriginal pony had the following characteristics: It was small, about 13 hands, it had a "strait" back necessitating a different type of saddle from European horses, and wider nostrils with larger lungs so that its endurance was proverbial. This account described two distinct types, or breeds: One had a long mane, and shaggy (curly) hair, while the other had a "singed (roached?) mane." This description is consistent with the Tarpan and the Polish Przewalski horses, as well as various breeds of modern equus caballus, such as the Icelandic Fjord, for the roached mane, and any other modern horse for the long mane. It also is possible the writer was describing American Curly horses.

    The Norwegian Fjord Horse has a naturally roached mane, and although there is a scant body of evidence that the Vikings may have brought horses to America, which the native people could have acquired, it is possible...

    Curly Mustang from Black Rock HMA in Nevada, adopted by Angie Gaines
    The Curly Horse has the shaggy, curly hair coat described in the LaVerendrie account.
    Curly horses in America were known to the Native Americans. The Crow & Sioux both had Curly horses. 
    -The North American Curly Horse

    Frederick Wilhelm, Prince of Wurtemberg, a widely respected naturalist, traveled along the Mississippi and up the Missouri in 1823. Prince Wilhelm had studied zoology, botany and related sciences under Dr. Lebret, himself a student of Jussieux, Cavier and Gay-Lussac. An English translation of his diary, titled First Journey to North America in the years 1822 to 1823, was published in 1938 by the South Dakota Historical Society. His memoirs show that he was a keen observer of the fauna and flora wherever he traveled, and it was interesting to note his remarks on the Indian pony's characteristics:

    "I interrupt my discourse, to say a few words concerning the horses of the Indians…At a cursory glance one might mistake them for horses from the steppes of eastern Europe. The long manes, long necks, strong bodies and strait back make them appear like the horses of Poland…On the whole the horses of the Indians are very enduring..." (So. Dak. Hist. Soc., XIX:378).

    He explained this curious phenomena (sic) by postulating that the Indian pony had descended from the Spanish horses, but that it has "degenerated," so that "They now resemble the parent (Spanish) stock very little."


    The most compelling actual scientific evidence for a non-Spanish origin of horses in America, is the recent discovery that a group of wild horses in Canada is closely related genetically to the Yakut horses of Siberia:
    Genetic study of Chilcotin’s wild horses finds surprising links to Siberia: Small, isolated herd not related to horses brought to Americas by Spanish BY LARRY PYNN, VANCOUVER SUN JANUARY 7, 2015 The reader should note, however, that horses related to the Yakut could have gotten there in a variety of ways and time periods that are consistent with current history. They could have, for instance, been brought there by Russian fur traders in the 1800's. Nevertheless, this is the first time that any American wild horses have been proven to have anything but European origins.

    Here's an excerpt:

    "Which brings me back to the story I heard at the Rock Shop.

    “When I was a teenager, up in Nevada,” the manager told me, ‘I saw some terrible things happen.  Things would make you sick. 

    “There was this rancher, see.  Not far from Lovelock.  This would have been back in 1970, I think.  This rancher owned some good grazing land.  Maybe two hundred acres or so.  Now, you’re not supposed to slaughter wild horses in Nevada.  It’s against the law.  But this guy wanted to get rid of a certain small herd that he said was eating up his best hay and forage.  So he applied to the State for special permission. 

    “He had to give a good reason, other than his losing hay.  So he said this herd was a degenerate strain, useless for anything except dog food.  He claimed they might cross breed with other mustangs and bring down the quality of the herds.  They were small and malformed, with strange looking hooves.  This rancher’s explanation for their being degenerate was that they were half-starved and badly nourished. 

    “That was a clear contradiction, you see.  Those horses couldn’t be eating the guy’s best hay and be malnourished at the same time.   But the State bought it.  He got permission, went out there with two or three ranch hands, and shot every last horse in that herd. 

    “Thing is, there were some other witnesses who saw those horses.  Someone must have been paid off, because this was a major crime.  You see, those horses were not malnourished or degenerate.  They were native horses.  That rancher killed the last remaining herd of native American horses.  Now they’re gone, and there’ll never be another.  It was a crime, and it made me sick.” 
     - A Horse's Tale by Steve Bartholomew

    Mid-1800's through mid-1900's:


    In the 1800's, people began to settle in the Great Basin area, and they brought with them their horses. Remember that the Great Basin area is semi-desert with few trees and very rocky ground. Until the invention and widespread availability of barbed wire, fencing was next to impossible.

    Early ranch life in the Great Basin was not romantic.
    This is the Bell Family homestead in Humboldt County, Nevada

    Ranchers living in unfenced rangelands typically allowed their ranch stock to run freely when not being used for ranch work. Most ranchers made use of the wild herds as an important resource, providing new working stock as needed. Others captured and trained them for sale to Eastern states, the military, or other ranchers. Since the original Spanish horses were the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding for ranch work in Spain, most of these horses were by nature "cowy" and adapted well to ranch work. Ranchers often took pride in importing stallions of top European bloodlines to release into their local wild herds, to "improve" them, usually adding size and an overall appearance more to their liking.

    Catching and "breaking" wild horses for ranch work was a daily fact of life - not the big deal we think it is today. We tend to lose sight of this in today's world. Gentling and training a wild horse is not only possible, it used to be commonplace.

    "Branding Wild Horses" on a ranch in Wyoming


    During the Civil War through the World War I era, Both the US Cavalry and many private enterprises kept the US and European militaries supplied with horses. The breeding, training (usually pretty quick and basic), and selling of cavalry horses is called the Cavalry Remount Program. Ranchers released Morgan, Arabian, Thoroughbred, and occasional other stallions into the wild herds, and then rounded up offspring to use as Cavalry Remounts. (The remaining un-captured ones are the ancestors of today's wild horse herds in many areas) Such foreign wars as the Boer Wars were the source of considerable profit for many Great Basin ranchers. The base herds of Spanish horses could be obtained cheaply from breeding farms in Mexico, and, when mixed with larger domestic stallions, the resulting offspring had the quickness and athleticism of the Spanish mustang, combined with the larger size of the domestic stallions.

    Horses awaiting shipment at a Cavalry Remount station in California

    "In 1899 the Boer War in South Africa and later the Spanish-American War created a large demand for military mounts. Many wild horses were rounded up and shipped overseas.

    During World War I, ranchers such as Harry Wilson went into business with the federal government raising horses for the Army. Wilson provided Standardbred mares acquired from the Miller and Lux ranches and the government furnished Thoroughbred studs.

    Over 1,700 head of Wilson horses ran from High Rock Canyon north to the Oregon border, including all of the present day Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge." (from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

    An estimated 1 million captured and "broken" mustangs went to Europe and Africa during the later years of the Nineteenth Century and first half of the 20th Century, to fight various causes - usually European, occasionally American. None returned.

    Paul Scholtz photo of WWI-era Cavalry rider and horse in France

    "Many of the wild horse herds originated as the result of large numbers of horses being imported into Northwest Nevada for the purpose of starting herds of high quality stock.

    One of the earliest horse operations in northwest Nevada was in the Smoke Creek Desert. 500 "Spanish-Barb" horses were purchased for 50 cents a head in San Diego, trailed north to the Smoke Creek Desert and released in the early 1860s.

    Ranchers and settlers also turned draft and saddle horses loose on the open range to pasture, gathering them as the need arose. Other horses escaped, were abandoned or were set loose when hard times made feed unaffordable. These horses commonly became referred to as wild horses or mustangs. Once the wild herds were established, it was common practice for ranchers to release high-grade stock to improve the quality of the herds." (from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

    Although there are no longer any wild herds of Mustangs in California West of the Sierras, there once were huge herds throughout the Central Valley and coastal ranges. Nearly every community today has a "Wild Horse Valley" or "Wild Horse Lane" - testimony to the presence of wild horses at some time back in history.

    Here's a link to an article that mentions a little-known chapter in American History, combining the contributions of both Mustangs and Chinese laborers to construct the dams for the Oakland Water District:
    At Chabot Dam, hundreds of Chinese workers using mules and mustangs made 500,000 cubic yards of concrete and packed earth.

    - http://www.firehydrant.org/info/ebchina.html (Thanks to Willis Lamm for finding this)


    Above: A Native American family and their horses


    Frankie Winnemucca of Nixon, NV breaking a "bronc" in 1948
    - Washoe County Library

    NOTE: This section is repeated in the Nevada section of the "Gallery of HMAs" and although focusing on Nevada, much of it applies to all western states. So it is repeated here:


    Spaniards brought horses with them to the Southwest the 16th and 17th centuries. But horses preferred the grassy plains to the rugged semi-desert of the Great Basin, so it wasn't until settlement began in the late 1800's that wild horse herds began to develop in this area to any great extent. Most were brought there by ranchers, who allowed them to roam the range at will, since there was plenty of room, and the treeless, rocky landscape was hard to fence. Ranchers would periodically go round the horses up and capture the ones they wanted to train for ranch work, or for sale to others. Many ranchers imported large herds of Spanish horses from Mexican breeding farms set up by the Spanish Colonials. People also imported from Europe or brought out from the East, individuals of breeds they liked, including Morgans, Thoroughbreds, the various gaited saddle breeds, and heavy farm horses, as well as ponies for their children, and sometimes to work the mine tunnels. For sport, racing, especially carriage/cart racing, was huge in the area at that time. So many areas kept "Hambletonians" - the progenitors of today's Standardbred horses.

    "Hambletonian" by Currier and Ives

    Hambletonian cart horse

    Cavalry Remount breeding operations thrived during the late 1800's into the mid-1900's, especially during the Boer Wars and World War I. Those who were never rounded up contribute to the larger size found in some Nevada herds, such as Black Rock East & West. The Cavalry Remount ranchers took advantage of the local wild herds (usually the small, athletic Spanish types, who descended from Mexican breeding farms. They were cheap and very hardy) and introduced their own choice of larger stallions.

    Prior to the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 before it, it was common practice for local ranchers to manage the wild horses in their areas, periodically releasing studs with “good blood” to “upgrade” the herds. Such wild-born stock was the basis of most ranching horses, what we now call "cow ponies." In this way wild herds contributed to the development of several modern breeds, most notably the Quarter Horse, but also others, including the Rocky Mountain Horse (which was developed in Kentucky from a wild stallion brought in from the Great Basin).

    A few particular Old-Time Nevada ranchers made very notable contributions to the character and quality of wild herds in various places in Nevada:

    "The Dixon Strain"

    Tom Dixon was a rancher who came from Ireland to California and then to Nevada in 1869. He raised Shires, Percherons, Morgans, Hambletonians, and various Irish stock. "Hambletonians" is not a term we hear much today, but they were popular in the 1800's and were the foundation bloodline for the Standardbred breed of today.

    Many adopted Nevada Mustangs today, whose adopters have had them DNA tested, have "Irish Breeds" as prominent in their genetics reports. Irish breeds include the Connemara, Irish Draught, Irish Hobby (an extinct breed that provided foundation stock for the modern Thoroughbred, Irish Draught, and Gypsy breeds), and Kerry Bog Pony.

    Dixon ran his horses from Long Valley to Fish Creek, Spring, Diamond, and Monitor Valleys, and his herds numbered over 10,000.

    Tom Dixon is also credited with bringing Curly mustangs into West-Central Nevada.

    "Clifford “Steeldusts”

    Yet another source of today's wild herds were the Clifford “Steeldusts.” “Steeldust” was a common name referring to a preferred type of cow pony. These horses were descendants of Steel Dust, a Kentucky bred stud born in 1843.

    Steel Dust was of Thoroughbred lineage, but an excellent sprinter. He was a blood bay who stood 15 hands high and weighed 1200 lbs. He was moved to Texas and became a popular sire for ranch stock. Many ranchers would breed wild mares of Spanish decent to Steel Dust, and the result was a much desired cow horse.

    Horses of Steel Dust lineage became commonly known as “Steeldusts,” and these horses later became known as Quarter Horses.

    The Damele Family and the Curly horses:

    Wild horses with curly coats were seen around Eureka, Nevada, from its earliest days in the 1860's. Some believe they originated with importation from somewhere by Tom Dixon. A family of Italian immigrants, the Dameles, settled in the Eureka area around the turn of the Century. Beginning in the 1930's, the Damele brothers began breeding curly mustangs brought in from the wild. They are considered the founders of the Curly breed.

    The Jackson Family of Northwest Nevada:

    Wild horses were managed as part of the Jackson family's operations in Northwest Nevada above Gerlach, NV, up until the passing of the 1971 Act. The Jacksons loved color, and were especially fond of the pinto patterns. They introduced colorful mares into the local wild herds. The Calico Mountains, and its neighbor, the Granite Range, are two of the most colorful wild herds today. (Although today they have more buckskins, palominos and duns than pintos)


    Regionally, wild herds today bear the unmistakable marks of both their original Spanish ancestors and the domestic breeds added to them. Some herds carry the genes of carriage horses, trotting and pacing horses, gaited saddle breeds such as Tennessee Walker, heavy draft horses, the American Standardbred, etc. - Others type similar to Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses, still others show Morgan or Shire ancestry.  And some are descended from ponies.



    Up until the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, the entire Great Basin was open range. Much of what is now desert or semi-desert, was short-grass prairie in the mid-1800's, when ranchers and homesteaders began to arrive. Anyone, whether they owned land or not, could graze livestock - usually cattle, sheep, and/or horses - on the open range.

    The good thing about this for people is that it allowed anyone, rich or poor, the make a living as a "rancher." The good thing for wild horse herds is that they were valued and managed, with careful selection for type and overall quality. They often were not "wild" at all, but rather, owned and managed herds allowed to range freely.

    The bad thing for the ecosystem is that there was no way a person could "steward" the land effectively, because if a stockman wanted pulled his stock off an area when he felt it needed a rest, someone else would move their stock in to eat what was left. Years of overgrazing resulted in the short grass prairie giving way to semi-desert, and the semi-desert to total desert. The range was being destroyed.  And the range is huge - over 80 Million acres of American Public Land in 11 western states.

    TGA (Taylor Grazing Act) enacted a system of permits with fees and enforcement penalties. Permits were only issued for part of the year, in order to allow the land to recover during winter and early spring.  In order to get a permit, a rancher had to own a base property, where stock could be kept during time off the range.

    The TGA was clearly a law aimed at ridding the range of un-laded itinerate stockmen. As Charles F. Moore, Everet L. Brown, and Henry E. Snyder report in their "EARLY HISTORY of TAYLOR GRAZING ACT in COLORADO" (http://www.rangebiome.org/genesis/colohist.html ), "Livestock operation was the major industry in the eleven western states so it was easy to see there was a great deal of interest as so many operations depended entirely on the public lands. ... Immediately after the depression, we had many roving sheep men who traveled almost the year round. In this area, they were known as Utah sheep men during the summer, and Colorado sheep men during the winter in Utah. They were the same men, and a pain in the neck, whether it was winter or summer. The local stockmen who owned a base for their operations were gradually going out of business, as roving sheep men passed by. They over-grazed the area and moved on to the next leaving the local operator without feed and soon out of business."

    The Taylor Grazing Act marked the beginning of what is now the Bureau of Land Management. At the time, it was simply a federal agency set up to manage public lands grazing through a system of permits and fees.

    The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros says this about TGA:

    • 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) ... was adopted with the help of powerful ranchers with the express intent of eliminating nomadic herding and stopping indiscriminate settlement and grazing, stabilizing the grazing industry, restoring damaged lands, and other goals. (BLM 1976)

    • The TGA also created the Division of Grazing under the Dept of Interior – this created grazing allotments and charged nominal fees for grazing. 

    • Leases were issued to the privileged few, generally the most powerful and wealthy cattlemen, especially those who helped to create the TGA.  The TGA established that only those ranchers with “base properties” – well established, substantial private ranch holdings near the public lands to be grazed- were eligible for leases.

    • The only power that the TGA enforced was to rid nomadic grazing but ranchers did as they pleased and refused to have any control over their ranches.

    • Shanks 1984 says, “In a classic example of western control of federal land, the TGA retained elite stock raisers’ dominance using a permit system, a small fee, and a weak agency to manage the program.

      Note: ISPMB started out as an advocacy group founded by Velma Johnson (Wild Horse Annie) with a high level of credibility. ISPMB's interpretation of TGA certainly includes bias, but it is important historically

    The Taylor Grazing Act had a number of immediate and sometimes unanticipated side effects:

    The "nomadic" land-less cowboys who had run cattle, sheep, and/or horses on the open range, but who owned no land, were immediately put out of business. They had to gather up their stock and remove it if they could. Otherwise, the animals - usually horses - remained in place, to become "unclaimed ferals." The horses who were not removed during the winter became seen as a pest, as unclaimed feral animals who were eating grass that people wanted for their stock. For the first time, the wild horse's right to be there came into question, as it paid no grazing fees.

    The Road To Hell is often paved with good intentions. The Taylor Grazing Act solved some of the worst abuses of public land. But it favored wealthier land owners, putting many landless cowboys out of business. And, for the first time, it placed the wild horse in an adversarial position, pitted against ranchers for meager desert resources.

    After 1934 there was a huge effort to rid the range of these "pests" and tens of thousands of horses were shot, rounded up, or otherwise gotten rid of during the next decade. During WWII people had more pressing things to do, so wild herd numbers increased again. But in the post-war years, the pet food industry's use of wild horse meat rapidly expanded, and by the mid-1960's, people were thinking that the wild horse would go extinct.

    At first no one cared, or if they did, they did nothing. But gradually people's attitudes began to change, and the wild horse began to be admired for its tough ability to survive in the face of concerted efforts to eliminate it. A more romantic, sympathetic image of the Mustang developed in the public psyche, and they began to be seen as a symbol of America's spirit, and the last reminders of our pioneer past, representing the days of the open range and the era of cowboys and Indians, an animal who deserved protection.

    Here's an article from TIME magazine in 1939:

    Wild Horse Round-Up

    Monday, Feb. 20, 1939

    Tens of thousands of "mustangs" and "fuzztails" — the wild descendants of horses that, have strayed from ranches — used to roam the vast sagebrush ranges of the U. S. Northwest. In wilder days, wild horse roundups were carried on periodically for the Portland, Ore. firm of Schlesser Bros., then the world's biggest packers of horsemeat.

    In five years (1925-30) the Schlessers slaughtered some 300,000 head of outlaws, salted their meat in 51 -gallon barrels, shipped most of it to Holland and Scandinavia. Hooves, ears, tails were sold for glue and oil; ground bones and scraps for chickenfeed ; hides for baseballs and shoes ; blood for fertilizer; casings for German sausage. Then the day of the wild horse began to wane, and the Schlessers turned to packing beef.

    As winter last week finally settled over the "horse heaven" country of central Washington, the weather-wise Yakima Indians had already finished their first wild horse round-up of the year, thus reducing by 200 the estimated 2,500 outlaws still remaining in Oregon and Washington.

    Whooping like their warrior ancestors, the Indians rode their own cayuses in hot pursuit of the outlaws, chased them out of deep canyons into trap corrals, where long fences led them into bottlenecks.

    Cattlemen and the U. S. Government have two principal reasons for desiring a clean-up of the remaining wild horses: it will save the range for livestock, remove the menace of the dread dourine (genital) diseases often found in wild horses.

    - http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,760780,00.html


    The coming of the automobile and motorized tractor - especially in the immediate post-WWII years - resulted in many unwanted horses, particularly drafts and carriage horses, but also saddle horses, being abandoned from farms and ranches. Many, Many horses that were no longer needed went to slaughter during this historical period - to the extent that many observers speculated the horse as a species might be nearing extinction. But some ranchers opted to simply release the stock onto the range, to fend for themselves. Those who survived mixed with the wild herds and added to the diversity of modern wild herds.


    From the beginnings of the commercial pet food market in the 1930's until the 1970’s, wild horses were frequently captured and slaughtered for pet food, as well as for fertilizer. The capture, transportation, and slaughter processes were particularly cruel (The Marilyn Monroe flick "The Misfits" has some fairly accurate depictions of the process of "mustanging.") and horse numbers were steadily decreasing. These commercial "mustangers" differed from traditional "mustangers" (who captured good young stock to train and sell as saddle stock, and who culled the herds for quality)  in that they had no interest in preserving the herds, or selecting for quality. These new mustangers valued only the money that was to be made selling the horses for slaughter. There was no interest in the animals' welfare.

    Old-time "Mustangers"  

    The Development of Wild Horse Protection & Management:

    Many Source Materials for this section can be obtained from the US government by clicking here

    A certain amount of "Mustanging" has always occurred in wild horse country. Often the "mustangers" were local ranchers who also captured horses to train for their own use or to sell as saddle stock, but would occasionally also sell them as meat. They may also have actively managed the wild herds in their area, releasing domestic stallions of their choosing into the herds, and culling out the less desirable individuals. In this way, populations remained under control and wild horses were respected for the most part. Most ranchers enjoyed seeing them out on the range, although the Taylor Grazing Act of 1034 built in some potential conflicts.

    During the 20th Century, the keeping of house pets became more and more prevalent. House pets needed food, and the dog food industry, which began in the 1930's, found a ready source of meat in America's wild horses.

    At first no one cared. That's all they were good for, people believed, or maybe it was just out of sight, out of mind. In the post-war years, there was a growing movement of people who were concerned about the cruelty involved in the pet food industry's capturing and butchering of wild horses, as well as concern that they might be eliminated forever.

    Special Collections University of Nevada-Reno Library


    Although burros were not exploited for their meat (in this country), they were treated just as badly. Claims of competition with native big game Bighorn Sheep resulted in systematic extermination programs. In 1953 California became the first state in the union to pass burro protection legislation. This was followed in 1957 with the establishment of a 2 million-acre burro preserve on Federal land in Southern California.

    Tired of the cruelty and concerned about the possibility of wild horse extinction, Velma Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie" led a campaign of public awareness. Her groups, ISPMB (International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros) and WHOA (Wild Horse Organized Assistance) worked with Congress, with local governments, and with other groups to enact a range of humane protection laws, from local regulations concerning capture methods, to the establishment of the first Wild Horse Preserves.

     (photo from 123people.com)

    Velma Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie" is the iconic figure associated with the movement, but in no way acted alone. Hundreds, even thousands of citizens across the country were active in wild horse advocacy, some of them just as influential as Annie.

    Who was Annie? Annie was a ranch wife, who had suffered from polio as a child, and suffered disfigurement from the disease. But she didn't let it stop her. She was an avid horsewoman, and a charismatic leader. Always a lady, Annie was described by a contemporary, Karen Sussman, like this: "Annie was a charismatic leader. As she entered a room, opponents melted at her presence. She was always dressed as a lady and yet her soft words would reverberate like thunder through the souls of those who encountered her. " (from the International Society For the Protection of Mustangs and Burros website) The story of how Annie followed a trail of blood leaking from a large truck, to discover the horrors of the "mustanging" trade is legendary. Annie did mobilize a tremendous effort to protect wild horses, which started small, with simple (though hard to pass) laws, and gradually building support for more extensive legislation.

    Again from Karen Sussman's biography of Wild Horse Annie, account, "Velma was sarcastically nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie” by one of her bitterest opponents, Dan Solari, who went on to become an employee of the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As a constant reminder that her battle would be pitted against hundreds of Solari’s, she insisted that her friends call her Annie. She became affectionately known as Wild Horse Annie.."

    The first wild horse protection laws affected only the Reno area, and later became State Law. These early local and regional laws did nothing to help wild horses on Federal land, but they were a start.

    In 1959, Congress passed the “Wild Horse Annie Act” (PL 86-234) to provide for the humane treatment of wild horses on federal lands. In effect, it made it illegal to use motorized vehicles to capture wild horses as well as a few other things such as poisoning of water holes. It did not provide for the management of wild horses, nor did it prohibit the capture of wild horses. It simply tried to put a stop to inhumane capture methods.

    The Nevada Wild Horse Range on Nellis Air Force Base & Testing Site, was created in 1962, so "at least one wild herd would remain safe forever." The horses living there, unlike in the Pryor Mtns or Little Bookcliffs (who both claim "special" history and genetics) the Nellis herd was a "typical" Nevada herd.

    Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was created in 1968, after several years of struggle between wild horse advocates and their opponents.

    In 1964, BLM ordered the removal of 140-200 horses on the Pryor Mountain range. Fearful that the roundup was a prelude to slaughter of the entire herd, in 1966 Johnston began a letter-writing and public relations campaign against the BLM. Johnston's goal was to establish a permanent refuge for the Pryor Mountains herd, but it ended up going much further than that. Her efforts were opposed by powerful hunting and ranching lobby groups, who had strongly opposed establishment of the Nevada Wild Horse Range in 1962, and had only accepted it because it was within the Nellis Air Force Range, and thus off-limits to them anyway.

    In 1965, Johnston founded the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about the plight of feral horses and burros. ISPMB lobbied Congress and the President for wild horse protection on public land. Johnston and her group had several local allies in the Pryor Mountains area, as well. They included Bessie Tillett (a widowed rancher's wife in her 80s) and her sons, Royce and Lloyd Tillett. The Tilletts tried to protect the feral horses beginning in 1964, claiming them as their own. BLM officials suspended the Tilletts' lease in 1966 (the reason was inadequate fencing), forcing the family to give up their claim to many horses. Others who wanted to protect the herd included ranchers and the people of nearby Lovell , Wyoming, who saw the horses not only as part of western heritage but also a major tourist attraction.

    The ISPMB and its allies proved highly effective in raising public awareness of the issue and building political support for their efforts, and in 1966 BLM suspended its plans for the roundup. In 1968, BLM proposed three new plans for dealing with the Pryor Mountains Mustang herd:

    • 1. Removing but not killing all but 30 to 35 animals and allowing the rest to remain on the range;
    • 2. Killing all but 10 to 15 animals and allow the herd to recover to 30 animals; or
    • 3. Allowing the state of Montana to remove all the animals and sell them.

    In response, Pryor Mountains horse advocates began pushing for a protected sanctuary for these animals. The group contacted ABC News producer Hope Ryden and made her aware of BLM's plans. Ryden visited the range and filmed a news segment which aired on July 11, 1968, on ABC News. ABC News and BLM were "deluged" with mail protesting the removal of the horses after the segment aired. On August 27, 1968, the Humane Society of the United States successfully sued to stop trapping of the horses.

    The political landscape shifted dramatically toward protection rather than removal of the horses. On September 9, 1968, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall formally established a Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range of 33,600 acres. Montana's senior Senator Mike Mansfield, was so elated that he published Udall's order scrapping the BLM plan in the Congressional Record.

    In 1974, a few years after the passing of The Act but before the Wild Horse Program was developed, the Little Bookcliffs area of Colorado was also designated as a wild horse preserve.

    The creation of the Marietta Wild Burro Range in 1991 completed the "Wild Horse (or in this case, Burro) Ranges."


    Nice as it was to have 4 Preserves, people were still concerned about the plight of all the other wild horses throughout the West. Velma Johnson's letter-writing campaign, begun in 1966, generated more mail to Congress and the President than even the Viet Nam War.

    Finally, in 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Protection Act. This Act designated wild horses and burros as federally protected species. It was a well-meaning law with a strong mandate from the public. But there was no budget attached, nor any plan or description of just exactly what that protection would look like. The animals themselves had been subject to very little scientific study. There was not even any agreement as to what constituted a "wild, free-roaming horse." The first several years were turbulent and slow-moving, as the country and the government tried to figure out how to carry out the law.

    The Law still prohibited gathers using motorized equipment (amended later to allow them), and it allowed for the private maintenance of excess wild horses or burros, but with the adopter never receiving title (also changed with a later amendment). (READ THE FULL TEXT)

    The population at this time was estimated to be 17,000 wild horses and 10,000 burros, in 10 western states on both BLM and Forest Service land. A more serious count in 1974 (and after 3 years of protection) revealed that the population was closer to 60,000. (Note: Neither count included National Parks or US Fish & Wildlife Service land, although wild horse and burros habitat in these areas was listed as potential Herd Areas)

    "In 1971, Congress introduced and passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA). President Richard M. Nixon signed the new Act into law (Public Law 92-195) on December 15, 1971. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act required the protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros.

    Local livestock operators now had to claim and permit their private horses and burros grazing on public lands or lose ownership of them. After a specified time period following passage of the Act, any remaining unbranded and unclaimed herds inhabiting BLM or Forest Service lands were declared "wild free-roaming horses and burros" and became the property of the federal government."(from "MUSTANG COUNTRY)

    It was commonly known that many "free-roaming" horses were actually privately owned, so Congress gave owners notice that it was time to claim them, by branding them with their own brand and starting to pay grazing fees for them. Very few of these horses were recovered by their owners, so in about 1973 or 1974 (depending on location), nearly all officially became "wild, free-roaming horses" - Mustangs - with full protection under the law.



    Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management to "Protect and Manage" the herds, but no one had any idea what that would actually look like, and others saw a conflict of interest built into giving wild horse protection to an agency that historically was there to regulate the cattle industry, an agency that came into being with the Taylor Grazing Act - the law that first made wild horses into a problem instead of something appreciated.

    It was all new territory for BLM. Historically, they had managed LAND, animal habitat. Now they were mandated to manage not only the land but the animals themselves. There was no precedent, no road map, no set of instructions, other than to "protect and manage."

    Note in this early document, that BLM instructs its employees that any controversy about what constitutes a wild horse is a moot point under the law. Whether feral or wild, descended from the Spanish or modern ranching operations, it does not matter. They are all "wild, free-roaming" horses and protected under the new law.

    Note also that most of the issues discussed are very much the same as we see today.

    Many employees within BLM resented the added responsibility. Some had no respect for wild horses or burros, and thought protecting them was ridiculous. Others loved the horses and burros, and even relished the opportunity to do something worthwhile and exciting.

    One of the first acts was to identify where the wild horses and burros actually were. "Herd Areas" were identified and boundaries set in a hurry, without having time to study the behavior patterns, migratory routes (if any for that particular herd), water sources, food sources throughout the year, herd reproductive rates, etc. Very few, if any, scientific studies had been conducted into wild horse behavior or ecology. Once boundaries were legally set, the law prevented adjustments.

    An early version of the process of identifying where wild horses and burros existed at the time the Act was passed.

    Many of these Herd Areas later had to be abandoned due to not having a water source, or being a "checkerboard" area (too much private land mixed in, making management impossible). We are still living with the legacy of this haste, as well as the basic strategy underlying it. If we had it to do over again, knowing what we know now about wild horse behavior and needs, would defining and setting territory boundaries actually be the best way to start?

    Wild Horse (or burro) Ranges

    Most WHB Ranges pre-date the Act, or were created very shortly after it. They were created as early attempts to at least preserve a few herds from exploitation. They include Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range(in Montana and Wyoming),the Nevada Wild Horse Range(located within the north central portion of Nellis Air Force Range),the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range(in Colorado), and the Marietta Wild Burro Range(in Nevada).

    Designation as a Wild Horse or Burro Range means the area should be managed "principally" for wild horses or burros. Today, the Ranges established both before and shortly after the 1971 Act, are essentially just HMAs like any other. Like all HMAs, they are managed within a multiple use framework.

    HA, HMA, What's the Difference?

    Today, the wild horse and burro habitat areas identified at that time are divided into two types: Herd Areas (HAs), which are recognized as historical habitat, but are not currently managed for wild horses or burros (sometimes referred to as being "zeroed out"), and Herd Management Areas (HMAs), which are managed. Horses or burros may still be found occasionally on HAs, and when this happens, they are still subject to federal protection, and are usually removed to a holding facility. Only on HMAs are populations managed for preservation on the range.

    Red and yellow areas are federally protected wild horse or burro herd areas.
    Animals living anywhere else are not included in the 1971 WHB Protection Act.

    As soon as habitat areas were mapped and boundaries set, legal protection of wild horses and burros became limited to just those in identified Herd Areas. Any others were at this time, and forever afterward, excluded. This is the subject of considerable public confusion today. The US Forest Service (USFS) also established Wild Horse Territories (WHT) that are also included for protection under The Act. Often these are managed in cooperation with BLM.

    Horses not living in these designated Herd Areas or Wild Horse Territories have no legal protection. Well-known excluded areas include wild horses and burros living in National Parks, including Death Valley, Grand Canyon, various Southern Utah Parks, and Theodore Roosevelt; The three herds on Sheldon National Pronghorn Preserve, which is administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service; as well as small remnant bands of horses living in many County lands throughout the West. Indian Reservations are technically "sovereign nations" and so horses there are also not included.

    The Virginia Range (also sometimes called Comstock horses) includes wild horses living around Reno and Carson City, Nevada, and neighboring communities. These horses are subject to State of Nevada "Estray" laws, although they are known to have existed as wild herds long before the 1971 ACT, and were, in fact, a favorite of Wild Horse Annie. Although included in the very beginning days of the Act, the Virginia Range was ultimately abandoned as an HA due to having too much private land mixed in, and being too close to civilization to manage effectively. Catnip Mountain in the Sheldon Pronghorn Preserve was also originally identified as a potential HA, but the USFWS did not agree.

    The immediate effect of federal protection was a rapid increase in population . All of a sudden "mustanging" stopped, so the wild herds began to grow. The first BLM gather of excess wild horses conducted the same year in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in Montana.


    1972 saw the first Adoption of wild horses to the public. The idea of "adopting" wild horses came from the need to dispose of the excess Pryor horses and was originally suggested by Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) in meetings prior to the passage of PL 92-195. The statement in the law concerning disposition of excess horses was spawned by these earlier meetings. The statement says excess horses or burros, "may be removed for private maintenance under humane conditions and care." At that time, adoption was more like permanent foster care. The horse was cared for by the adopter, but ownership (and thus, federal protection) stayed with the BLM. The official Adopt-A-Horse or Burro Program to encourage horse enthusiasts to adopt animals gathered from public rangelands, was rolled out in 1976.

    National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is Formed

    In 1974 The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board was created. The DOI and USDA appointed a nine-member advisory board, including Wild Horse Annie, to make recommendations on matters pertaining to wild horses and burros.

    In its First Report to Congress, the committee reported that in just three years, the population had grown to 27,000 horses and 14,000 burros. Permission was requested to gather horses and burros using motorized vehicles. They also asked for authority for the public to obtain ownership of adopted wild horses. Congressional Approval was granted for BLM and the FS to remove approximately 3,929 excess horses and 63 excess burros. Due to difficulties encountered in capturing these animals on horseback,  only 1,681 horses and 33 burros were captured Approximately 900 horses and a few burros were made available to persons under maintenance agreements. The remainder were returned to the range, claimed by owners, or were destroyed.


    During the last half of the 1970's, lawsuits were used to establish that the Wild Horse Act of 1971 was in fact legal, but also that horses and burros had to managed within a Multiple Use format, and that BLM and USFS had to create Management Plans for each Herd Area in their jurisdiction, and that these plans would include removals (gathers) of excess horses.

    In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (PL 94-579) amended the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to  managing agencies to use helicopters to manage and/or remove excess animals.  It also required that BLM balance horse use with other resource uses (Multiple Use) CCC (Coordination, Cooperation, and Consultation).

    In 1976, The Supreme Court heard a case "Kleppe v New Mexico " and ruled unanimously that the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was indeed Constitutional.

    BLM adopted the Alpha Angle freeze marking system developed by Dr. Keith Farrell at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. In 1978, BLM started to freeze mark animals with permanent individual identification marks (Alpha Angle) making it easier to distinguish a wild horse and burro from a domestic animal.

      ( - T. Pogachnik, "Wild Horse & Burro Timeline, 2001)

    In 1978, The Public Rangelands Improvement Act (Public Law 95-514) established or reaffirmed:

    • the need for inventory and identification of current public rangeland conditions (through monitoring);
    • the management, maintenance, and improvement of public rangeland conditions to support all rangeland values;
    • the continuance of provisions protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, or death while facilitating the removal of excess wild horses and burros that pose a threat to their own habitat and other rangeland resources;
    •  and the transfer of the title of ownership after one year to individuals that adopted wild horses and burros removed from public rangelands, so long as the animals had received humane care and treatment during that year.
      (from BLM website)

    This Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) amended the WFRHBA to stress multiple use concept of public lands, and to authorize the removal of horses when necessary to maintain "a thriving ecological balance" and protect the range from deterioration associated with overpopulation of wild horses and burros.

    It removed the provision that required herd areas be managed “principally” for the benefit of the wild horses. It created a requirement for research study, and to establish an order and priority for removal of excess animals. It also called for an inventory of rangeland conditions and inventory of wild horse and burro herds.

    Also in 1978, Several Holding & Adoption Centers were created:

    The first contract adoption center ever set up by the BLM was in Spanaway, WA.

    Contract facilities were developed in Eugene, Oregon, Cross Plains, Tennessee and Valley Mills, Texas.

    Palomino Valley Wild Horse & Burro Facility was purchased and initial improvements were made.

    The Eugene Wild Horse & Adoption Center operated between September of 1978 through September of 1986. 

    "In that time it adopted out over 3000 horses and 150 burros to adopters from all over the U.S. The policy that was developed there was that every horse leaving the facility was halter broke to the point that it could be tied and led. All horses left the facility with a nylon web halter and 20' of poly lead rope attached to the halter.

    Most stallions were gelded at the center with only a few stallions going out to knowledgeable horsemen. The Eugene Center also took back and reassigned horses that people could no longer keep and those whose adopters were in over their heads.

    Clinics were held both at the center and at all Satellite adoptions on halter starting, leading, how to tie a foot up for working safely with your horse as well as at least one 2-3 year old went through ground driving and the first 3 rides at all major satellite adoptions.

    Chuck John also started a number of horses that were not moving well and adopted them out. We delivered horses all over the NW and often had people call us when they needed help and one of us would talk them through their problems and keep up with them to make sure things were headed in the right direction. We often shipped multiple horses to the same people over the years."- Sandee Force, daughter of Chuck John, operator of the Eugene Wild Horse Adoption Center

    In 1979, the first permanent holding facility in the East was established in Cross Plains, Tennessee. Randall & Paula Carr operated it until the contract was moved to Elgin, Illinois in the early 2000's. Carr's facilities processed over 20,000 animals – not only adopting but also holding, sorting, vetting, hoof trimming, and providing medical attention.

    Between 1976 and 1978, BLM developed 36 HMA plans and the Forest Service had developed 29 WHTs (Wild Horse Territories). By 2000, that number rose to over 300. By 2014, it had reduced to 179, in part because some HMAs were combined into new mega-HMA Complexes.

    Court rulings influenced the development of the Program. Lawsuits contesting the Wild Horse & Burro Act were common during the early years of the program, from such various groups as the National Wildlife Federation and ranching groups, who opposed the program. Advocate groups like the American Horse Preservation Association sued for better treatment of the animals during gathers and in holding facilities, and for management policies they believed would be beneficial.


    As important as the 1971 Wild Horse & Burro Freedom Act is to wild horse & burro issues, it is also important to know about the Sagebrush Rebellion, as these two forces acted - and to some extent still act - as weights on opposite ends of a teeter-totter of policy-making. To understand wild horse politics, it is important to know about the Sagebrush Rebellion and the powerful effect it had in the region, and continues to have.

    The "Sagebrush Rebellion" was most active in Nevada during the 1960's through late 1970's. The Sagebrush Rebels targeted wild horses as an expression of local people's contempt for increasing federal intervention in their lives and ways of doing business. Animosity toward wild horses from the ranching community continues to this day.

    Here are some links:

    • Sagebrush rebels - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      "Sagebrush rebels is a group that attempted to influence environmental policy in the American West during the 1970s and 1980s, surviving into the 21st century in public lands states (generally, the 13 western states where federal land holdings include 30% to more than 50% of a state's area), and surviving in organized groups pressuring public lands policy makers, especially for grazing of sheep and cattle on public lands, and for mineral extraction policies.
      ...The term "Sagebrush Rebellion" was coined during fights over designation of National Wilderness lands, especially in western states..." see link above for the complete article
    • "Wild Horses, First Target by Nevada's Sagebrush Rebels" by Rose Strickland
      (Reprinted from "Western Sportsman" –the official voice of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, –February 1997 issue.)
      "Nevada State Senator Dean Rhoads’ Legislative Committee on Public Lands (and also regarded as the father of the Sagebrush Rebellion and is a public lands permittee and rancher)
       is wasting no time after November’s elections to eliminate or cripple the state’s role in protecting the wild horses on public lands in Nevada." (click link for complete article)
    • Sagebrush Rebellion: A terrible idea that won't go away

    The Cliven Bundy phenomenon of 2014 shows that the Sagebrush Rebellion is still very much alive and well today.

    Here's another expression of "The Dark Side" of wild horses: "41 Years of Wild Horse Hell," - Range Magazine, Summer 2014.

    In 2017, we are seeing a strong resurgence in "Sagebrush Rebellion" thinking and actions, on the part of the ranching industry as well as the courts and Congress.

    BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program Continues to develop:

    In 1980, the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Range was designated in Colorado. As a "Wild Horse Range" it was set up to be managed principally (though not necessarily exclusively) for wild horses, as opposed to ordinary Herd Management Areas, which are managed strictly within a Multiple Use format.

    In 1982 new regulations set adoption fees at $200 for a horse and $75 for burros. It also provided for power of attorney whereby an adopter could elect to have someone else select and adopt in his/her absence. Prior to this time the adoption fee was between $0 and $145.

    The Hughes Case established that private individuals can not exercise humane destruction unless authorized. If they do, they can be held criminally responsible.

    National Academy of Sciences established methodology for monitoring standards. They called for additional research and information as well as to pull together existing information.

    The  BLM Director and Forest Service Chief placed a moratorium on the destruction of unadopted excess animals through the Burford Policy. Prior to this, "excess" animals gathered but not adopted, were "humanely destroyed." This did not sit well with the public.

    A congressional committee and the Office of Management and Budget recommended recovery of some of the costs of adoption. In addition to the base adoption fee, additional fees were added if the animal was transported· from the facility where it was prepared for adoption to another adoption center. These additional costs resulted in an immediate chilling effect on new adoption rates. So in 1983, it was abandoned. The adoption fee for a wild horse was reduced from $200 to $125 in response to public concern and reduced adoption demand.

    Sale Authority was requested. Bills were introduced (but not passed) to amend the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to allow sale at auction of un-adopted animals. These bills were hotly contested and were not passed.

    Holding facilities were set up for 10,000 horses.

    Another legal challenge resulted in the ruling that a person can be criminally prosecuted for conversion (theft) instead of WH&B violations, or in addition to WH&B violations in appropriate cases. This would apply to cases where a horse is adopted and then sold or otherwise disposed of before being titled.

    Desiring to rapidly increase the number of adoptions, an emergency rule was published that gave the Director the authority to adjust or waive the adoption fee for animals unadopted at the standard fee. To maximize the effect of the rule and to avoid interfering with the regular adoption program, BLM required that a minimum of 100 animals be involved in each fee waiver or reduction transaction. Approximately 700 otherwise unadoptable animals were placed as a result of this rule between May 1984 and September 30, 1984. However, the public was very suspicious of this program, and it was widely protested.

    BLM also eliminated transportation costs to adoption sites, making adoption fees uniform throughout the Country.


    In 1985 Congress tripled program funding and directed BLM to triple removals. BLM accomplished a record number of removals: 19,000. This, of course, created overcrowding of holding pens. Three holding facilities were in operation that could hold a capacity of up to 3,000 each (Bloomfield, Nebraska, Lovelock, Nevada, and Muleshoe, Texas) if needed. By the end of Fiscal Year {FY) 1985 more than 7,600 animals were being maintained in the contract facilities, and another 2,300 animals were being cared for in BLM's own corrals.

    A contract was awarded to the University of Minnesota for a fertility control research project. It was a public relations disaster, due to documented incidences of inhumane handling of horses used in research.

    In 1986, the Second Advisory Board was held. Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior established a Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board which proposed a 5-step process for excess animals. Step 5 was humane destruction of un adopted animals. Other steps included getting sale authority from Congress, recommending Prison Training, and recommending Sanctuaries to reduce the high cost of holding animals in feedlots. Sanctuaries were supposed to become self sufficient.

    Also in 1986, the first inmate-wild horse training program began, in Colorado at the Canon City, Colorado, correctional facility. (prison training was one of the steps recommended by the Advisory Board.)

    A lawsuit, Dahl v Clark, was heard in the District Court 9th Circuit Court. The result mandated rules that BLM should manage herds to establish a " Thriving Ecological Balance, with no particular number required.

    In 1987, a Draft policy incorporating Advisory Board's recommendations was made available for comment. Public response opposed the proposal to lift the moratorium on destruction of unadopted animals.

    Two new maintenance contracts were awarded for FY 1988 to existing facilities at Bloomfield and Lovelock. California, New Mexico, and Wyoming all instituted prison training programs.

    In API v Hodel, U.S. District Court for Nevada prohibited BLM from adopting animals or transferring titles to adopters who had "expressed to the Secretary an intent, upon the granting of title, to use said animals for commercial purposes". The decision stated, however, that the BLM is not required to inquire about adopter intentions prior to approving adoptions or conveying titles or to reclaim animals whose titles had already passed to adopters.

    A news story covered of an event where BLM was sending wild horses scheduled for destruction to a zoo for use as lion food. This resulted in a lot of negative publicity.

    That year, BLM achieved a record number of adoptions - through a combination regular and fee-waiver adoptions.

    In 1988, Congress prohibited use of FY 1988 funds to destroy healthy unadopted wild horses and burros. The same prohibition language in the Interior Appropriation Bills every year since.

    BLM was issued guidance including most of Advisory Board's recommendations, but not the destruction of unadopted animals.

    The First sanctuary for 1500 unadopted excess wild horses was established in Western South Dakota, a contract awarded to H. Alan Day, author of "The Horse Lover." It was closed in 1992 for not having become financially self-sufficient.

    With the establishment of federal sanctuaries, BLM terminated their unpopular fee waiver program in September of 1988.

    In 1988, over 100 wild horses died on Nellis Wild Horse Range, after drinking water polluted with aircraft de-iceing chemicals. The incident was ruled an unfortunate and unintentional accident, but created a public furor.

    Contract was awarded for one new holding facility (Bloomfield) for FY 1989.

    In 1989, BLM had four states with prison sites that were operational, and 1,700 wild horses received training prior to being offered for adoption. A second sanctuary (Long Term Holding, or LTH) was chosen in September near Bartlesville; Oklahoma.

    Removals were reduced or stopped in most locations from appeals by humane groups to Interior Board of Land Appeals. Removal decisions must be based on monitoring data. This led to a major population increase in the horse population.

    GAO issued a report finding the BLM to be inconsistent on our forage allocation between horses and livestock.

    The Third Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board was charted in May for a 2-year term. They recommended fertility control, increasing burro fee to $125, creating the First Strategic Plan, and responded to a negative GAO report on the cost and effectiveness of Prison Training.

    The BLM Director established a Wild Horse and Burro Steering Committee to focus on critical issues in the administration of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This committee is made up of 5 western Associate State Directors.

    In BLM issued the selective removal policy where all excess animals older than 9 years of age were returned to the range to reduce the number of unadoptable  horses.

    Ultimately, manipulating population demographics proved to have unexpected negative results, so in more recent times, BLM tries to maintain a more "natural" ratio of ages and gender.

    In 1992, hundreds of dead or dying horses were discovered on Nellis Wild Horse Range, due to extreme drought.



    Since the initial Act was created in response to fears of wild horse and burro extinction, and was focused on protection, the fact that wild horses have a high reproductive rate and that populations would need to be controlled, perhaps caught people by surprise. But quickly it became a problem.

    So horses were gathered. Gathered horses were offered for adoption. But there are problems with gathers, and when more horses are gathered than can be adopted, there are more problems.

    A few people realized from almost the beginning that fertility control was needed.

    Here is an interesting interview with Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, about population management in the early days of the program:

    The BLM Director approved the program's first long-range strategic planning document. This was developed partly to respond to the significant increases in horse populations resulting from legal constraints to gathering beginning in 1989. It changed the driving force of the Wild Horse & Burro program from disposition to herd management.

    The Division of Wild Horse and Burro Management was renamed the Wild Horse and Burro National Program Office and moved from Washington, D.C. to Reno, Nevada. BLM began reducing the number of wild horses in the sanctuaries through the adoption program in an effort to reduce costs at the sanctuaries. The selective removal policy changed from 9 years of age and younger to 3 years of age and younger would be removed from the range. In practice, 5 years of age and under were removed during the first gathers under this policy. BLM initiated a pilot fertility control effort.

    In another lawsuit, Blake v Babbitt, established that full force and effect decisions are lawful, and that decisions on removals must be based on the best information available at the time.

    GAO initiated a review of the wild horse sanctuaries and the New Mexico prison training program. The South Dakota Sanctuary (managed by was closed and the remaining horses were shipped to the Oklahoma Sanctuary. The Black Hills Sanctuary became self-sufficient and still has approximately 200 wild horses.

    The Office of Inspector General's report was completed, recommending closure of sanctuaries due to high costs. As a result of this report, a strategy was developed to adopt out the remaining sanctuary horses. Also, as a result of this report, funding to the prison training programs was curtailed . A Wild Horse and Burro web site was developed and activated.

    In efforts to adopt older mares proved to be successful. However, geldings were not readily adopted by the public. Adopting these animals far exceeded the expense of maintaining them on the sanctuary.

    1996 saw the first Emergency Gathers, which started in July and continued to the end of September. These gathers were conducted in the Southern part of Nevada and on the Nellis Air Force Base . The emergency condition was caused by a lack of rain and forage. By the end of September, BLM removed 3,100 animals under emergency conditions. In August, the Wild Horse and Burro Program Emergency Team was established to investigate the emergency situation in Nevada.

    Starting in January, horses on the Nellis Air Force range were gathered again to reduce the number of animals on the range. A total of 778 animals were gathered, including 16 burros, with 201 animals released back into the herd management area. Since the Nellis herd consisted of older animals, it was recognized that some of these older stallions would be removed to the sanctuary, and some would be halter-trained.

    Also in January of 1997, Martha Mendoza, a reporter for the Associated Press, released a damning report of abuses within the BLM system, in which many wild horses ended up at the slaughterhouse. Read LA Times story by clicking here. The charges were serious and an investigation followed. BLM was ultimately cleared of charges but the public's doubts remained. Read Ms. Mendoza's account of the investigation by clicking here. Within BLM, The Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program Policy Analysis Team, led by Pete Culp, State Director, Eastern States, was established in January to conduct a review of BLM adoption policies. This review was driven by Associated Press Articles by Martha Mendoza concerning specific allegations of violations of BLM regulations and policy. The panel recommended that all wild horse and burro specialists must receive training, in order to avoid these incidents.

    The Wild Horse and Burro Program Emergency Review Team's final report was issued in February. This report addressed herd management in Nevada as well as overall management in the Wild Horse and Burro Program. In February, Law Enforcement personnel concluded their investigation on wild horses going to slaughter facilities. They found that one quarter of one percent of the animals slaughtered in a year's time were titled wild horses. Wild horses are but a small fraction of the overall horse population in North America, too, so that result wasn't particularly satisfying to the wild horse activists, and the Mendoza report is still talked about by people and groups today.

    On March 7, the regulation to change the adoption fee became final. The adoption fee for each wild horse or burro is a minimum of $125 each. Mares with foals are a total of $250 for the pair. In addition, some adoptions may be conducted using a competitive-bidding process.

    A settlement with Animal Protection Institute and Fund for Animals was agreed to by BLM. This agreement related to a clause that was to be added to the PMACA which would ask the adopter of their intentions, at the time of adoption, concerning selling the animals for slaughter.

    1997 was also the year of the first helicopter gather of wild horses on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. A foal was fatally injured, which resulted in widespread bad press for the BLM program.

    In 1998 adoption demand dropped and the focus was shifted somewhat from removals to marketing wild horses and burros. Reduced adoptions started resulting in a backlog of animals in the system. The intent clause and a requirement for a Social Security Number was added to the PMACA.

    The East Mojave Preserve was added to the Mojave National Preserve which was established in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act. The loss of the East Mojave area by BLM resulted in the loss of 4 HMAs and parts of four others. All the burros were removed from these areas by the National Park Service.

    Training contracts were issued in several states for the gentling of older horses. These efforts were largely unsuccessful and abandoned. One such plan, shown on Public Television, involved placing a horse in a box and then pouring grain into the box, up to the horse's neck, thus immobilizing it. The horse would then be petted and gently spoken to, until it somehow "earned" that the human was its friend. When some horses died of stress-induced heart attacks, this method was abandoned. Other attempts involved much less draconian techniques, but none had great success.


    By the late 1990's, much of the world had access to email and the World Wide Web, allowing much more citizen awareness and participation in wild horse issues. BLM was a bit slow in making use of this opportunity, but many vocal critics of the program were quick to seize the ability to reach millions of people with a simple email. At the same time, Internet chat groups sprung up everywhere, connecting people to information about wild horse adoption and resources for adopters. In the beginning, most of this was volunteer, occurring spontaneously as an outgrowth of actual adopters' enthusiasm for wild horses and burros.

    The first Internet adoption was conducted in 1998. These have proven popular, allowing people across the country to adopt horses in far-away holding facilities that they might normally not be able to visit.

    In 1999, The "Strategy for the Management of Wild Horses and Burros on Public Land" was formulated and analyzed. A Population Viability Forum was held in Fort Collins, Colorado A "Statement of Work" between BLM and APHIS approved USDA, Slaughterhouse MOU was finalized.

    The first "Satellite down link" adoptions were conducted.

    In 2000, The "Strategy for the Management of Wild Horses and Burros on Public Land" was approved. This strategy called for a 5-year plan, in which massive gathers would reduce wild populations to their set Appropriate Management Level (AML) - a number set through a combination of field science and negotiating with all the various "stakeholders." The plan, approved and funded by Congress, called for a massive increase in gathers, with excess horses that could not be absorbed by the adoption program going to federally-funded "Sanctuaries" also known as LTH (Long-Term Holding).

    The plan was to get the entire system of managed herds down to AML by 2005. After that time, only maintenance gathers would be needed, and most of these horses could be adopted through the adoption program. Increased demand for horses through better marketing, combined with natural attrition through horses getting old and dying, would gradually reduce the LTH population.

    It was a good plan and still would be - EXCEPT that AML was never reached. Was this because of poor census numbers in the first place or what, I don't know. Briefly in 2005, BLM believed itself to have reached AML, only to discover, a few months later, that they had undercounted and there were thousands more horses still on the range that they had not expected. Massive, and massively protested, gathers continued. The national economic recession of 2007 - 2009 caused adoption fervor to plummet, and so far (2014) adoption demand has never recovered. The large numbers of animals in LTH and the costs associated with caring for them has become a huge political hot button.

    The Fund for Animals requested enforcement of the settlement agreement concerning wild horses and burros going to slaughter. The first Facility Managers/Facility Veterinarians/APIDS Veterinarians was held in Fort Collins, Colorado.

    This agreement included a title check for any BLM branded animals showing up at slaughter houses. If the animal was accompanied by a valid certificate of title, the slaughter was legal. If not, the animal was not eligible for slaughter and BLM was to be notified to repossess the animal.

    Adoption Standardization team was formed Issued contracts for two long term holding facilities- one in Cassody, Kansas, and one in Catossa, Oklahoma. These contracts were not finalized until FY 01.

    Temple Grandin reviewed wild horse and burro facilities.

    A mentoring agreement was finalized.

    A contract was issued to Fleishman-Hillard, Inc., to develop a Marketing Plan.

    In 2001 The Strategy was funded by Congress and implemented by BLM. Contracts were finalized for Long Term Holding Facilities. The Marketing Plan prepared by Fleishman-Hillard, Inc., was accepted by BLM in January and implemented in May. Biological Resources Division developed research strategy for the wild horse and burro program.

    In 2001, the BLM entered into a partnership with what was originally called the Wild Horse & Burro Foundation, soon changed to Mustang Heritage Foundation to avoid confusion with a private group in Texas by the same name.

    Their "Extreme Mustang Makeovers" and later, Mustang Million, Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, Youth and Yearlings and TIP (Trainer Incentive Program) Programs are very active and effective in popularizing wild horse adoption and raising public awareness.

    Since the economic downturn of 2007 - 09, the majority of BLM adoptions (78% in Oregon for instance) were from Mustang Heritage Foundation events.

    In 2013, they released the movie, Unbranded, to promote mustang awareness and adoption. The MHF continues to be the largest and most active - not to mention exciting - program in the nation promoting the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program.

    Two videos that do a decent job of distilling the current (late 2017) situation into a few minutes:

    PART 1 http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2017/09/26/senate-bill-could-trigger-wild-mustang-kill-off/

    PART 2 http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2017/10/06/wild-horses-northern-california-blm-mustangs-adoption/


    The program has always had volunteers, but in the 1990's, it really began to take off, in response partly to the rise in adoptions.

    WHOA, (Wild Horse Organized Assistance) founded in part by Wild Horse Annie, and led for many years by Dawn Lappin, was active long before there even was a BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program. WHOA continued to be active throughout the program's history, advocating to Congress for safer, more realistic, humane and effective management, as well as performing "boots to the ground" work raising orphan foals, helping to found the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility's Wild Horse training and adoption program, and operating mustang promotion activities such as the National Wild Horse and Burro Show (now the Western States Wild Horse & Burro Expo) 

    A group called Wild Horse Mentors/LRTC worked actively with BLM nationwide and especially in the West to help new adopters and encourage new adoptions. Beginning in 1998, they held annual Wild Horse Workshops at various locations across the country, to teach humane gentling methods. The last Wild Horse Workshop was held in 2006. LRTC continues working to help adopters and wild horses, especially the Virginia Range horses who have no legal protection.

    The Pacific Wild Horse Club, The Intermountain Wild Horse & Burro Advisors, Florida Wild Horse Club, American Wild Horse & Burro Association, and others across the country continue to provide gentling workshops and other activities. Recently several new wild horse and burro clubs - local, regional, and national - are springing up.

    The California BLM Volunteer Program evolved in the early 2000's and at its peak, it involved an organized system of trained volunteers, organized into regional hubs, to help BLM maintain the country's only 99% compliance check record for adoptions. These volunteers performed important work during the heyday of adoptions, ending suddenly with the economic crash and burst of the real estate bubble in about 2008 - 2009. Volunteers are still active at adoption events, bringing their "ambassador" trained mustangs and burros, meeting and greeting the public, helping with setup and managing the silent bid adoptions, etc. With the sudden drop in adoptions after the economic downturn, the Volunteer program has been less active, although volunteers still hold "Meet and Greets" and other activities designed to increase public awareness.

    The Western States Wild Horse & Burro Expo began in the 1990's as "The National Wild Horse Show", based in Reno, Nevada. It changed its name in 2001 in response to a dream of developing a series of cooperating shows across the country, with points earned for wins, and the Reno event was to be the Grand National Finals for mustangs and burros. This system never developed, but the Western States Wild Horse and Burro Expo remains the biggest and perhaps most prestigious wild horse and burro show in the country, attended by mustangs and burros and their adopters from all over the western states, and sometimes further east.

    This section just presents "the tip of the iceberg" of volunteer activities across the country - volunteers remain the often unrecognized but driving force behind the very existence and continued success of the wild horse and burro program.

    The Expanding role of Social Media to influence the Wild Horse Program, and to generate volunteerism of all sorts, cannot be understated. The Internet pioneered search engines and discussion groups during the 1990's, and by 2000, Yahoo! and AOL had active discussion groups for adopters and "advocates." By 2006, The Internet and Social media (such as Facebook) had garnered enough users as to constitute a powerful political force. If a horse was injured during a gather, chances were that someone was there to photograph it, and within minutes, the image, along with highly-charged rhetoric, spread around the world. Lawsuits quickly generated donations from upset citizens, eager to "save the mustangs from extinction." Although BLM had a basic website as early as the mid-1990's, BLM was, unfortunately, slow to adapt to the modern Internet Age, and a relative late-comer to effectively telling their story, and are still playing catch up.




    The most recent change to the law was the December 2004 sale-authority law (the so-called "Burns Amendment"), which was inserted rather surreptitiously into a budget item, when most of Congress was celebrating the holidays. The much-hated Burns Amendment directs the BLM to sell "without limitation" to any willing buyers animals that are either more than 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption at least three times. Read The BLM Page about Sales Authority

    Public acceptance of this law has been rabidly poor. BLM states on their own website that "It has been and remains the policy of the BLM, despite the unrestricted sales authority of the Burns Amendment, notto sell any wild horses or burros to slaughterhouses or to "kill buyers. After several well-publicized sales scandals, the most recent (as of this writing) being the ProPublica expose' of Tom Davis in Colorado, (Click here to read) BLM issued this January, 2013 News Memo:

    January 4, 2013 WASHINGTON, D.C. (BLM) - The Bureau of Land Management today announced a policy - in the form of what's known as an interim Instruction Memorandum - regarding new conditions and restrictions on wild horse and burro sales. The new policy was prompted by the BLM's overall effort to improve its management and care of wild horses and burros that roam Western public rangelands. "Today's announcement marks another step forward in our agency's steady improvement in ensuring the health and humane treatment of wild horses and burros, both on and off the range," said BLM Acting Director Mike Pool. The new policy, which is effective immediately, will remain so until the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program publishes additional guidance on wild horse and burro sales. The policy stipulates that: * No more than four wild horses and/or wild burros may be bought by an individual or group within a six-month period from the BLM without prior approval of the Bureau's Assistant Director for Renewable Resources and Planning. * When buying wild horses and/or wild burros, purchasers must describe where they intend to keep the animals for the first six months following the sale. Without prior approval from the Assistant Director, the BLM will not sell more than four animals destined for a single location in this six-month period. * Buyers must provide transportation for the purchased animal from the BLM's short- term holding corrals or other locations to its new home. Specifics regarding acceptable trailers can be obtained from the new interim policy, which is posted at: (Link to Instruction Memorandum No. 2013-032) *The BLM will inspect trailers and reserves the right to refuse loading if the trailer does not ensure the safety and humane transport of the animal. The BLM encourages anyone who has observed inhumane treatment or the sale to a slaughterhouse of a federally protected wild horse or burro, or who has factual information about such an incident, to contact the Bureau at wildhorse@blm.gov or 866-4MUSTANGS (866-468-7826) with your name, contact information, and specific information about what you saw or know about.


    Today's wild horse management issues are extremely complex. If you are looking for simplistic answers, you will not find them here. The best thing you can do is to continually educate yourself and make your own decisions. Talk to people. Talk to BLM personnel, ranchers, wild horse advocates, recreationists, hunters & fishermen, campers, bikers, field biologists, and wild horse adopters. Go visit the range yourself if you can and see for yourself what it's like. If you are lucky, you may get to watch a band of wild horses or burros as they go about their daily lives. Read from multiple sources, not just the passionately worded campaign that arrives in the email.

    The high reproductive rate of wild horses presents a major challenge to wild horse management, in part because a large segment of the politically-active population doesn't believe it. Since effective on-the-range fertility control remains elusive for a variety of reasons, gathering remains BLM's main management tool. But this has resulted in a large buildup of horses in holding facilities, the care of which uses up most of BLM's meager budget. As the public has become more aware of gathers, considerable public protest has developed, as modern-day animal lovers find the process hard to handle. Congress and anti-wild horse lobbies are starting to object to the costs of maintaining captured horses in holding facilities. We are starting to see lawsuits filed by anti-wild horse groups to force BLM to remove more horses and burros, even as the budget is tighter than ever.

    Many advocates do not agree that population growth is a problem, believing that if allowed the chance, wild horse populations would "self-regulate." The National Academy of Science in a sense agrees, saying that if there are more horses in an area than the land can support, the horses will weaken and die off. This die-off would be accompanied by a similar decline in other wildlife and  degradation to the environment. The NAS questions whether this would be a price that we would be willing to pay. Others simply don't believe the figures and insist that the land could support more horses than it currently does. Others focus on pointing out the damages done by competing uses, such as livestock and energy extraction.

    So we find ourselves today, watching two primary forces among wild horse advocates: Those who want active on-the-range management and those who don't. Many believe that the best policy forward would be implementing widespread fertility control on the range, using drugs such as PZP or GonaCon, and spaying older mares who have already contributed to the herd's gene pool. Other call this "managing for extinction." They believe that removals are the primary problem, that wild horses are disappearing, and that the best policy is to allow them to run free with no human interference. There are also advocates for "letting nature take its course" - folks who believe it is better for a horse to die of thirst and starvation than to lose its freedom.

    Among non-advocates, we see campaigns to to re-open horse slaughter plants in the US and to send excess wild horses to them, or to sell excess wild horses to zoos and similar facilities, for feeding to zoo animals (this would circumvent the need for slaughterhouses for human consumption).

    Protracted drought in the Great Basin areas, very limited funding for adoption programs, renewed "Sagebrush Rebellion" forces wanting to get rid of wild horses and the BLM program, increasing urbanization with changing demographics (less interest in horses and less ability to own one) are other critical challenges to the viability of the wild horse program today.


    Today's wild horses are descendants - in some cases after 100 generations or more, of domestic horses brought to North America by Europeans beginning in 1493. These long-ago domestics were descendants of native North American-evolved horses who crossed over into Asia during the prehistoric days of Beringea. Some say this qualifies horses as being a native species. Others find this too big a stretch.


    Wild horses deserve our respect if for no other reason than that they've survived everything we have thrown at them over the years."
    - Jay Fitzpatrick


    What makes Mustangs special is their history and their wildness. Nothing matches the thrill of chancing upon a band of mustangs or burros in the wild. They are a Heritage Animal, deserving of protection, and management both within their environment as well as in captivity.

    It is interesting that BLM receives the most bad publicity and the most criticism in its management of wild horses. Often this is due simply to ignorance. Many other agencies have jurisdiction over groups of wild horses, and some of these sometimes make news by handling their wild horses in a way that is disturbing to the public. But since BLM is the largest and most visible manager of wild horses, the public assumes the bad deed was done by BLM. Some people argue that Reservation horses (on Native American reservations) whould be considered "mustangs" since they are allowed to range freely on the land. Their numbers dwarf the entire BLM system, and traditionally these horses are a cash crop, periodically rounded up and run through the nearest livestock auction, usually going for meat. Indian reservations, the National Park Service, the Sheldon USFWS preserve, and The Nevada Department of Agriculture all just catch and sell, with only sporadic and variably-supervised attempts to prevent the horses from being slaughtered. Some agencies openly and directly sell to slaughter buyers.

    BLM is currently the only agency that both manages wild populations and supports and protects the horses who are removed from the wild. It is not the intent of this website to be political, only to present information as accurately as possible. This is accurate.

    Imagine for yourself what a "thriving ecological balance" might look like... 


    Wild Horse & Burro Protection and Management & Preservation efforts in recent times have collided headlong with a difficult mix of circumstances:

    • Climate change has contributed to longer and worse droughts, and more frequent, hotter wildfires in the Great basin area; This reduces the land's ability to support animals, and reduces its likelihood of recovering if it has already been overgrazed. When fragile areas are disturbed, they may never recover.

    • Increased pressures on public lands for human enterprises such as energy development, mineral extraction, recreation, hunting and fishing, RV-ing, ATV-ing, biking, and housing and industrial development.

    • BLM Budget Restrictions: BLM today gets only enough money to perform emergency gathers and to feed the horses it already has in holding. Adoption events are being cut back, resulting in even fewer adoptions and lowered public awareness. Because the money is going to care for horses already in holding, gathers have been cut back, which is resulting in serious overpopulation problems on the range. The Wild Horse & Burro Program of the BLM has always been, and remains, one of the most poorly-funded programs in government.

    • BLM has never once, since 1971, reached "AML" (Appropriate Management Level" - a number set through a process that includes range science, politics, and public pressures).
    • The faltering national economy starting in about 2007 -2009 has made horse ownership out of reach for many would-be adopters.
    • Loss of land available for any kind of equine use (boarding stables, trails, affordable competition facilities, etc) which restricts people's ability to have or enjoy horses, which reduces interest in horses, etc - a downward spiral. Development of former "horse property" into housing developments, vineyards, etc, making it hard to find a place to keep a horse.

    •   Changing national demographics: Wild horses are on fewer and fewer people's radar. Today huge blocks of the population have no experience, awareness or interest in horses of any kind. Fewer and fewer people dream of owning a horse. Even fewer have the skill-sets needed to be successful with even a dead-broke domestic horse, let alone a wild one. The adoption market for wild horses is shrinking. 

    •  Publicity exposing the fact that most domestic horses sold for slaughter are contaminated with drugs, has turned the eyes of the foreign and American gourmet market to our wild horses - the last uncontaminated source. Attempts to get them into the horse slaughter pipelines (still legal and operative in Canada, Mexico, and Europe and Asia) through pressuring BLM to exercise Sale Authority and to reduce the numbers of horses in Long Term Holding facilities are continuous.

    •  The political climate concerning wild horse issues is as polarized as the rest of the nation is on other issues:

      • On the one hand, we see a resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion among ranchers who are feeling the pinch of the economy, drought, and environmental pressures.Click Here for a story of a 2014 "Show Down"(If you read this article all the way through, you will start to get an idea of the complexity of some of these issues. It isn't just a matter of whether or not you care about horses)
        Another Modern Sagebrush Rebellion Story: Sagebrush Sheriffs

      • At the other end, organized "Advocacy" groups continue to press lawsuits and other pressures to stop gathers and prevent fertility control programs.

    Today BLM-managed wild horse herds are found in California, Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and one small area of Montana.

    Wild horses and burros exist elsewhere, too, throughout the country, but are not managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area around Reno and Carson City, Nevada, are mostly not managed by BLM and have no legal protections, but are in prime wild horse country. (These are called "Comstock" or "Virginia Range" horses)

    Wild horses and burros can be found on private, County, US Fish & Wildlife, Indian Reservation, State Park and even one or two National Park lands. Reservation horses are not necessarily true "Mustangs" but they are often as unhandled as any, and their sheer numbers are gaining national notice.

    The buildup of gathered wild horses in holding facilities and the restrictions of the BLM budget to perform on-the-range management or to promote adoptions, combined with all the forces listed above, would seem to be creating a Perfect Storm for disaster unless something changes. It is up to each of us, as individuals and as groups, to work to understand the issues and to help develop humane and effective solutions.

    It is easy to feel very alarmist at the current situation. And yet, going back and reading through the history of the wild horse movement, nothing much has really changed. The same forces are still duking out in much the same way they always have.


    Today’s wild horses are a true American Melting Pot of horses and with the help of Natural Selection, they are intelligent, sound-minded, sure-footed, and strong. Mustangs normally have excellent feet that often do not require shoes, and strong, hardy constitutions. Having had the benefit of life within a functional natural social unit, they are well-socialized and savvy. Time will tell how it plays out into the future. Will there be wild herds for our grandchildren to enjoy?



Into the Wind: Wild Horses of North America

by Jay F. Kirkpatrick, Photos by Michael H. Francis

Dr. Kirkpatrick was best known for his work with PZP fertility treatment. But in this book he shares his passion and love for wild horses everywhere, as he explores their history, behavior, and biology.

Wild Horse Controversy

by Heather Smith Thomas

A fascinating and well-researched history of wild horses in America, written in 1979. Much more thorough than many wild horse histories, and more balanced than many books with an agenda - whether for or against Mustangs.

The Mustangs
The Mustangs
by Frank Dobie
originally published in 1934, re-published with a forward by Dayton Hyde in 2005

A classic! The History, Lore, Romance, and cultural impact of the wild horse in America, from long before the Wild Horse & Burro Program.

The more things change, the more they stay the same... 

The Nature of Horses

 by Stephen Budiansky

Great science, great writing. Highly recommended!

America's Last Wild Horses:
The Classic Study of the Mustangs--Their Pivotal Role in the History of the West,
Their Return to the Wild, and the Ongoing Efforts to Preserve Them

By Hope Ryden

The long title says it all. Hope Ryden was a journalist who became a prominent activist in the struggle to get the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed, and to influence development of the BLM wild horse and burro program as we know it today.

Click here for Nevada BLM'S
FREE online booklet
It's chock full of info for mustang buffs, including wild horse history, visitor tips and camping info.

Honest Horses: Wild Horses of the Great Basin

by Paula Morin

Explores the many facets of wild horse issues and history, through the eyes of a wide range of participants, observers, and "stake holders."

Mustang! Spirit of the West

by Marguerite Henry

This is a book written for kids, so it's good for kids. But adults might also enjoy this easy-reading introduction to Wild Horse Annie.

The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
by Deanne Stillman

A passionately written, riveting read. Well-researched on the history side, quite weak on the modern side.

Dr. Jay Fitzpatrick & Dr. Patricia Fazio:
Wild Horses as Native Wildlife

Two scientists make a case for abandoning the "invasive non-native species" onus
that has been the basis of so many laws affecting wild horses.

Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970  
The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century    Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage