Beginning: Menu Pre-History Domestication Return to America Return to the Wild Mid-1800's to 1970 Modern Era
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 the ground is very rocky. Until the invention and widespread availability of barbed wire, fencing was next to impossible. So most ranchers and homesteaders simply let their stock roam, going out and catching them as needed.
CAVALRY REMOUNT OPERATIONS:
During the Civil War through the World War I era, the US Cavalry released Morgan, Arabian, and Thoroughbred stallions into the wild herds, and then "harvested" some (but not all - the remaining ones are the ancestors of today's wild horse herds in many areas) of the offspring to use as Cavalry Remounts. Such foreign wars were the source of considerable profit for many Great Basin ranchers, who managed the wild herds for their own purposes and harvested the wild and semi-wild horses roaming near their ranches and sold them, during such times, at a hefty profit. The base herds of Spanish horses could be obtained cheaply, 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. Reportedly, 500 head of 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 the San Francisco Bay Area of California, there once were many. 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.
RANGE HORSES; WORKING RANCH STOCK:
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 ranch 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, and releasing them into their local wild herds, to "improve" the herds - usually for adding size, as the "Indian Ponies" and Spanish horses tended to be small for the tall Anglo Americans.
In today's urban world, we lose sight of the fact that horses are hard-wired by nature to accept human leadership. The old-timers knew this, and catching and "breaking" wild horses for ranch work was a daily fact of life - not the big deal we think it is today.
"Branding Wild Horses" on a ranch in Wyoming
Above: A Native American family and their horses
Frankie Winnemucca of Nixon, NV breaking a bronc, 1948
Washoe County Library
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.
SEE GALLERY OF HERD MANAGEMENT AREAS
DECLINE OF HORSE POWER:
The coming of the automobile and motorized tractor, as well as the Depression era of this century 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. But if a rancher had access to open space, he often opted to simply release the stock onto the range, to fend for themselves.
WILD HORSES AS PET FOOD:
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. The capture and slaughter processes were particularly cruel (The Marilyn Monroe flick "The Misfits" has some fairly accurate depictions of the process of "mustanging.") and numbers were decreasing toward a second extinction. These commercial "mustangers" differed from traditional "mustangers" in that they had no interest in preserving the herds, or selecting for quality. Rather, it was a wholesale rush to extinction.
Up until the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1943, the entire Great Basin was open range. 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.
The bad thing for the ecosystem is that there was no way of preventing severe over-grazing by sheep, cattle AND horses - and resulting desertification. The short grass prairie gave 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.
Responsible ranchers who wanted to preserve the range had been calling for Congress to enact some kind of regulatory system for some time. The Dust Bowl on the Great Plains was a wake-up call everywhere. So in 1934, President Roosevelt signed into law the Taylor Grazing Act, to "stop injury to the public grazing lands [excluding Alaska] by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; [and] to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range"
This Act set up a system of permits and permit fees, with 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 Taylor Grazing Act had a number of immediate and sometimes unanticipated side effects:
The 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.
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-UpMonday, 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.
Beginning: Menu Pre-History Domestication Return to America Return to the Wild Mid-1800's to 1970 Modern Era