Ever since the first time my five-year-old legs spread wide to straddle the back of a horse, I have been bewitched by equines. Groomed to dazzling detail or heavy with mud-caked winter shag, I love horses. That passion for the equine has made me curious and sensitive to the plight of the famous wild horses of the western range. I’ve written about them before.
Wild Horse Country; The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang, by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, David Philipps, is a must read for horse lovers, particularly lovers of the mythic mustang of the west. Philipps set out to discover the proper place for the mustang in the West. He launched his investigation with the curiosity of a western-born scholar and with the neutrality of a dogged journalist who thrives upon investigating a subject from every possible angle and researching each angle till he finds the hard truth at its core.
The first chapters of the book detail the history of the horse in North America from before the Ice Age. He examines man’s relationship to the horse and how domesticating those four legs contributed to the success of our species and the specialization of genus equine. Horses are intertwined with American history and Manifest Destiny, the horse being an early symbol for power, wealth, and mobility, and later standing as a doe-eyed symbol for freedom.
As the American frontier was tamed, the need for horses declined. Excess horses cost money to feed, however turned free on the vast open range they fended for themselves and reproduced successfully—so successfully that, in time, they would become a nuisance, competing for livestock grazing land. In the early 20th Century, as Americans gained enough economic security to pamper house pets, horses became the lucrative target of dog food plants, hence Ken-L Ration, which I remember feeding to our dogs when I was a kid. Dismissing early criticism of the horse meat industry, the response was, “it was more humane to slaughter [them worthless Cayuses] than to let them starve to death on the range in old age.” Reasoning which lies at the root of the current practice by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to round-up wild horses on federal land.Philipps carefully researched the lengthy and fraught public uproar about the horse meat industry which culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. That well-meaning act continues to bedevil western range land management with unforeseen consequences. Much of the book explores those consequences, uncovering all sorts of machinations along the way, including a severe incrimination of Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior, and a man whom I have always respected.
The BLM has used both mounted and helicopter roundups to administer the ever-increasing numbers of wild horses grazing on Federal land. The roundups are necessary to cull the herds that far outweigh the carry capacity of the arid western lands they live on—in conjunction with livestock grazing allotments awarded to western ranchers. But are the mustangs really the problem? Is the land really overburdened? Are the roundups really necessary? And what is done with the excess horses that find no “forever home?” Philipps examines the issues with an unblinking eye. Clearly the roundups are expensive and traumatic to the animals. There are other management options. Predictably, Philipps explores these, as well, and comes up with some common-sense solutions to the problem of mustangs on the range.
I encourage anyone interested in the wild horse dilemma to read Wild Horse Country.