Thundering hooves across the prairie, kicking up clouds of dust. The sound of whinnying carried on the wind. What could evoke a more true image of the American West than a herd of wild horses pounding their way through a misty morning?
Wild horses do still exist in this day and age, although their numbers have dwindled dramatically since the days of covered wagons and the Oregon Trail. The last estimate of free-ranging mustangs was just over 100,000, which pales in comparison to the estimates of more than a million in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
American wild horses are called ‘mustang’ which comes from the Spanish words mestengo or mostrenco, both meaning livestock that was “wild, having no master”. Mustangs have a long history in America and their very presence and current protection is controversial to some.
The ancestor of the modern horse evolved on the North American continent some 50 million years ago dividing into two subspecies, Equus and Harrington Hippus. Harrington Hippus died out and Equus moved to the Asian landmass at the end of the last ice age. Until the North American continent was ‘discovered’ by Columbus in the late 15th century, there were no wild horses.
Conquistadors brought the first populations as they began to explore the New World, beginning in Mexico and Florida and then moving west into what is now the southwest of the US. The mustang herds of today are mostly found west of the Continental Divide, with Nevada hosting the largest herds.
When horses were first brought here by the Spanish, they were not readily given to the Natives, but through trading and sometimes theft of livestock, eventually the Native Americans accepted horses into their culture as well. At first they were merely another source of meat, but as some Natives learned horse skills, this was passed along and horses became pack animals and hunting tools as well.
By the later half of the 18th century, horses and their popular use had spread to almost every tribe in North America. Hunting by horse became so popular that some tribes abandoned agriculture altogether. Today, horses are an integral part of Native American culture and have even been brought into the belief system.
In the 1920’s, wild horses were rounded up for use in the Spanish-American War and then WWI. It was after this that discussions surrounding what to do with the rest of these mustangs began to happen. With livestock populations steadily growing, there began to be some concern about sharing the grazing land with these wild horses. Some people arguing that they were an introduced invasive species, while others longed to see them protected.
Today, the Bureau of Land Management has HMA’s (Herd Management Areas) set up for the preservation of the American Mustang. Besides Nevada, there are significant populations in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California and Oregon. 45,000 mustangs are in holding facilities to add to the free-ranging population of 72,000, and there are laws protecting the hunting of and capture of these majestic creatures.