Rod Miller: “Wild” Horses, A Wyoming Fairy Tale

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By Rod Miller, columnist

Every so often, the Bureau of Land Management gathers up “wild” horses from the western ranges and removes enough of them to prevent overgrazing of a finite rangeland resource. We’ll get to the quotation marks surrounding the term “wild” shortly.

And every time that BLM rounds up these critters, there is a pained hue and cry from folks who consider that these roundups are threatening a native species, the horse, that is a noble and enduring symbol of the American West.

It’s happening again. And the myth of horses in the West is being retold.

I put quotation marks around “wild” in the context of horses in the New World because they are really feral horses whose ancestors got here in the same Spanish ships that brought the ancestors of the domestic cattle and sheep they graze alongside. They are wild only in the myths and fairytales.

Wyoming is the Ur of equines. The earliest fossils of the species were found in the Pryor Mountains in northern Wyoming. We live in the home of the horse.

But by the time the first humans got to the 307 – between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, depending on who you ask – there wasn’t a hoofprint to be found. The horse herd had vanished centuries before the first Wyomingites got here.

And anyone familiar with horses will tell you that they are prone to vanishing. You wake up one cold morning and the picketline is empty.

Those feral broomtails that you see in the Red Desert descended from horses that the Spanish brought to the Americas. They were of Andalusian blood from Iberia, and Berber blood from North Africa. Indigenous people had never seen anything like these animals of war, and their nations crumbled.

The King of Spain ruled his new conquest that reached northward to the Bessemer Bend of the North Platte, and he ruled it horseback.

That is until 1680, when Pueblo Indians rose up against the Spanish in Pope’s Rebellion. They attacked Santa Fe, and killed a bunch of their Spanish overlords. But, more importantly, they turned a couple thousand Spanish horses loose and chased them off so that the Spanish Army couldn’t pursue them.

The surviving Spaniards had to retreat to Mexico City on foot.

Historically, this event broke the back of Spanish rule for decades. And it provided the seed stock for those shaggy horses that the tourists photograph alongside our roads. Over the years, the pure Andalusian and Berber blood in those escaped horses has been diluted by many other bloodlines that have inter-mixed. The result is our mesteno, or mustang.

Those folks that claim that horses came here the same time turtles brought people up from underground test the bounds of hyperbole, and don’t know the facts. Archaeology tells us that people were here long before the modern horse.

The earliest archaeological evidence of the modern horse in what is now Wyoming are bones from an immature horse found in the Green River basin. The bones bore marks of butchering. So the first thing people here did when they encountered horses was eat them.

This fact is conveniently ignored by those who mythologize the horse.

I can hear the howling now! The horse-mythologizers calling me “rabid anti-horse” for not buying into the fairytale. They also ignore my life-long, deep personal and professional relationship with horses. I can sum that relationship up succinctly by saying that I never got bucked off and had my ass dumped into the cactus by a myth.

Myths are great for telling around the campfire, or putting the kids to bed. But mythology is a poor substitute for science when it comes to making decisions about a public rangeland that we all own. 

We need to see the feral horses in Wyoming for exactly what they are, an introduced invasive species that we imported ourselves. And we need to manage them accordingly.

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