Horsemeat — the potential fate of wild mustangs? When I read about this scenario in the newspaper, I feel the overwhelming desire to spend some time with them. This is facilitated by my attendance at a birding convention in Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado in early June. Some 70 miles beyond this gem on the Yampa River lies the range of one of our state’s four wild horse herds. Ever since a brief trip with my husband a few years back, I have cherished the hope to return.
When I enter Moffat County’s Sand Wash basin, my burning question is whether or not I will see wild equines. Because they range freely, they are not always near the gravel road. I scan my surroundings with binoculars. Piles of fresh horse apples suggest the animals’ proximity, but I have to exercise patience for several miles before a single suggestive silhouette on the northern horizon allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. To my utter joy, this is only the first of many long-tailed, shaggy-maned creatures, especially once I happen upon one of their watering holes, where I witness their hustle and bustle.
The visitors range from loners to groups of a few dozen. Bands of testosterone-laden teenagers wrangle for dominance. Most of their bickering appears playful, but scarred hides suggest more serious horseplay.
Harems of mares with colts are herded by alpha studs who bare their teeth and nip or kick at potential rivals too close for comfort. I am unaware that horses live in traditional family units, but one particular clan convinces me otherwise. It consists of the putative father, the mother, a foal likely born this spring, who is her steady shadow, and a yearling. Even though it seems physiologically improbable, she appears pregnant again, judging by her belly bulge. Those four stick together closely, and he makes sure to keep intruders at leg’s length.
The horses’ routines are dominated by foraging for food and water. Frequent water breaks are essential on this 80 plus-degree day. Each adult requires 10 to 12 gallons daily, nursing mares twice as much. The region’s 7 to 12 inches of annual precipitation, insufficient to meet demand, are supplemented by human hands.
In a landscape devoid of trees, the animals are entirely at the mercy of the elements — scorching sun in summer, cutting cold in winter. Pesky flies cause torment. Hefty breezes create constant clouds of dust. My car and everything in it, myself included, wears a veneer of desiccated earth. During my sojourn I wait out a violent storm in the vehicle. The horses have no shelter from the impressive claps of thunder, intimidating flashes of lightning, and inundating squalls of rain. I imagine them huddled together, with the little ones protected in the center as best as possible.
I relish my twenty-four hours at Sand Wash, where the air is scented by sage each time I brush against the silvery shrubs. I hear only the whistling of the wind and the birds, the whinnying of the mustangs, and the wailing of coyotes at night. But my observations make me question some of my presuppositions. Life for the horses, though free, comes at a price. Certainly it is no picnic. Most herds live in a desert-like environment. Do they enjoy their existence? Would they be better off not having to fend for themselves? Do we keep them wild to support our own romantic notions? Wild steeds in the Wild West?
This question remains relevant in light of a perpetual quandary. Since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by Congress in 1971, the Bureau for Land Management (BLM) manages and protects the equines named therein. The program has always been controversial. The horses breed too successfully for their own good. Without predators, their count doubles every four years, necessitating the regular thinning of herds. Sand Wash can sustain about 300 horses, but is shouldered with 600. Captured animals are sold to private buyers promising their humane treatment, but many linger on feedlots, and some die. The practice of darting mares with contraceptives has been hampered by logistics and cost. Cattlemen have opposed the program from the beginning, because of competition for grazing land. Now the current US government wants to reduce spending by at least 10 million dollars, by allowing the horses’ sale to organizations which could resell them to neighboring countries where butchering is legal.
Population densities exceeding available habitat results in disease, starvation, and death. The corpse I see stretched out among the sparse vegetation is a sobering sign. Without question, something must be done. I understand the arbitrariness of considering some animals suitable for human consumption, and of excluding others. For my sensibilities, horsemeat need not, should not be the answer. Birth control and adoption ought to continue and broaden, with the understanding that the adoptees will be treated well.
The 2005 memoir, The Pastures of Beyond, by writer and conservationist, Dayton O. Hyde (born 1925), shows that the present dilemma is not new, but also suggests an alternative approach. In 1988 he used his experience as a cowboy, ranch owner, and horse lover to purchase land and establish the Black Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota for supernumerary BLM quadrupeds. Kudos to him for translating his passion into a dream come true — for him, and for the animals. On page 243 of the first hardcover edition he reflects, “High on the ridges above the Cheyenne River, I see wild horses running in pure joy…I have been able to give the wild horses over ten thousand horse years of freedom, but what is really important is this. There are still some of us who care.“
I admire his dedication and wish for more dreamers and visionaries who care, and who will follow in his (horse)tracks.
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