From the moment that Americans first laid eyes on wild horses, we have been captivated by them. Their strength, determination and wild nature have sparked our collective imagination, and they have been featured in countless Western books, movies and songs through the years. We’ve even named our war planes and muscle cars after them.
In his book, “Wild Horse Country,” New York Times reporter David Philipps explores the origins of today’s mustangs, the roots of our fascination with them and the crisis we find ourselves in when it comes to trying to manage modern-day wild herds.
For centuries, wild horses were an icon of the Western landscape, according to Philipps’ book. They were so much a part of Native American life, he writes, “that tribes that didn’t adopt horses are largely forgotten by history.” Even in large eastern cities, where urban dwellers had never seen a mustang, their image represented freedom. But by the middle of the 20th century, growing populations of mustangs were seen by many Westerners as a nuisance. Their numbers were decimated by hunters who killed them or sold them for slaughter.
In 1971, as part of a series of environmental laws enacted, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act, which states that mustangs “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death.” They became the only animal, besides the bald eagle, protected by federal law.
Thanks to that effort, tens of thousands of mustangs still roam wild on more than 31 million acres in 10 Western states, according to Philipps’ reporting. They live in the most desolate and uninhabited areas of the West — places with names like Stinking Water, Lava Beds and Salt Wells — where next to nothing else can survive. Not only have these hardy horses managed to thrive in harsh conditions, but their expanding numbers pose challenges for both ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, whose management practices have relied on rounding up about 10,000 mustangs a year, relocating and “storing” them. That effort has proved costly and ineffective and, once again, the horses face peril.
Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, deftly exposes some corruption in the current system and lays out the case for exploring new alternatives for mustang population control. His work is timely and important as debate continues about how to best manage wild horses and preserve this icon of Western culture.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Philipps airs later this month. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.
“Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang”
by David Philipps;
W.W. Norton and Company ($27.95)