Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Cody, WY





Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape



Perhaps more than any other single icon, the wild horse has come to symbolize the spirit of the American West.

To explore the continuing saga of the wild horse in America, with special emphasis on the animal's natural history and its impact on American culture, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center will present a blockbuster exhibition titled, "Unbroken Spirit: The Wild Horse in the American Landscape." The exhibition will be on view from July 23 through Oct. 31, 1999.

Freedom has its price -- unlike their domestic counterparts, wild horses are on their own during the winter months and must make use of whatever scant forage they can find. (Photo by Gary Leppart.)


Using spectacular photography, dramatic taxidermy mounts, cultural and biological artifacts, original artwork, film footage, music and interactive media, the exhibition will paint a compelling, insightful picture of an animal that has captured the imagination of Americans for the past three centuries. Despite the fact that the modern horse is not even native to North America, and that its status as a wild animal is challenged by some, the wild horse is admired by millions who identify with its indomitable spirit.

Rugged, inhospitable terrain is the stomping ground of the wild horse. Bands like this one are accustomed to eking out a living in places few other creatures would choose to call home. (Photo by Gary Leppart.)

The modern horse was introduced to North America as a domestic animal by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, some 10,000 years after closely related horse ancestors had become extinct on this continent. Use of horses spread widely among settlers and Native Americans, heralding a profound cultural revolution, especially on the western plains. Horses that escaped or were released from captivity banded together to form large, genetically mixed herds. These were the first "wild" horses.

The flight instinct is always ready to manifest itself in the wild horse, protecting the animals from predators and serving as a reminder of their essential differences from domestic horses. (Photo by Gary Leppart.)

The exhibition will travel to the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo., where it will be on view from Nov. 19, 1999 through mid-March of 2000. The exhibition includes taxidermy by Mark Whitlock and photography by renowned wildlife and wild horse photographers, including Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott, Gary Leppart and Dewey Vanderhoff.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Charles Preston, curator of natural history at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and formerly the head of the zoology department at the Denver Museum of Natural History. Wally Reber, associate director of the Historical Center, is designing the exhibition.

Like other animals in the wild, stallions struggle for dominance, and the winner will pass his genetic traits on to descendants, strengthening the herd. (Photo by Gary Leppart.)


Wild Horses: An Integral Part of the Natural System

By Charles R. Preston, Curator, Draper Natural History Museum , Buffalo Bill Historical Center


The pungent aroma of sagebrush fills the air as you and your horse crest another of the seemingly endless hills in the rugged, western landscape. No trees interrupt the scene stretched out before you; a deeply textured tapestry of tan and red earth punctuated by dappled gray and brown boulders and pale green splashes of sagebrush. You hear no telephones ringing, no computer keyboards clicking, no automobile horns honking and no internal combustion engines rumbling. Indeed, the only sounds you hear are the deep, rhythmic breaths of your mount and the lonesome whistle of the pervasive Wyoming wind. Riding that wind 100 feet above you is the only sign of life immediately apparent in this vast, shrub-steppe wilderness a golden eagle with a wingspan longer than basketball great Michael Jordan is tall. But when you scan the surrounding landscape with binoculars, a herd of pronghorn becomes visible, and a lone coyote, nose to the ground, emerges from a distant arroyo. Then suddenly you become aware of another movement 300 yards to your right! Your horse stands at attention, ears cocked in the direction of the movement. First one, then two forms take shape. After a few seconds, more than 15 animals of varying colors, shapes and sizes are in your field of view. They are aware and wary of you, but they do not flee immediately. After a few seconds, one of them turns away with a loud snort and leads the others out of sight at a gallop. These animals seem familiar to you, yet vaguely foreign in their movements and behavior. They are horses, the same species (Equus caballus) as your domesticated mount.

But the horses you have encountered in this Wyoming rangeland are free-roaming horses that have never been domesticated. Some of them may be descended from horses that roamed this range 200 years ago after escaping domestication. Though scientists generally use the term feral to refer to free-roaming descendants of domestic animals, the public has embraced these animals as wild. Indeed, the free-roaming horse has come to symbolize the spirit of wildness itself to many Americans - so much so that the federal government has granted explicit protection to the wild horse as a living icon of the frontier West and an important component of the environment.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the wild horse deserves its revered and protected status. After all, this symbol of wild America is descended from immigrants introduced to this continent as domestic animals. The recent ancestors of contemporary wild horses were renegades from domestication. Nonetheless, few animal species, alien or native, have captured the imagination and passion of so many Americans. To understand how this creature has become so entrenched in our psyche and landscape, it is helpful to briefly explore the lineage and history of horses in North America and examine the ecological niche now occupied by the wild horse in the American West. The expedition reveals perhaps as much about our own species as it does about the horse.

It is apparent from the known fossil record that North America is the seat of early horse evolution. About 60 million years ago, the diminutive (about 12 inches tall) and much-celebrated Dawn Horse, Hyracotherium roamed the continent. Through millions of years and untold environmental changes, ancestral horses took on a bewildering number of forms. Roughly three million years ago, the genus Equus emerged in the American landscape. Early members of this genus were similar, at least in terms of skeletal characteristics, to the modern horses. Ample evidence suggests that early Equus species were widespread and abundant in North America and extended their range into Eurasia via the Bering land bridge. The range extension of Equus beyond North America proved fortunate for descendants, because horses became extinct on this continent some 8,000 - 12,000 years ago. They disappeared as part of a massive extinction of North American megafauna (e.g., mammoth, rhinoceros, sabertooth cat, camel, short-faced bear, etc.) at the end of the last great Ice Age. Climate change, disease and human hunting pressure may all have played a part in the extinction, though the relative importance of proposed causes remains the subject of heated scientific debate.

Early Spanish explorers introduced the modern horse to North America as domestic livestock in the 16th century. Though it might be argued that this marked the triumphant return of the horse to its former homeland, the most current, generally accepted classification does not include E. caballus among the Equus species that occupied North America prior to the great extinction of the late Pleistocene early Holocene. Regardless of specific taxonomic designations, the horses introduced here by Europeans had undergone intensive selective breeding for centuries, and represented a stock quite different from any North American ancestor. As a domestic animal, this import profoundly influenced American cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Inevitably, some horses from this alien stock escaped domestication or were abandoned and they thrived in the arid, open rangeland. Descendants of the old Spanish stock were joined in many areas by escaped/abandoned horses brought into the frontier by trappers, settlers, miners and other immigrants, and by the early 1800s, more than two million wild horses occupied western North America. But the open range began to shrink, as cattle, sheep, fences and farms spilled out into the Great Plains. Bands of wild horses continued to survive in remote desert and semi-desert regions of the West, but numbers began to decline. This trend continued into the 20th century, as wild horses were shot to reduce competition with domestic livestock and rounded up by the tens of thousands for use as farm and ranch horses and mounts for cavalry in foreign wars. Wild horse populations actually grew during the Great Depression, as large numbers of domestic horses were abandoned by owners who could no longer care for them.  

With the emergence of European markets for horse meat, and domestic and foreign markets for pet food and chicken feed, wild horses again began disappearing in great numbers from the western range. Mustanging, the business of capturing and transporting wild horses for profit, became a thriving enterprise for some. Their methods were often brutal. When knowledge of this brutality reached the general public, a wave of outrage swept the nation and a movement to protect wild horses was born. Leading the charge was Mrs. Velma Johnston, who became known as Wild Horse Annie. Largely due to her efforts, Congress passed legislation in 1959 to prohibit the use of motorized vehicles for capturing or harassing wild horses. Ultimately, the public outcry championed by Wild Horse Annie, and fueled by the passion of a growing number of wild horse advocacy groups, led to the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971.

The wild horse had clearly touched a nerve in the American psyche. The Act declared wild horses and burros as ". . . living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West", and that they ". . . shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death". Furthermore, Congress declared that wild horses and burros ". . . are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." Responsibility for protecting wild horses and burros fell to the Bureau of Land Management and, to a lesser degree, the National Park Service and U. S. Forest Service, as stewards of public lands occupied by these animals.

It did not take long for wild horse populations on public lands to increase dramatically, and concerns arose regarding the effects of wild horses on deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and domestic livestock sharing the same range. "Natural" predation is not a significant source of mortality for most wild horse populations. Stockgrowers and other residents, with the support of federal and local governments, have successfully reduced or eliminated large predators from most of the western rangeland. With the absence of natural predation, some agricultural users of public lands called for massive reductions of wild horse herds by virtually any means necessary.

Diametrically opposed were vocal wild horse advocates, who felt that the estimated numbers of wild horses were inflated and that no herd reduction was justified. Capturing the middle ground were those who supported the continued presence and protection of the wild horse on public lands, but recognized a need for judicious and humane herd reductions to ease impact on an ecologically stressed landscape. These three viewpoints reflect marked differences in personal interests, values, and perceptions. Eventually, Congress authorized the Adopt-A-Horse program, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Under this program, horses from free-roaming, overpopulated herds were removed from public lands, and provided for adoption by private, non-commercial owners. The program continues today, though not without problems and controversy. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted protocol for judging whether a wild horse herd is overpopulated, or by how much it should be reduced. Even if we could agree on a standard on which to judge overpopulation, it may not be possible to remove and adopt enough horses to effectively manage populations.

Sound management depends on sound information about wild horse ecology. Unfortunately, the relationship between wild horses and potential range competitors varies with geographic area, season, weather and many other factors. Wild horses are largely descended from domestic strains selected thousands of years ago for their abilities to thrive in arid, semi-desert conditions, similar to those found on current wild horse ranges. Studies specifically designed to quantify ecological relationships among wild horses, native wildlife and domestic livestock on these ranges are sparse. Nonetheless, some useful information has emerged from widely scattered studies. Horses, like cattle, are primarily grazers, often preferring the same grass and forb species. Their diets may overlap as much as 90 percent in some areas in winter. Horses tend to eat proportionately more than cattle and are able to nip grasses shorter. There is typically less competition between wild horses and native wildlife.

Pronghorn and mule deer are common residents in wild horse ranges, elk occupy many areas seasonally, and bighorn sheep share some sites, such as the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in northern Wyoming. Bighorns and horses share a very similar diet during spring and summer months, and at least one study suggests that wild horse populations may have a detrimental effect on bighorn populations. Elk, deer and pronghorn browse on shrub and tree species much of the year, but share a similar diet with wild horses during spring and summer. As the wild horse population increased in one Nevada study site, pronghorn and deer populations declined, though there was no conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. In "ecological crunch" times of food shortage, competition among wild horses, livestock, and native ungulates would certainly be expected to increase. Competition for water may be also be significant in some situations, as wild horses are reported to drive other animals away from shrinking water holes.

Thus, the modern wild horse may be characterized as a non-native animal that has escaped human bondage and competes to a varying extent with native wildlife and domestic livestock on the public rangelands of the American West. Among its competitors, the wild horse stands alone as the species with virtually no monetary value assigned to it. Native deer, pronghorn, elk and bighorn sheep are all game animals, and hunters pump significant currency into western communities. Cattle and sheep may be non-native animals that compete with native wildlife, but they are highly valued as domestic livestock and a source of personal income for stockgrowers. Livestock ranching continues to play a dominant role in the economy of the West. Cattle on public lands outnumber wildlife by more than five to one, and stockgrowers contribute a strong voice to the dialogue concerning public land use.

Many non-native wildlife species with no clear economic value, such as the Norway rat, English sparrow and European starling, are generally held in low esteem by the American public and are frequently persecuted as nuisance species. Yet in spite of its non-native status, its lack of any significant economic value, and its role as a potential competitor with native wildlife and domestic livestock, the wild horse remains a widely revered and protected inhabitant of the American landscape.

Perhaps the wild horse has come to represent a vision of how many Americans would like to see themselves: a rakish renegade, choosing the delights and challenges of freedom to the reins of control. Like all Americans, the modern horse traces its ancestry back to another land, and like many Americans, the wild horse has broken bonds of repression to find freedom in this land. We have chosen to view the wild horse differently than the Norway rat or European starling. Our view may be influenced to some degree by the fact that close relatives of the modern horse once roamed this continent before becoming extinct. Most certainly our view is influenced by our perception of the wild horse as a charismatic animal. The designation of the wild horse as "an integral part of the natural system of the public lands" is certainly more about human cultural perceptions and values than biology.

The wild horse fits nicely into the vision of the western landscape embraced by many Americans. The future of the wild horse, indeed the future of the American landscape and all of its inhabitants, is inextricably linked to human cultural values. Wildness, after all, has become a relative term in modern America. It exists under the auspices and, to some extent, by the design of one species, Homo sapiens. The wild horse, a celebrated symbol of unbridled freedom, may thus be viewed as merely one of many free-roaming species captive to the ever-evolving human vision of how we want our world to look. If the wild horse survives in the American landscape, it will be because, as we strive to control more of our world and tame its frontiers, we assign increasing value to the unbroken spirit that struggles against our control and reminds us of the real challenges and fading glory of wildness.

As western wildlands continue to decline, however, and the welfare of wild horses comes into serious conflict with the welfare of native wild species, we may be forced to choose which vision of wildness we prefer and which species we value more as an integral part of the natural system.

This essay is from the book "Unbroken Spirit: Wild Horses in the American Landscape," which will be published by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, in July of 1999. The book is a companion publication to the exhibition by the same name, which will be on view from July 23 through Oct. 31, 1999 at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Charles R.. Preston is curator of natural history at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

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