I am writing to tell you why we need wild horses. I have spent the last 9 1/2 years in a love affair with wild horses.
On the very first trip that I took to the Adobe Town Herd Area in the Red Desert of Wyoming, I was falling fast. When I spotted ears sticking up above the sage brush, signs of a wild horse family lying down taking a nap, I was captivated. When the battle-scarred grey stallion jumped up and ran toward me, I was thrilled, I was scared, my heart beat faster. When he stopped, and his filly came up next to him and made a face at me that looked like a grin, I was a goner.
There is nothing in this world like the feeling I have when I am sitting quietly and just watching wild horses. It is peaceful, and very quiet – the horses communicate more with body language than with vocalizations, and the lands they live on are remote. There will occasionally be trucks driving by on the dirt roads crisscrossing the Red Desert, but there is mostly silence. Watching a wild horse family sleep in the warm mid-morning sun, some dozing standing but most lying down quiets my mind. The horses know I am there, but they allow me into their world, a temporary observer in their world where every day they cope with the elements, find forage, go to water, and interact with each other and with other family bands and bachelor stallions.
The more time I spend observing and photographing wild horses, the more I understand about their family dynamics and their society. I have owned and spent time with domestic horses my whole life, but a wild horse is very different. The heart of wild horse society is family. Each family unit, called a family band, is made up of at least 1 stallion, mares, and their offspring – foals and young adult horses.
One of the first wild horse families that I grew to know was in Adobe Town. There was a red roan stallion who had beautiful white flecks through his coat in the summer, which almost entirely disappeared as he haired up in the winter. I saw him and his family almost every time I visited the area for over two years. His mare was a gorgeous black beauty with a long tangled mane. She was shy, but the stallion was clearly an older stallion, would come quite close to me after a few visits. They were easy to spot because they usually stayed within close reach of the main road. They were devoted to each other – she would come up to him seeking reassurance, and he would patiently stand close to her. I wondered how long they had been together – a few years, a decade?
They had a two year old black colt who resembled his elegant mother, and this year a scruffy looking multicolored colt who probably was going to end up being a roan like his dad. He liked to hang out with his father, and even imitated him, learning how to be a stallion when he grows up.
Each time as I was driving out over the rough dirt road that wound through a maze of private then public land out of Baggs, I would wonder if I would, then hope that I would see them. They would be in about the same couple of mile area, and I even found them in the winter, hocks deep in snow, covered with long hair to stay warm, digging through the snow to reach the grass.
This stallion kept his family away from other family bands, and I have noticed that in Adobe Town, the older stallions like to keep their families away from others, wise enough to avoid competition.
I knew that the older black colt would probably be kicked out of the tight family unit come spring or summer next year when he turned three, and he would seek out other young stallions for company and for practice at becoming a stallion. The young bachelor bands are always entertaining to watch, causing trouble, and constantly play-fighting, practicing their band stallion skills for the future.
But I never saw this happen for this family. Instead, in the late summer I watched my first round up. This family was brought in with another two families and immediately the stallion was separated from his family, and put in with other stallions. The black mare was placed in a pen with other mares, and the two year old was driven into a pen with other young horses, and the multicolored colt was placed with other babies, separated from their mothers for the first time. The red roan stallion looked so small in the pen with other stallions, and he looked very unhappy, ears penned, uncomfortable having other stallions in such close proximity. Many of the stallions called out for their mares, and the thin, high whinnies of the babies rang out, calling for their mothers. Such a contrast to the quiet in the wild.
I watched the contractors sort the horses, and they put each one into a squeeze chute to age them by looking at their teeth, and then they would mark with paint on their rear ends whether they would be released back into the wild or hauled out on a truck to go to the Rock Springs short term holding facility. I was told by the wild horse expert from the BLM that they would not be removing any of the horses over 11 years old as they had no more room in long term holding for them. I heard the wrangler at the squeeze chute call out to Sue, the person recording ages in a notebook, that he was 22 years old, old indeed for a wild stallion. I was so relieved when they painted him with a blue number – that meant he could live out his life in his home in the Red Desert. He may have lost his family, but not his freedom.
Unfortunately the next day as they were loading wild horses in these huge transport trucks that could take 35 – 40 horses I heard from the wild horse expert that there were spaces for older horses in a “sanctuary” in Oklahoma. The red roan stallion was driven up the ramp into the truck, and I never saw him again. I tried to track him down, going to the sanctuary in Oklahoma, looked through pen after pen, but I did not find him. Some of the older stallions die when they are gelded, the process traumatic enough for a young horse, but devastatingly stressful for an old horse.
Why couldn’t they have left the older horses in the wild to live out their days and die with dignity in this harsh but beautiful land they called home? Especially since none of these horses would be eligible for adoption, and would live out what was left of their lives in pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma in fenced pastures with other horses of the same sex who were strangers, instead of with their families.
I watched a video that the BLM made two years ago where they said that the horses who had been rounded up and placed in long term holding facilities were better off than the horses in the wild – they were guaranteed plentiful food and water that they would never have to make much effort to find, a trouble-free existence. Surely they were better off?
And this brings me to the point of my story. Why wild horses? Why not just round them all up and put them in pens and pastures, sterilize them so they cannot breed, and bring tourists in to see them? Why let them live in the wild?
My answer is because there is something essential in their spirit and in their lives that calls to us and inspires us, taking us out of our daily life in cities and towns where everything is fenced and contained and and controlled.
I cannot watch a group of wild horses running, manes and tails flowing behind them, glorying in the sheer joy of living, without being moved. I cannot see a stallion and a mare devoted to each other, grooming each other contentedly without feeling that connection and that love.
I cannot look into the eyes of a wise old stallion or mare who has lived through countless winters and springs without feeling a part of me yearn toward that wisdom of the earth, and that wildness of the soul. I cannot watch a young foal finding its legs and leaping in the air because it can without discovering again that the world is a wondrous and exciting place.
I need wild horses in my life, and I need to share their beauty and inspiration with others through my art so that they are not lost to the world forever.