Saving Horses

By Susan T. Forman


Many people are afraid of horses, being intimidated by their size and unpredictability. Despite this fear, these same people say that horses are noble, beautiful animals that they enjoy looking at. One doesn't have to be a horse person to appreciate the beauty of horses or their role in our American history. However history is fraught with the wild horse's struggle for survival - from mankind.

Wild horse herds still roam on Western state ranges, with Nevada having the largest percentage of them. There's no denying that the horses are breathtakingly beautiful to behold on the range, which is one reason why Americans want to protect this heritage for future generations. But the US government's Bureau of Land Management, even with its wild horse adoption program, claims to have difficulty managing mustang numbers and surplus horses from herd round-ups.

Despite the fact that in 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the wild horses have been poorly protected. This law states that mustangs are 'living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West and shall be protected from harassment or death.' Its questionable enforcement has been an ongoing controversy, and now a recently passed amendment has greatly undermined the law.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act

It took an individual named Velma Johnston nearly 20 years of lobbying on behalf of the wild horses to get this law passed. She was known as Wild Horse Annie and her relentless crusade to protect these animals began back in the early 1950's. One morning while driving in her car, she stopped behind a truck and saw blood dripping. She followed the truck to a slaughterhouse, and witnessed packed, severely wounded, tortured and frightened horses being sent to death.

Airplanes and powerful trucks chased horse herds until they dropped in exhaustion. The animals' legs were usually bound; then they were inhumanely dragged into corrals for shipment to a slaughterhouse to become canned pet food. Sometimes wires or rawhide lacings were placed on the horses' nostrils so they could barely breathe, rendering them more helpless for easier handling, or for minimizing herd travel.. Wild Horse Annie was instrumental in the passage of the 1959 law that banned hunting the horses on public land by airplane round-ups or motor vehicles. Although this was a big victory, the law wasn't comprehensive enough to adequately protect the wild horses, so she persisted until the 1971 Act became law.

Now that the US government has amended the 1971 protective law, in addition to wild horse adoption programs and horse sanctuaries, slaughter is allowed. Horses rounded up that are 10 years old and older, and others deemed unadoptable, can be sent to slaughterhouses. Congress did this without holding a hearing or debate. The government says there are approximately 37,000 wild horses today (other sources say 32,000) and claims the land simply cannot support that number, along with cattle grazing the same public land. However, more than 200,000 wild horses have been removed from public lands since 1971, while private cattle outnumber wild horses at least 100 to 1, on public lands. It's running a fine line toward history repeating itself, to the point where mustangs become an endangered species - to be replaced by privately owned cattle. Killing off large numbers of horses can, unfortunately, be done fairly quickly, and can make someone a nice profit.


Slaughter: a profitable business and a national disgrace

Instead of the slaughtered horses being canned as dog food, in 2005 the meat is mostly exported to Europe and Japan for human consumption. Overseas, horsemeat is considered a delicacy and brings a high price per pound. Many Americans surveyed feel that it is wrong and repulsive to export horsemeat as food; people in other countries should not eat US horses and ponies. Although horses are considered livestock, they are not the same as cattle raised to be consumed as food. Veterinarians who treat horses rank them as companion animals in the same league as dogs and cats, meaning that horses bond with their owners. Horse slaughter is considered by many to be a national disgrace.

The state of California passed a 1998 initiative into law protecting, and banning the slaughter of, California horses. If persons violate the law by buying a horse with the intention of shipping the animal elsewhere in the US to a slaughterhouse, it is a punishable felony with the potential for one to three years in state prison.


Horses past and present

In order to appreciate the plight of today's mustangs, history needs to be briefly reviewed. These horses had once been respected, admired, and even treasured for their speed, stamina, and power. Before railroads replaced all the stagecoaches, horses served man as transportation and a way to move materials. In the American colonies, the first stagecoach traveled from Boston, MA to Providence, RI in May 1718. Ranchers captured wild stallions and mares to breed with their domesticated and bred horses to have faster and sturdier horses. But with the coming of motorized vehicles and tractors in the 1920's, the wild horse soon lost its usefulness and worth.

Life for the wild horse dramatically changed for the worse in the 1930s - a dark period in 20 th century history - when the US government allowed the removal of wild horses from public lands. They were brutally maimed during capture and killed in massive numbers for decades, until Congress unanimously passed the 1971 law protecting the mustangs.

The mustang's struggle today is more complex than a few decades ago due to increased urbanization, such as in Reno, Nevada. Like many other cities across the US, the proliferation of suburbs has displaced the natural habitats of different animal species. The wild horse's pristine environment has become congested with concrete, motor vehicles, power lines, and people's houses. Some residents love the wild horses, but others don't like sharing the area with them.

The days when horses were the only means of rounding up cattle and driving the herds to the railroad are past. A cowboy's life back then was often solitary, with his only companion being the horse. Americans want to hang onto this early history of Western life and settlement, which is why guest ranches are a thriving business. People can experience what early US life was like, by traversing the vastness and rugged beauty of open land on horseback.

Our culture may not rely on the horse for transportation, yet humans and horses need each other emotionally. Just turn on the television to watch the Rose Bowl New Year's day parade. In addition to spectacular floats, at least twenty-three equestrian groups of well trained horses walked the parade route in 2005. People of diverse background and age enjoy watching the groomed horses, polished tack, rider costumes and uniforms that show the group's history.

Horses today, including the wild mustangs adopted through the Bureau of Land Management, serve as companions that are loved. The horse partners with humans in multiple ways, such as in horse racing, polo, barrel racing, roping and other rodeo events, horse shows, and more. On a basic level, adults and children trail ride for the sheer love of riding. Being around horses has been proven to be therapeutic to physically handicapped people as well as emotionally scarred people. A bond can be created where both the animal and person heal, thereby helping one another.

Romantic and spiritual connections abound between horses and humans. Humans want to see herds of wild mustangs running free on the plain, protected from bullets, wires, and weighted ropes. Lots of Americans, especially those living in urban areas, don't know what it's like to be outdoors and hear no sounds of civilization whatsoever. It's a spiritual connection to the planet when the senses encounter only the feel and sounds of the wind, unpolluted smells of the land, and shifting, neighing calls of horses and other animals. Overstressed and leading busy, harried lives, humans dream and long for this, which is a connection to the mystery of the horse.

There are humane, cost-effective, and viable solutions to overseeing wild horse herds on the range, their natural habitat. Slaughter is inhumane, expensive, and disgraceful. A campaign to counter the amendment and investigate the government's wild horse management policies, including the environmental impact of cattle on the land, is underway. (To help the campaign, see American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign,

Horses proved essential in the settlement and growth of the United States. These magnificent animals need, and deserve, America's help.


Work Consulted:

Editorials. Nevada State Journal, Sunday, December 5, 1971

Reid, Chip. NBC Nightly News story about America's wild horses aired December 30, 2004

'Wild Horse Annie Explains Campaign,' Nevada State Journal, March 3, 1967

Wild Horses, an American Romance.

California initiative banning horse slaughter.


For information and updates:

American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign -, 877-853-4696; AWHPC, PO Box 926, Lompoc, CA 93438

Wild Horse and Burro Freedom Alliance -

Wild Horse spirit Group -

Return to Freedom -



About the author:

Susan T. Forman has been a professor of English at the Community College of Rhode Island for 16 years. She was raised in the city, during which time she begged her parents for horseback riding lessons. That interest developed into lifelong recreational riding, and a true appreciation for horses.