Shoot All the Brave Horses, How Will We Ride?

Back in 1995, the late, great John Stewart released “The Last Campaign Trilogy.” In that song, he used the dilemma of wild horses as a powerful metaphor. The dilemma has only gotten worse in the quarter century since.

There ain’t no wild horses out on Wild Horse Road
There ain’t no wild horses there, I know
Somewhere they’re truckin’ mustangs on a lonesome desert road
But there ain’t no wild horses out on Wild Horse Road

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon

The federal government’s attitude towards wild horses has been . . . bipolar. The issues are muddled. Almost all issues involving feral horse management are controversial. And the result has been inconsistent policy and, for the last 15 years, near paralysis on the part of federal agencies. As a result, best estimates of horse populations have them at very high levels relative to recent historic levels, and still more feral horses held in captivity.

At one point, horses were hunted like deer, and the carcasses told to slaughterhouses. Some states offered bounties for slaughtered horses. Those hunters were called “mustangers.”

Runnin’ down a mustang, oh, what’ll it take
A pickup and a gun
Hey, young moonlight gunner
Where’s the sun?
And don’t it make you feel
Like kickin’ in a white wall
Now you finally know
There ain’t no wild horses out on Wild Horse Road

A 1971 federal law mandated management of feral horses in ecologically sustainable ways.” It stopped the slaughter, but it didn’t solve any of the real problems. Competition with cattle and sheep grazing. Water consumption and its impact on native species like deer and pronghorn.

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon

Animal rights folks hate the annual roundups and perceived mistreatment of captive horses, Climate change and overgrazing have made current levels of wild horse populations unsustainable. Horses have a very impressive reproduction rate, with herds growing by 20% a year.

Shoot all the brave horses and how will we ride?
Shoot all the brave horses and how will we ride?
Shoot all the brave horses and how will we ride?
And ford the cold waters, how will we ride?

Wild horses are a symbol of America, our history and our heritage. No one sensible wants to slaughter them all. But current policies and practices are simply unsustainable. Adoption rates are too low for the animals culled, and culling isn’t keeping up with reproduction rates. There is immense political pressure again turning “excess” animals into pet food. Congress won’t appropriate sufficient funds to allow use of proven birth control techniques. And the problem is spread across eleven western states.

WC doesn’t know enough to have a useful solution. But it was a treat to find a herd of wild horses in southeastern Oregon, watch them for a little while and witness a fragment of history.

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon

Wild Horses, Catlow Rim Herd, Oregon



5 thoughts on “Shoot All the Brave Horses, How Will We Ride?

  1. Excellent recap of the wild horse conundrum. Not only have the feds botched it and been sued by someone whichever way they turn but in downturns in the horse market, rises in feed costs etc. people who no longer want or can afford a horse just “let it go” to be free. That horse for the kid becomes another load on the native species habitat if it even survives in the “wild”.

    • There is something about horses that tugs at our hearts. I know, I’ve owned horses for more than a decade. There is no logical reason why feral horses are considered majestic and worthy of praise and protection but other introduced species like zebra mussels or feral pigs are not; but they are. Most feral horses you see are a generation or two off the farm. Light markings are the key. Truly wild horses were monotone. People like paints and stripes and snips, nature eats them. They aren’t remnants of Spanish horse populations and they aren’t wild. They can be easily redomesticated. The jury is out as to how genetically close they are to the last horses in North America, the Yukon Horse but they are almost certainly a different species. If they were honestly managed, they like all introduced non-native species, would be eliminated.

      As for the horse slaughter industry, why that is considered cruel and the beef slaughter industry is not is another example of arbitrary picking of favorites among domestic species. I think if you let either the cows or horses vote we (and our pets) would be eating a hell of a lot more chicken.

  2. You’ve given us a fair, objective description of the wild horse problem. That you don’t have a prescription for solving it is understandable; as you indicate, it’s very complicated. Your interpolation of song lyrics and other statements suggest you don’t like the shooting and slaughtering of wild horses for food. Understandable. But you also recognize that “current policies and practices are simply unsustainable.” I sometimes wonder if, by anthropomorphizing the animals we live among, we haven’t somehow subjected them to greater cruelty than would seem necessary. After all, who wants to serve Trigger to the family pooch. We do much to create these kinds of problems (wild horses, wild pigs, wild pythons), and then attempt to find solutions that will make us feel better. Perhaps there’s nothing about solving this issue that can make us feel better. We simply need a multifaceted solution to a multifaceted problem (easy to say). That may include the shooting and slaughtering wild horses for food. Somehow I don’t think you would necessarily disagree with that notion.

  3. Tiemessen is correct–springs and wetlands get trashed; heritage sites are dug up and trampled; soils are altered and thus the microorganisms and water retention; invasive weeds flourish; elk, birds, and deer resources eliminated. Cattle aren’t allowed in spring and wet conditions but horses continue unabated. Ranch owners are as responsible as feds for not managing the ecology better but the restrictions by law and the horse extreme advocates limit what can be done. In semi-arid sagebrush and juniper country, everyone and thing suffers. Livestock abandonment occurs (whether a backyard horse or working horses) so there aren’t enough “adopters” and rescue ranches for the tens of thousands of uncared for horses. I wish the humane treatment of horses was the focus and not “western myths”.

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