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The War Against the Horse

Posted on May 4, 2010
AP / Troy Maben

By Deanne Stillman

Update: On June 16th, the two men accused of shooting and killing five wild horses on public lands changed their pleas from not guilty to guilty. They each face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000. They will be sentenced on September 14th in Reno. Federal prosecutors received 24,000 letters and emails about this case, from around the world.

On June 22, two men will go on trial for allegedly killing five wild horses in Nevada. The federally protected horses were gunned down in December at a time when the debate over the plight of the country’s mustangs had reached a fever pitch. Last week, the men accused of the killing appeared in a Reno courtroom and pleaded not guilty to the crime, as a crew of citizens who have devoted much of their lives to defending wild horses looked on. 

It is a sad fact of American life that this horse killing is not an anomaly. In fact, such episodes have been playing out across our land for decades. As I learned while working on my book “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a two-pronged war against wild horses is under way and at this moment the country’s great icon of freedom is losing.

One front in this war involves agencies tasked with wild horse management, primarily the Bureau of Land Management. It recently carried out a mandated although deadly mustang roundup in Nevada during which foals were harried by helicopter over rough terrain until their hooves apparently fell off and other horses later died of stress and exhaustion.

The other front involves lone operators who venture into the wilderness and kill wild horses—which is illegal, although arrests are rarely made and when they are, the cases often fall apart. Many of these incidents have occurred in Nevada, where more than half of the country’s wild horses still roam, having gone there like others to hide. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” may be a cute reflection of the local condition, but behind that is another statement that surfaced in an official piece of state travel literature several years ago: “Seize life and throttle it like a rag doll.”

I learned about the war in 1998, when I saw a small newspaper item that said six wild horses had been gunned down outside Reno in the Virginia Range. Two days later, the body count had grown to 12, and shortly after that, by New Year’s Eve, 34 mustang carcasses were found in the mountains outside Reno. Within days the tip lines were flooded with calls. The incident came to be known as “the Christmas mustang massacre,” and a few weeks after the discovery of the bodies, there were three arrests; two of the men were Marines, and one was stationed at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

That’s both the name and location of my previous book, about another war on the homefront; in this one, two girls were killed by a Marine in a scenic desert town, shortly after the Gulf War. In fact, I was finishing up “Twentynine Palms” when I learned of the wild horse killings. Partly because it converged thematically with the mustang incident, but also because horses had once saved my family’s life and I had long wanted to return the favor, I knew immediately that my next book would be about wild horses, and I would start with the incident that had called me. 

To understand it, I had to find out a few things: How did mustangs come to live in the mountains outside Reno? Who would go out and shoot them? And, more important, why? These questions began a 10-year journey during which I found out that the story of the wild horse in America is one of the greatest suppressed stories in our history (not in a conspiratorial sense), yet it goes right to the heart of who we are as Americans.  Quite simply, without the mustang, we would not be here: the wild horse blazed our trails, and fought our wars, and, as I soon learned, even gave birth to America.  Who among us has not heard the famous Longfellow poem called “Paul Revere’s Ride?”  Well, the poem does not tell us that Revere’s horse had a name—it was Brown Beauty.  She had wild horse bloodlines and, as she carried Revere through the night, her hoofsparks “kindled the land into flame,” and she kept on running as the enemy closed in, and then Revere issued the fateful call— “the British are coming”—thus triggering the shot heard round the world—the one that reverberates to this day in many places and in many ways, but most of all in our own dream of who we are as a nation.

During my journey on the wild horse trail, I learned many other astonishing things. One of them is that wild horses were here before we were. In fact, the horse is North America’s gift to the world. It is indigenous to our continent, first appearing on this land 55 million years ago. Over time, it cast off various lines; some perished and others didn’t. As it got bigger and faster and began to resemble the fleet, big-hearted athlete of the modern plains, it moved north across the Bering land bridge during the Ice Age, fanned out from Siberia to the rest of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, then became extinct here. When Europeans reintroduced horses to the Americas in the 16th century (they have been linked by DNA to the horses of the Ice Age), some escaped and formed wild herds, and others washed ashore during shipwrecks on the East Coast (most likely including an ancestor of Paul Revere’s horse).

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By A Real South Texan, July 4, 2010 at 7:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

STG- You’ve either never had a horse or if you did, it ended up at my rescue.
As for wild horses, they were on “the people’s land” long before it was the people’s. No over population, nature took care of that. No overgrazing until “the people” turned out herd after herd after herd of cattle/sheep.
One thing you said I do agree with- if you want to own an animal, “then use your money and land and resources to save them and care for them…”  Now, go tell it to the ranchers.
And yes- I use my own money, land, and time to rescue others mistreated, abused and neglected horses.

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By Suzanne, May 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wrong, SoTexGuy, when you say, “That’s what I think,” because you’re not capable of actually THINKING. If you were, you wouldn’t have written this piece of drivel.

God! I hope you aren’t really from Texas!

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By Craig Downer, May 9, 2010 at 4:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Really commend you, Deanne, on your sensitive and well researched account. The War on the Wild Horses and Burros must end!  It is so totally wrong. These wonderful presenses are restorers and healers of America, though their enemies maintain all the contrary!

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By Judith Pecho, May 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Chris Hanefeld, BLM PUblic Relations Officer in the Ely district said there was a pipeline going across some of the land that the Mustangs are on and that they want the horses also off the land for that reason. He would not tell me what kind of pipeline it was or who (what company) is running the pipeline.
I talked with him at length and he encouraged I write my legislators and BLM to effect the direction they have taken with the horses if I was concerned. Please write me if you know the most effective people to write but I will be searching this out soon. I am outraged with their round-ups and cowtowing to cattlemen.  We do need a lot of noise and numbers behind protecting the mustangs and mules to be effective, making our voices know within organizations and also as individuals.

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By Ariel Monserrat, May 7, 2010 at 10:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

SoTexGuy, seems like you’ve never actually been lucky enough to have a horse as a companion; otherwise, you would know beyond the shadow of a doubt that horses are extremely intelligent.  They are also very curious, some even more than cats (curiousity being a definite sign of intelligence)and extremely sensitive and they form very strong bonds with each other, any creature they befriend, and humans (if the humans value them and treat them right). I will never forget when I had to put down of my 2 horses, the other horse grieved for weeks afterwards and they hadn’t even been together that long.
I would put horse sense (intelligence) above most humans I’ve ever met; and as for being loving, I’d put their ability to love deeply beyond that of most humans I’ve met.
Nature is a Divine gift to all of us; to not treasure it and respect it is to be guilty of sacrilege, hubris and some of the most ignorant and callous attributes.
If you want to see a video of some truly magnificent creatures, watch this brief video, it’s only a few minutes long, but well worth it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9_mdwvU1Gc

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By coyote loco, May 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the way the author uses the term “wild horse” is inaccurate and misleading. the horses she writes about are the result of manipulative breeding and carelessness by humans, escaped genetic experiments, and are a problem to the truly wild ecosystems of the west. don’t trust me, read the wikipedia article:

Wild species surviving into modern times
Main article: Wild horse
Three tan colored horses with upright manes. Two horses nip and paw at each other, while the third moves towards the camera. They stand in open, rocky grassland, with forests in the distance.
A small herd of Przewalski’s Horses

A truly wild horse is a species or subspecies with no ancestors that were ever domesticated. Therefore, most “wild” horses today are actually feral horses, animals that escaped or were turned loose from domestic herds and the descendants of those animals.[113] Only one truly wild horse species (Equus ferus) with two subspecies, the Tarpan and the Przewalski’s Horse, survived into recorded history.

The only true wild horse alive today is the Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), named after the Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky. It is a rare Asian animal, also known as the Mongolian Wild Horse; Mongolian people know it as the taki, and the Kyrgyz people call it a kirtag. The species was presumed extinct in the wild between 1969 and 1992, while a small breeding population survived in zoos around the world. In 1992, it was reestablished in the wild due to the conservation efforts of numerous zoos.[114] Today, a small wild breeding population exists in Mongolia.[115][116] There are additional animals still maintained at zoos throughout the world.

The Tarpan or European Wild Horse (Equus ferus ferus) was found in Europe and much of Asia. It survived into the historical era, but became extinct in 1909, when the last captive died in a Russian zoo.[117] Thus, the genetic line was lost. There have been attempts have been made to recreate the Tarpan,[118][117][119] which resulted in horses with outward physical similarities, but nonetheless descended from domesticated ancestors and not true wild horses.

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By mmadden, May 6, 2010 at 3:38 am Link to this comment

Such a shame that MAN once again decides what to do concerning wildlfe. One of these days those people that cruelly destroy these magnificent animls will be the one hunted.

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By equine professional, May 5, 2010 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

SoTexGuy,

Actually, Federal law provides for protecting a lot of native species, vegetation, animals, lands, birds and so on. That sticks in the craw of some people, mainly ranchers, who can’t stand the thought of anything not under their control being allowed to live free, as if that is a direct insult to their .. ah.. manhood. 

Wild horses are among those native species protected by law. That does make it the business of the Federal government. Federal law directs the US government to leave them on public land owned by the taxpayers, almost all of whom want our wild horses left in peace.

You seem like an authority kind of guy. If you don’t like the laws protecting native species, if the thought of another being competing with your me-me agenda sends you into a tailspin big enough to disregard geography, science, economics and history, let’s not leave out grammar and spelling, go ahead and visit Washington or your local Congressional office, and lobby to change them. Good luck with that.

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By REDHORSE, May 5, 2010 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

CAP’N: Greed is greed and by any other name it also stinks. But, greed is not the exclusive domain of white people. True, corruption (and lack of humanity) has allowed serious travesty in our history but lets not become inhabitants of a false moral high ground. This is not a world of magic crystals and little pink angels. Nostalgic generalization doesn’t serve any of us. We’re all a little good and a little bad. It’s when we start thinking the darkness is exclusive to others that our moral compass fails and we become sheep that greed can flock and drive.

  Mankinds relationship with the horse is ancient. Ride for any length of time and you understand that the attitude toward the animal defines the attitude toward the man. We’re all being driven toward the canyon of doom by a real evil, alive in a real world. Americans are way past the indulgence of creed, race, gender or politics. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it. The evil is the loss of our humanity (most notably in our politicians), greed is just an aspect. Save our horses ans we might save ourselves.

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By firefly, May 5, 2010 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

Shame. When oil runs out, we may need those horses
again.

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By Betty L. Kelly, May 5, 2010 at 8:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

5-5-2010 SoTexGuy is an example of a minority who are so brain washed by the corporate public lands livestock industry and their “Daddies” and are controlled by this rogue powerful greedy clan, including BLM, that he is oblivious of the facts that the horse IS a native North American species, Equus caballus, whether re-introduced or even aboriginal by well documented evolutionary evidence, Mitochondrial DNA evidence and a host of other evidence.  The “feral horse” label is their (BLM and the public land ranchers) political slogan, when repeated enough it becomes falsely true in the eyes of the public.  Even BLM now uses this label in their so called ES. 

It is their propaganda slogan put forth to undermine the 1971 protection law and annihilated America’s wild horses and burros from their legal ranges in order to steal OUR public lands and its resources as their own. 

I suggest that SoTexGuy, but most of all that for starters the American public read an article from the Southeast Horse Report, Wild and Free, Vo. III No. 11 (November 1999) by Nancy Whitaker, “Wild Horses: The Feral Animal Label”.  It tells it like it is about the ongoing the war against America’s wild horses & burros and against our public lands by a minority greedy powerful faction, including BLM, pretending to be “entitled” Americans.  We taxpayers owe the public land ranching industry NOTHING. Thanks Deanne for Mustang.

Betty Kelly
Carson City NV

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By Betty L. Kelly, May 5, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

5-5-2010 SoTexGuy is an example of a minority who are so brain washed by the corporate public lands livestock industry and their “Daddies” and are controlled by this rogue powerful greedy clan, including BLM, that he is oblivious of the facts that the horse IS a native North American species, Equus caballus, whether re-introduced or even aboriginal by well documented evolutionary evidence, Mitochondrial DNA evidence and a host of other evidence.  The “feral horse” label is their (BLM and the public land ranchers) political slogan, when repeated enough it becomes falsely true in the eyes of the public.  Even BLM now uses this label in their so called ES. 

It is their propaganda slogan put forth to undermine the 1971 protection law and annihilated America’s wild horses and burros from their legal ranges in order to steal OUR public lands and its resources as their own. 

I suggest that SoTexGuy, but most of all that for starters the American public read an article from the Southeast Horse Report, Wild and Free, Vo. III No. 11 (November 1999) by Nancy Whitaker, “Wild Horses: The Feral Animal Label”.  It tells it like it is about the ongoing the war against America’s wild horses & burros and against our public lands by a minority greedy powerful faction, including BLM, pretending to be “entitled” Americans.  We taxpayers owe the public land ranching industry NOTHING.

Betty Kelly
Carson City NV

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Gloria Picchetti's avatar

By Gloria Picchetti, May 5, 2010 at 8:30 am Link to this comment

Deanne Stillman is a champion. The BLM is out of control with it’s program to destroy wild horses. The poor horses are injured & murdered. The mares lose their foals. It’s pitiful. Why are our taxes used for this holocaust? So ranchers can make more money because the rich get richer. Our obese children in the US do not need another hamburger. They need to learn how to ride horses.

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By SoTexGuy, May 5, 2010 at 4:56 am Link to this comment

By Unregistered..

“Get your facts straight SoTexGuy.

“CLOSE THE PUBLIC LAND TO PRIVATE CATTLEMEN AND GET THE CATTLE OFF THE PUBLIC LAND!”

Thanks for that reminder!

My comments were aimed at the real problem of feral horses on public wild lands.. I did fail to include how imported cattle also destroy our fragile wilderness.. You are entirely right.. the system that allows so much of our western lands to be exploited for pennies by the cattle barons is corrupt and damaging and should be ended!

So.. Let’s get the livestock of whatever stripe (horses and cattle or whatever) off our public lands! .. and then we’ll go to work on the mines and oil wells and whatever else there is that is similarly wrong and destructive that I might have overlooked in this short note!

Adios.

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By CaptRon, May 4, 2010 at 9:39 pm Link to this comment

This is what I like about Truthdig. When someone speaks out of his ass, he gets called on it by someone who makes sense. Unfortunately, the horse seems to be going the way of the Native American and eventually the rest of us. Greed came with the white man from outside the borders of this continent and pushes and pushes as it corrupts. It could be reversed, but it isn’t because greed is presented as success. Everyone is pushed to be successful so-o-o. Horses aren’t needed anymore like the knowledge of the Native American, and soon, hell, now, more and more people aren’t needed or needed in quantity because automation makes money. We have been and are being used for the convenience of greed, and when not needed are pushed out of the way until there are no more places to be pushed. Then comes eradication by order of importance to whoever controls. This is why I read and contribute to Truthdig as an example. I want to change the direction of rich controlling poor while I still have a voice. Kill a horse, demean a Native American or any person, then you are my enemy. You can lose what you have very easily, or you can use what you have to make this a better world. You choose, but so far there are very many more bad choices being made than good. Just hope if you don’t make the right choice, that things don’t change. If you back those into a corner, well, you know. So start by not killing horses, or people. Treat the descendants of the Native Americans, who shared their country with us and taught the way to respect the land and its inhabitants, with respect and honor. Start respecting the land, water, the things you crinkle the nose at when someone mentions environmental, like respecting it like if God really did create it. You do go to church so you must believe, don’t you? Treat all people with respect and you will get respect. Good Luck, or else.

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By patin reno, May 4, 2010 at 5:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I live in Reno Nevada and the war against wild horses is real and very ugly. The BLM says it dosen’t have money to monitor the horses but it has money to buy a helicoptor.Running the poor things to death is animal crulty of the first order. The BLM does a bad job and most of us want them out of our state. The horses belong to the people of the state of Nevada. And the BLM has no right to destroy them.

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By Horses Not Cattle, May 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Get your facts straight SoTexGuy.
If the public lands are so “fragile”, why do we sell discount grazing leases to private profit cattlemen to graze their private profit cattle on our taxpayer owned public land? Cattle are much more destructive than horses as they tear the grasses up by the roots when grazing as oppossed to horses that tear the tops off preserving the root system of the grasses allowing for regrowth. It’s all about greed, Big Ag, Cattlemen Assn, lobbyists and special interest groups. Corrupt politics at it’s lowest. The horses belong on the public lands, the cattle don’t. CLOSE THE PUBLIC LAND TO PRIVATE CATTLEMEN AND GET THE CATTLE OFF THE PUBLIC LAND!

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By REDHORSE, May 4, 2010 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

Good article. In past years I’ve often tried to help out at one of our local horse rescue centers. I wish I could add hope to this discussion but it’s a fight in progress and all I can do is say that the effort is well worth it. 

  Increased unchecked population growth and ongoing loss of natural resources endanger us all. As open range shrinks and corporate thugs continue to exploit our corrupt congress for limitless control of American resources we must prepare ourseves for personal survival and if possible include the horse in our plans. After all, the horse was our first ally in our attempts to conquer time and space. When city dwellers open that water tap and nothing comes out perhaps the reality will hit home.

  A few years ago a gentleman rode horseback across America urging the creation of a trails system that would allow travel by horse to any place in the country. Why not??  Also, small horse driven generators could supply electricity to entire neighborhoods (with better battery power storage).

  I’ve been horseback all my life. It breaks my heart to see, not only the slaughter of Mustangs but the outright cruelty and injury to domestic horses by people who must only see them as “things”. Well, people in America are treated as “things”. How would they know the difference??

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By SoTexGuy, May 4, 2010 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment

Like horses? Want one, or a hundred? Good for you! .. get some land, fence them in, feed and water them.. and love them forever.

Modern horses are large and destructive critters, non-native to our continent.. with a brain about the same as that of an educated chicken. They kill and injure many people and run rough-shod over our fragile public lands and wildlife refuges.

There’s nothing special about a half-ton grass-burner.. be it a steer or a horse.. but again, if they are to you then use your money and land and resources to save them and care for them.. It’s not the business of the US government or the people whose lands they hold in trust to provide pretty pictures of (non-native) horses running wild across what’s left of the American wilderness.

That’s what I think.

Adios!

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