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The War Against the Horse
Posted on May 4, 2010
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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