From classic rock and roll to elegant poetry, wild horses have been praised and celebrated for centuries. They have become cultural icons, symbolizing power, freedom, and the American spirit. Despite how much we claim to love and admire these beautiful creatures, we do little to show them. On the contrary, we do a lot more to uproot them and take away what’s naturally theirs. Every day wild horses are being rounded up, held in captivity, and slaughtered in the name of land management. Wild horse sanctuaries are popping up in an effort to preserve these animals, but they really have their work cut out for them. 

The western United States has been home to millions of wild horses, much before humans took up residence there as well. However, the horses have been facing unwelcome and unjust treatment from their new neighbors for many years now. What were once neighbors have now become the tyrannical landlords of these animals. What was once wild horse habitat has been stolen and repurposed by people to suit the needs of new industries. Cattle ranching is arguably the most nefarious of these industries. 

Wild horse populations have dwindled severely over the years, mostly through brutal and inhumane practices. As nice as it would be to think of this as a distant issue, unrelated to us personally, it really is the fault of the masses. These animals are rounded up and slaughtered as a direct consequence of our dietary and lifestyle choices. The American population is especially problematic from an ecological point of view.

Our society operates from a place of excess when it comes to all things especially foods such as meat, dairy, and other animal products. The cattle industry is a huge business that is out of control; and operating at unsustainable levels, exporting most of our meat to China. This Industry goes to great lengths and operates at any and all cost as it generates tremendous revenues for only a small percentage of privileged ranchers and agricultural corporations. One of these lengths is to pillage the land that wild horses roam for exploitation by cattle ranchers.

In 1971 the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was established to preserve and protect wild horses. This act was unanimously passed by Congress and was even signed by President Nixon, who saw the importance of maintaining our Wild and free-roaming horses. The creators of this act viewed wild horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “enrich the lives of the American people” and are supposedly protected from “capture, branding, harassment, and death.”

This was a milestone for the conservation of wild horses but has since been challenged by Congress over and over again. Several amendments have been passed that circumvent this act to allow for the wrangling up and slaughter of thousands of wild horses every year. Today, there are less than 32,000 wild horses according to American Wild Horse Preservation (AWHP)

Horses running at sunset

The United States’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been “managing” the land that these animals roam. For the last 40 years, they have been giving this land up to the cattle ranching industry for the production of beef. So many wild horses have been removed from this land that cows now outnumber them 50 to 1, according to the Rangeland Administration System. This stark imbalance is set to only get worse as more and more land is put under for cattle. All of this creating the need for “wild Horse Sanctuaries”

The Dodo reported that out of the 155 million acres of western rangeland that the Bureau of Land Management maintains for public grazing, 83% is devoid of wild horses. Instead, it is used to graze privately-owned cattle and sheep. Only 17% of that land is actually set aside specifically for wild horses. However, these lands are still overrun by livestock which can consume up to 70% of the foliage there.

The Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934, before which certain areas were preserved for wild horse grazing, which was often utilized for livestock. The overgrazing from livestock has led to soil erosion, loss of plant diversity, and grazing competition. The improper regulation of the ranching industry is much to blame in unison with the government’s disregard for ecological dynamics. Introducing impossibly large numbers of herbivores to any grassland is bound to result in depletion and ecological imbalances. When profitability is involved, what should be considered a sustainable number of animals is often ignored? We would see the same result whether the herbivores were horses, or cows or deer. Without natural predators, these animals have no controls and can quite literally strip the land bare. 

However, horses have been targeted specifically and round up into government pens for containment. This tragedy is particularly unjust as horses have been shown to be far more harmonious tenants of grasslands than cattle. Opposing claims reported by the Times state that wild horses are “overrunning the West,” “gobbling up land,” “causing long-term damage,” and fleecing taxpayers. While public land has lost much of its green cover over the years, it isn’t because of the wild horses. Wild horses are conveniently being used as scapegoats to cover the evidence that cattle farming has caused more ecological damage. 

So now the fight for our wild horses and their freedom remains. Our options include mitigating habitat loss and combating propaganda campaigns that ignore real data with education. The rounding up and deportation of wild horses have little to do with the horses and more so with those in charge of the land, and the financial gains that can be made. The wild horses offer us the opportunity for land conservation, help to mitigate carbon emissions, slow down the need for Wild Horse Sanctuaries, and create a new understanding of respect for animals and all living things.  We can see the effects of turning a blind eye to conservation already, but when will we finally act on them? We can either focus on the conservation of these essential animals or shuffle them about and hope for the best.

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