Articles on Mustangs

Native Species



Janice M. Ladendorf

Those who want to exterminate wild horses believe they are an exotic species who has done great damage to our western ranges.  Wild horse advocates maintain they are a native species, who can contribute much to our ecosystems. There are two questions here. Are horses a native species? Do free roaming horses damage or improve ecosystems?

Are horses a native species?

Equids, including zebras and donkeys, spent five million years evolving on the plains of North America, as did the pronghorn antelope. When they migrated from here to Eurasia, horses and donkeys were domesticated there. What left here was Equus Callabus and what returned with the Conquistadors was still Equus Callabus. This fact has been verified by DNA analysis. Domestication did not make any significant changes in equine physiology. This fact explains why domestication dates for horses have always been so difficult to identify.    

Scientists use two criteria to define a native species. Fossil evidence has to show the species evolved in a specific location and it coevolved with this habitat. Equus Callabus meets both of them, as do bison and big horned sheep. Their ancestors migrated here from Eurasia, but adapted to their new environment by evolving into new species. Elk, moose, mule deer, and white tailed deer also migrated here, but adapted without any need to evolve into new species. Therefore they are not native to North America yet our laws still give them special protections denied to wild horses. Only non-scientists believe all the species found here by European settlers were native to this continent.

Unlike horses, cattle are exotic species who did not evolve in North America. The first ones arrived from Spain in 1498. They did fairly well in the Southwest, but the blizzard of 1888 showed they needed human help to survive our winters. English breeds came later and they had evolved in cool, wet ecologies.

Do wild horses damage or improve ecosystems?

For well over a hundred years, the number of cattle on our western ranges has been held at a level where profits have been maximized at the expense of land on which they grazed. The ecological damage done by cattle has been well documented, but there has been little or no research done here on the impact of free roaming horses, but one study did show horse grazed sites had better grass cover and species richness.

Scientists believe horses are a keystone species in the preservation and restoration of grassland ecosystems. They believe evolution gave horses the ability to modify their environment to suit their species and in doing so, they benefit numerous other plants and animals. Their digestive systems are relatively inefficient so they must eat a high quantity of food to satisfy their nutritional needs. Horses are browsers who prefer high quality grasses, but evolution gave them the ability to survive on any type of forage. Wild horses will typically graze down lower quality grasses whose growth could otherwise feed forest fires.

The end result of their high quantity diet is they produce lots of quality manure. It includes the seeds of whatever wild plants they have been eating and it enhances soil fertility because it contains a high level of nitrogen. Harem stallions typically create stud piles out of their manure, but other horses deposit manure all over their habitats and it encourages the growth of various species of vegetation. This growth encourages the return of both endangered plants and animals.

Horses also contribute in other ways. They are powerful enough to break trails through heavy brush. Unlike cattle, in the winter they will eat snow as an alternative to water and use their hard hooves to paw through snow to reach the grass underneath. Some of what they have to do to survive aids other species. In winters, they smash through the ice on waterholes to get water to drink. In summers, they dig for both water and salt. What they open up other animals can use to survive.

Keystone species play a crucial role in how well ecosystems function. If horses are not too closely confined by humans, they can give their habitats what no other species can. Rewilding projects in Eurasia have shown how much they can contribute to other species who share their habitats. Some of these projects are briefly described below.

   1) Sable Island lies off the coast of Nova Scotia, east of Halifax. Horses have lived there since 1753. There are no predators on this island, but the equine population has maintained itself at an appropriate level. Since 1961, Canadian law has effectively protected these horses and accurate population counts are taken twice a year.

   2) The first true rewilding project began in 1984 in the Netherlands on the wetlands of Oostvaardersplassen. Konik horses have thrived there and kept the land open for migrating birds.

   3) Yakut horses in Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia have turned tundra back into grasslands.

   4) Multiple projects have been implemented in England, much to the benefit of birds, deer, and wild flowers.

   5) In the Czech Republic, English ponies were turned loose on barren grasslands and numerous endangered plants and animals have already started to return.

Cattle are an exotic species and have done much damage on our western ranges. Equus Callabus is a native species and could become the keystone species for the restoration of our grasslands. If one giant preserve could be established and ecological quality monitored, then we could find out if equids could actually restore the semiarid grasslands of our western plains.


This article summarizes information also published in

"Managing Mustangs", Valley Equestrian News on line, Oct. 6, 2016

"Equine Ecological Impact", Valley Equestrian News on line, Aug. 31, 2016.

"Native Equines", Valley Equestrian News, July 27, 2016.



Population Levels



Janice M. Ladendorf

Two agencies control the public lands where wild equids are allowed to roam. The main one is the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior. The second one is the US Forest Service under the Dept. of Agriculture. Their removal programs have been based on a false premise about how best to control the population level of wild equids. Both agencies use the same management practices and treat wild horses as though they were livestock whose survival depends on the imposition of human controls.

In 2013, the National Academy of Science issued a report, "Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward". It states,

"[BLM and USFS] Management practices are facilitating high rates of population growth. BLM's removal policies hold horse populations below levels affected by food limits. If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates. Decreased competition for forage growth may instead allow population growth, which then drives the need to remove more animals."

Free roaming horses born in the wild act like wildlife and are subject to natural biological controls. In 1974, natural biological controls would probably have worked well to control the population level of almost all of the wild herds. In some management areas, adjustments might have to have been made to the lease agreements held by individual ranchers. Since then, extensive fencing on the public ranges has complicated this issue.

Before any more removals are carried out, each management area where equids can legally live should be evaluated to determine what changes need to be made to allow natural controls to control their population levels. The evaluation process should include wild horse advocates and affected ranchers, as well as the appropriate officials. These evaluations must be based on scientifically accurate counts of population levels, the amount of available forage, and the level of degradation. Once they have agreed their information is accurate, they can determine the most appropriate solution in that particular management area. Some of the possibilities are discussed below.

   a) Reach an agreement as to how much forage and water is currently available and how it should be allocated among species.

   b) Assign the equids and cattle to separate ranges. To make biological controls work, the horses need to have enough space to change pastures with the seasons. Corridors between fenced areas may be needed to give them access to grazing areas and water.

   c) Determine if fertility control drugs could be effectively used in this location.

   d) Determine how many horses can be captured and trained for the adoption program by local personnel.

   e) Wild horses are tourist attractions. Can a herd be included with other existing or possible facilities in that area?  BLM has already placed six hundred horses in three EcoSanctuaries where they may be viewed by tourists. One is in Oklahoma and two in Wyoming.

   f) Depending on how badly the land has been damaged, cattle could be removed from the most damaged areas and left to the equids. Like horses, the elephants in Africa have inefficient digestive systems and free roaming habits. Both species have been identified as critical species in grassland maintenance and restoration.


This article summarizes information also published in

 "Managing Mustangs", Valley Equestrian News on line, Oct. 6, 2016.

"Equine Ecological Impact", Valley Equestrian News on line, Aug. 31, 2016.

"Native Equines, Valley Equestrian News on line, July 27, 2016.  


Excess Wild Horses



Janice M. Ladendorf

In 2016, BLM announced the number of unadoptable equids in their holding facilities had reached a crisis level. They were full and supporting these forty-five thousand equids would consume sixty-seven percent of their available funds and leave them with no funds for further removals. In response, the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recommended these be sold or humanely euthanatized. Public outcry quickly forced BLM to cancel this recommendation. If it had been implemented, most of these horses would probably have been sold directly or indirectly to kill buyers. If BLM and the ranch community wanted to kill all of the wild horses, a similar outcry would probably stop them.

Thousands of mustangs have already been taken off the range and ended in slaughterhouses. Horses sent there have never died a humane death. Since 2006, there have been no slaughterhouses in the United States and the ones outside of our borders are well known for their exceptionally cruel methods. Whenever inhumane slaughter is proposed, wild horse advocates will fight it first with publicity and then take legal action to try to stop it.

What is needed to deal with this crisis is accurate information and it does not appear to exist. Some facts drawn from BLM official reports are given below.

   a) BLM issues a detailed report every year on Public Land Statistics. In the one for 2015, there is summary information on the removal and adoption of wild equids from 1971 to 2015. In this time period, 250,521 wild horses and burros have been removed from public lands and 239,374 have been adopted, giving a surplus of 11,147 equids. What BLM claims they have in holding facilities is 45,661 equids. These reported facts require investigation and explanation.

   b) BLM has two types of off range holding facilities - short term corrals and long term leased pastures. According to the financial information given to the Advisory Board, the average annual cost of keeping a horse in short term holding is $1,788 per year. For long term holding, it is $593. If a mustang's average life expectancy is thirty years, then BLM estimates they would have to keep an unadopted horse for 27.4 years at a cost of $50,000. Based on the 2016 data, the actual cost would $18,927. What goes into their high estimated cost does need to be investigated, as well as the death rate in captivity.

   c) BLM currently holds twelve thousand four hundred thirty horses and one thousand eighty-one burros in off range corrals. Their total capacity is twenty-four thousand six hundred fifty equids and is about half exhausted.  Although there is less demand for older horses; BLM choose not include the ages of the horses in their holding reports after 2012. In 2012, only four hundred sixty-nine of the equids in this corral were over ten years old. What needs to be investigated is why have the rest of these horses have been defined as unadoptable.

   d) BLM currently holds thirty-one five hundred eighty-eight horses in leased pastures. Each one contains either mares or geldings. Their total capacity is thirty-three two hundred sixty-nine horses. These facilities are almost full. In 2012, only fifty-four percent of the horses were more than ten years old. What needs to be investigated is the current age groups in these pastures and why the younger horses have been classified as unadoptable.

   e) Since the short term holding facilities are not at capacity and the long term ones are close to it, the excess horse crisis probably affects only the 31,588 horses in pastures. The BLM reported statistics may or may not be accurate. Since wild horses have no records, their ages must be estimated by examining their teeth. Once their adult teeth have replaced their baby teeth, any determination of age is an estimate. Some concern have been expressed as to whether or not BLM can legally euthanatize crippled or aging horses. This question needs to be legally resolved, but they have been euthanatizing injured horses for years at their roundups (see attachment).

   f) Currently the public is not allowed into all of the short term facilities and none of the long term facilities. There are numerous photographs of the horses in the off range corrals, but almost none of them in the off range pastures. This policy has negatively affected BLM credibility in the eyes of both mustang advocates and the general public.

   g) For each one of these holding pens or pastures, a local committee could be formed to verify the number and condition of the horses in each one. These committees should include mustang advocates, appropriate officials, veterinarians, professional trainers, and any other interested people.

With the help of veterinarians, they should determine if there are any horses living in this pen or pasture who could be humanely euthanatized. This classification could include crippled horses or those in poor condition because of age or various medical conditions. To avoid shipping costs, if the committee's recommendation is approved by BLM, the horses could be euthanatized by local vets and the disposal of the bodies handled by the normal local procedures.

With the help of professional trainers, they should determine if there are any adoptable horses living in this pen or pasture. If there are, what would it take to make them more attractive to adopters and would there be any local resources available to help in this process?

Excerpt from "Mustang Management", published online, Valley Equestrian News, Oct. 6, 2016. Revised 2-21-17.




 An Authorized Officer [appointed by BLM] will euthanize (shoot) or authorize the euthanasia of a wild horse or burro when any of the following conditions exist.

    1) A chronic or incurable disease, injury, lameness, or serious physical defect (includes severe tooth loss or wear, club foot, and other severe acquired or congenital abnormalities);

    2) A Henneke body condition score of less than three with a poor or hopeless prognosis for improvement;

    3) An acute or chronic illness, injury, physical condition, or lameness that cannot be treated or has a poor or hopeless prognosis for recovery;

    4) An order from a state or federal animal health official authorizing the humane destruction of the animals(s) as a disease control measure;

    5) The animal exhibits dangerous characteristic beyond those inherently associated with the wild characteristics of wild horses and burros; or

    6) The animal poses a public safety hazard (e.g., loose on a busy highway) and an alternative remedy (capture or return to a herd management area (HMA) is not immediately available).

In some cases, the decision to euthanize an animal must be made in the field and cannot always be anticipated. When possible, a veterinarian should be consulted prior to euthanasia unless circumstances necessitating euthanasia are obvious (e.g., a broken leg or other severe injury) and a logistical delay in obtaining this consultation would only prolong an animal's suffering).

Arrangements for carcass disposal for euthanized animals will be in accordance with applicable state and country laws and ordinances.

Under this policy, there should be no animals who need to be euthanized at any holding facility, but BLM apparently does not have the authority to destroy healthy, sound animals.


Damaged Ecology



Janice M. Ladendorf

 When the Americans reached the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, they found millions of buffalo and thousands of wild horses living well on the delicious and nutritious native grasses. These grasses bloomed in the spring, dried in the summer, and stayed nutritious all through the winter. One of the basic principles of range management is the need for pasture rotation. Herds of buffalo and wild horses migrated regularly from pasture to pasture.  They are both native species who coevolved with the plains ecology and instinctively obeyed this basic principle.

What happened?

As soon as the buffalo herds had been destroyed, ranchers moved herd after herd of cattle to the semi-arid or arid areas in what are now our western states. Their cattle devoured the rich, nutritious grass on our prairies, but did not roam them like the herds of buffalo and wild horses had done. The ranchers made money, mainly for foreign investors, but overgrazing soon began to damage the ecological balance on our plains. Cattle are an exotic species who had evolved in a cool, wet climate. They were brought here by Spanish and English settlers.

Cattle also had not inherited any instinctive knowledge to help them deal with our winters. Unlike horses, when they were thirsty and had no water, they died because they refused to eat snow.  When they were hungry, they stood and starved because they did not paw through snow to reach the grass underneath. During the bad winter of 1886, most of the cattle on the ranges died and the ranchers learned cattle needed both water and hay to live through future winters.

Overgrazing may no longer have occurred in the winters, but did continue through the rest of the year. From 1886-1920, more damage was done to the ranges, but those responsible for it were almost impossible to identify. By that time, the ecology of the plains had already been badly damaged, but what it was then is now often seen as normal.

Ranchers had long yearned to use public lands to gain additional grazing for their cattle and sheep. In 1936, they finally gained legitimate access to them through revocable grazing leases granted by the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management currently leases out one hundred sixty-three million acres to ranchers while the US Forest Service leases out ninety-seven million acres. In 2005, other subsidy programs for these lease holders cost the tax payers on one hundred twenty-three million dollars.

Eighteen thousand seven hundred ranchers currently hold revocable grazing leases for this land and pay nominal fees for their use of it. These funds are used for improvements on the leased lands, such as fencing. Leases can be inherited, sold with the land owned by lease holders, or sold separately. The Forest Service has even allowed them to be used as collateral for loans. Most of these leases are held by large corporations, such as Metropolitan Life, or wealthy individuals such as the Packard [Hewlett Packard] family. Overall sixteen percent of the lease holders control seventy-six per cent of the leased lands. Should their profitable operations continue to be subsidized by the taxpayers?

Wild Horses as Scapegoats

In 1971, The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) became Public Law 92-195 and it gave wild horses the legal right to graze on the public lands they currently occupied. This act also authorizes the designation of specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries for the protection and preservation of wild horses, but this provision has not yet been utilized. Despite the provisions of this act, wild horses have been forced to share their ranges with cattle who have always been given priority. Such use for multispecies is scientifically feasible, but has created an impossible situation because politially powerful forces want all of the wild horses off any range where their cattle could profitable graze.

The ecological damage done by all the exotic bovines who graze on public land in the western states has been well documented, but there has been little or no research done here on the impact of free roaming horses. The ranchers now claim all of the damage has been done by the wild horses. The population estimates for wild horses are thought to be overestimated, but there are only thousands of them as compared to millions of cattle. Also, conservation biologists have identified equids as the key species for the regeneration of grasslands, but this belief has yet to be tested in the United States. Comparisons of similar landscapes where cattle have and have not been allowed to graze well illustrate the damage done by cattle.

Grazing rights are currently guaranteed for over five million cattle, but in 2014 only four million cattle actually grazed there for about five months of the year. Wild horses still graze on some of the same land for twelve months of the year, but the cattle have priority in the months when the grass actually grows. Ranchers naturally want to cleanse all the public lands of wild horses because it would increase the acreage available for their cattle and thereby increase their profits.

Can the public lands be saved and restored?

Possible solutions do exist, but the key factor is the removal of cattle to allow the land to recover from years of overgrazing. Are the western lands even suited to the production of beef cattle? In Nevada, 100 acres are needed to support a cow as compared to one acre in Missouri or Mississippi. Today the tourism accounts for ten percent of the world GNP. Should we continue to subsidize a marginal industry as opposed to restoring more of our public lands for recreational purposes?

   1) Native Equids

One of the optimal solutions to the wild horse issue is to establish special preserves for them, large enough to allow their herds to maintain seasonal rotation among pastures. If necessary, corridors could be established to allow the necessary seasonal movement.

If one such preserve could be created, it would be an excellent place to demonstrate how natural population controls work and to discover how much equids could do to restore grasslands in a semi-arid climate. Unlike cattle, wild horses are tourist attractions and visitors to the preserve could help provide the funding needed support the necessary research.

   2) Exotic Cattle

Should our goal to be gradually remove cattle from our public lands? There are various ways in which this goal can be accomplished. Two possibilities are described below.

   a) In 2012, the nominal fee paid by ranchers for their grazing privileges was $1.35 per cow per month. A legal limit for these rates was set during depression years. In the same year, the federal government paid the same rate or higher to maintain one unadoptable wild horse for one day on leased pastures. The law could and should be amended to raise the rates paid by ranchers for grazing leases to a rate closer to the one paid for the support of unadoptable wild horses.

    b) Some ranchers are concerned about ecology and the Bureau of Land Management has established an award program for them. They take good care of the public lands they lease and are making efforts to improve the ecology. Others neglect or abuse the land they lease. They could and should be penalized for their actions, possibly by losing their revocable leases.


This article summaries information also published in

Ladendorf, Janice M., "Managing Mustangs", Valley Equestrian News, Oct. 6, 2015.

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. Wuerthner, George and Matteson, Mollie, editors. Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2002. 


Longer Articles

The above articles are based on the longer articles listed below. They were published in Valley Equestrian News on line.

1)"One of Our More Successful Native Species", July 27, 2016

2)"The Ecological Impact of Horses as a Keystone Species Critical to the Regeneration of the Earth", Aug. 31, 2016

3)"Managing Mustangs", Oct. 6, 2016.

They can be viewed on their website, 

This is the first article, "One of our most successful native species". It includes information in the article on ecological impact. File name identifies source of lead photograph.