Evolution of wild horses and cattle and the effect on range damage

© BLM New Mexico
© BLM New Mexico

Most people, even some so-called ‘scientists’, who enter into the debate on the causes of the degradation of range-land and riparian areas have some gaps in their understanding as to the evolutionary origins and differences between wild horses and cattle as well as the mechanics of soil compaction and disruption.

Then there are cases where scientists do have an understanding of the truth, however they intentionally obfuscate such information in their discussions and reporting to some degree or another in order to support the needs of the entities funding research and subsequent published studies. Some folks would call this ‘intellectual dishonesty’; where researchers know the truth but spin the debate towards a predetermined outcome.

Cattle at a water hole.
Cattle at a water hole.

Too often today we find many academic institutions funded and motivated by industries or organizations which have either a political or monetary reason (sometimes both) for seeking an ultimate result in a study or thesis, which they may fund via a grant or subsidy.

Department professors are very keen on who has and controls the grant money and how to get that money, which in some cases involves some level of helping to support some form of a predetermined end-result or thesis.

Many times, when examining a newly published study, a professor will first turn to the back pages to see who funded it, even before looking into what is posits.

And as most people in the academic world know, he who has the money makes the rules these days. Going against the grain, even when following the noble effort of discovering and illuminating the truth can in some cases lead to a severe lack of funding. As a result, many inquires of various subjects are scantly funded, and the ones available posit positions that tend to skew in favor of supporting the position preferred by the funding entity.

This is no stretch of the truth, the foregoing is a serious and genuine issue as is cited by the National Institute of Health, and is pervasive in most academic disciplines.

So this brings us to the politics and money related to the cattle industry, where in the west (at least until recently) the livestock industry controlled politics with an iron fist. However, now there are many industries which are much larger and which have some competitive interests in regard to the uses of public lands and natural resources. This has led some people in the livestock industry to resort to the promotion of junk science. And in some cases, we are even seeing examples of so-called scientists attempting to defend studies based on junk-science using obfuscated and sophisticated arguments designed to confound most people, but really just boil down to a ‘liar-liar pants on fire’ defense of a study or thesis.

In the case at hand, where the livestock industry has desperately attempted to paint wild horses as the Tyrannosaurus Rex of all rangelands and riparian areas, we find that the allegations are not only absurd, but are completely unfounded when examined under the scrutiny of hard science.

For the purposes of sustainable and highest, best use of our public lands, it is absolutely essential to have a clear understanding of the evolutionary sciences behind the vast differences between horses and cattle and how these different species affect the American landscape, especially its rangelands, forests and riparian areas.

So with that said, here are some well-supported truths that set the foundation and provide the insights that allow a clear understanding of the grazing dynamics that separate cattle from wild horses on public lands.

First off, the livestock industry has spent an inordinate amount of capital and energy trying to convince average Americans that wild horses are not a native species that evolved in North America, which is a false and reckless agenda given there are only about 107,000 wild horses left in America, and 50,000 of those are held in captivity.

The fact is, wild horses are a native species that evolved in North America when there were no horses anywhere else on the planet.

The Yukon horse was relatively small, standing just over 1 metre at the shoulder. It thrived in a steppe grassland environment and was among the most common of the Ice Age animals in Alaska and the Yukon. Image: © SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2005.
The Yukon horse was relatively small, standing just over 1 metre at the shoulder. It thrived in a steppe grassland environment and was among the most common of the Ice Age animals in Alaska and the Yukon. Image: © SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2005.

The paleontological record of the evolution of wild horses is incontrovertible and native American horse fossils are located in many locations across America and greater North America.

The curator of vertebrates at the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, Professor Ross MacPhee, makes no bones about the fact that wild horses are a native species in America. And in a transcribed lecture lambastes the BLM for promulgating lies about the origins and native status of American wild horses.

It is interesting to note, there is not a single cow fossil anywhere in North America, and that is because cattle evolved offshore from the North American continent and were initially imported from overseas countries in the late 15th century.

The 30,000-year-old horse bone found in the Peace River Valley by Shawn Bigfoot.
A 30,000-year-old horse bone found in the Peace River Valley by Shawn Bigfoot.

There are many cultural and historic records that also support the existence of wild horses in parts of America before the arrival of reintroduced horses from overseas in the late 15th century.

Once such record is a very interesting scholarly document that was submitted to the Congress of the United States by Ms Claire Henderson from the History Department – Batiment De Koninck Laval University, Quebec City, Quebec Canada. That document was titled ‘The Aboriginal North American Horse‘, which offers some very compelling historical and cultural archaeological evidence for American wild horses predating the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas.

Late Pleistocene horse skull, Equus lambei, from the Klondike region, Yukon.
Late Pleistocene horse skull, Equus lambei, from the Klondike region, Yukon. © D.G. Froese

Then we have the genetic data that is now forthcoming with the advent of the relatively new discipline in science known as molecular biology, which is the science that allowed the latest understandings of the human genome.

There are numerous genetic studies now that point to the fact that wild horses in America today are a native species. This article discusses that subject in depth, and in short states: “The work of Michael Hofreiter examining the genetics of the so‐called E. lambei from the permafrost of Alaska, found that the variation was within that of modern horses, which translates into E. lambei actually being E. caballus, genetically.” (M. Hofreiter, M., Serre, D. Poinar, H.N. Kuch, M., Pääbo, S., Ancient DNA. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2(5), 2001, pp353-359). Thus, as Hofreiter adds, “the molecular biology evidence is incontrovertible and indisputable, and is also supported by the interpretation of the fossil record, as well.”

There is further reading to the same point here.

And like any other native species on the North American landscape, wild horses have many mutualisms within the ecosystems where they exist.

An artist's impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
An artist’s impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
Of all the large herbivores that currently roam the American rangelands, horses are the only large grazing herbivores that have a single stomach. This is very important in that, unlike other large grazing herbivores, wild horses (horses) have comparatively poor digestive systems and as a result, most of the grass and plant seeds that they eat pass through their digestive systems and are deposited back onto the range intact and ready to grow, integrated with a source of nutrients by way of the manure. Many gardening articles speak about this phenomenon as a problem because in the home garden it is all the undigested grass and plant seeds that can be a nuisance if you’re not looking to cultivate various random grasses and plants. This is in stark contrast to herbivores that are ruminants (such as cows), which have very effective digestion as a function of complex stomachs capable of fermentation, which breaks-down and digests a greater percentage of grass and plant seeds.

“Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion, principally through microbial actions. The process typically requires the fermented ingesta (known as cud) to be regurgitated and chewed again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”. The roughly 150 species of ruminants include both domestic and wild species. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, antelope, and some macropods.” – (from Wikipedia)

As we consider these facts, it becomes obvious that ruminants which exist and graze American biomes do not effectively pass viable seeds back onto the lands they have grazed, and therefore leave only feces behind.

Clearly, the relationship between the biomes of rangeland and alpine meadow grasses and wild horses is mutually beneficial and is a true mutualism that is the result of co-evolution over many millennia. The wild horses are nourished by the grasses, who in turn benefit from the spread of their viable seeds mixed with a nutrient rich manure back onto the soils and distributed over relatively large areas. This reseeding of the rangeland is accomplished effortlessly by wild horses and their nutrient-rich droppings help to rebuild damages soils.

NOTE: The photos here that show cow claw and horse hoof penetration depths in a native pasture, were all taken in the same immediate area (by the author) where cattle and horses had walked in a native pasture on the same morning.

Now we arrive at the simple mechanics of the evolutionary hoof designs of horses and cattle, and how each design uniquely impacts the soils in our forests, range-lands and riparian areas … and this is straight-forward and easy to understand for anyone who has used basic digging tools.

This photo shows the underside of a cow's hoof, which has pointed claws.
This photo shows the underside of a cow’s hoof, which has pointed claws.

The photo above shows the underside of a cow’s hoof, which as we see, has what are termed as pointed claws. Like the point of a pick-axe tool, the points on these cow claws are very effective at penetrating deeply into soils, especially soft or wet soils. We also note that these claws present a relatively small surface area (pounds/square inch loading) upon which the entire weight of the cow is supported. And this point is obvious on its face.

This is what a cow's claw does in soft pastures.
This is what a cow’s claw does in soft pastures.

The photo above is an example of what a cow’s claw does in soft pasture as a result of the shape and high ground loading (weight/surface area of claws). As we see, the cow that made this imprint (weight est. 800-900 pounds) penetrated the soil at least five inches deep.

The penetration depth is about five inches.
The penetration depth is about five inches.

The above photo is another imprint from a cow claw on the same soil in the same area as above. As we see, the depth of soil penetration is about five inches.

Now we turn to the design and effect of the horse’s hoof on soils.

The underside of a horse's hoof.
The underside of a horse’s hoof.

In the photo above we see the underside of a horse’s hoof. It is distinctly different from the cow’s claw in many ways that protect the soils where they tread. First off, the shape is as we see rounded and the surface area is relatively large (lower ground loading in pounds/square inch). The hoof is dished-in on the underside (concave) and that shape tends to trap water and air under the hoof and allows it to ‘float’ hydraulically on the soil instead of piercing the soil like the pick-shaped cow claw.

As we see, the hoof in the photo above has a lot of surface area compared to the cow claw, and that greater surface area distributes the weight of the horse over more area on the soil, which limits the penetration of a horse’s hoof into the soil.

The horse hoof makes an impression in the soil of less than an inch deep.
The horse hoof makes an impression in the soil of less than an inch deep.

In the photo above we clearly see the horse hoof makes an impression in the soil of less than one-inch deep (same area/soil which contained cow imprints). The horse that made this imprint in the photo above weighed about 800-900 pounds (similar to the weight of a cow), which is a typical weight for an adult wild horse.

This hoof imprint in the same area shows little penetration into the soil.
This hoof imprint in the same area shows little penetration into the soil.

In the photo above, another horse’s hoof imprint in the same area (same soil) shows little penetration into the soil.

Here shows the damage caused to the soil by two cows and a calf through soft springtime pasture. 
Here shows the damage caused to the soil by two cows and a calf through soft springtime pasture.

In the photo at right we clearly see the aggregate damage of a few cows tracking through the same area of soft springtime pasture. The damage to the soil is undeniable and was the result of two cows and a calf.

As can be seen, the claws of cattle are devastating to soft soils, and this of course extends even more so to their ability to devastate riparian areas.

Wild horses co-evolved with deer, elk, moose and caribou (‘cervids’) on the North American continent. Over the millennia they developed mutualisms within the various ecosystems where they lived, and unlike cattle, native wild horses are ideally adapted to live in nature in North America. In fact, another interesting evolutionary advantage that wild horses have is their immunity to the prion-based disease that causes the deadly mad-cow disease in cattle and chronic wasting disease in cervids.

If the cattle industry wants more grazing then they should just say so and end the false narratives about wild horses.

Honesty is always the best policy.


William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

15 thoughts on “Evolution of wild horses and cattle and the effect on range damage

  • September 25, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Excellent, excellent article! It should shed some light on the wild horse issue and cattle but I fear that politics may be too embedded within our system to hear the truth or at least to question the established and accepted beliefs.

    I taught research methods and methodologies at the university graduate level. I agree with the premise presented here about who is funded and accepted and who is not. One of the reasons why I became an Independent Scholar was so I could exercise my freedom to speak the truth in regard to my field. It is difficult otherwise, as this article states. I used to look at the reference section of a research project to see what philosophies were being put forth in the paper. That sets the scene for the research premise in most cases.

    It is important to recognize that this article speaks to an issue that most do not want to approach. It lays the foundation for what is happening at the university level where independent thinking and true research questioning is becoming a lost art. We expect our researchers and students to follow the norm.

    In order to preserve the wild horse, we have to be willing to try other solutions and give the basis of this historical data as presented here a chance to be understood and used without bias. Authorities need to step out of the norm and do the right thing. This writer has become much better in telling his perspective. We need to listen to any approach that attempts to preserve these beautiful animals and the history that seems to be forgotten.

    • September 27, 2017 at 4:36 am

      Dear Dr. Greenleaf La Pierre:

      I agree. As history teaches, mankind must evolve past those who maintain existing dogma in their own selfish interests. The good news is history also teaches that thousands of innovators who were willing to stand against the prevailing winds of ignorance and small-mindedness can help mankind to reach new levels of understanding… so fortunately, for instance, we no longer think the earth is flat, that the sun orbits the earth or man cannot fly… The People need to rise-up across social media and denounce those people who are promoting antiquated misinformation and help fight the good fight for enlightenment.

      We can do this! As Bruce Lee said; don’t try, just do!

      • October 4, 2019 at 9:11 am

        I think it is a shame to do away with wild horses did politicians ever think what the west would be with mb out the horse they used horse to drive cattle people came west with horse was only way of travel I hope BLM can sleep good

  • September 25, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    William Simpson is a brilliant author, but more importantly a man of truth. His science and research on horses and fire prevention have helped us turn our ranch into an amazingly safe and aesthetically pleasing haven. The cattle and horses are distributed in a cohesive manner and the fire danger has easily been cut in half in only 2 years of using the horses to manage the land. Not to mention we don’t worry about incinerating precious animals endangered and not endangered alive in their nests or forest homes.
    Thank you Bill!

  • September 26, 2017 at 6:13 am

    Thank you for this. If Truth is ignored for Politics, that’s tragic, but at least the evidence is there to expose the liars.

  • September 26, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Excellent your bringing these so important differences between cattle and horses out, Bill! It is disgusting to see how certain people target the wild naturally living horses and ignore facts like these. For those who would be interested in learning more on these lines, check out my book The
    Wild Horse Conspiracy available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or through my website for a signed copy and I will even throw in a complementary booklet if you get it through me. Website is thewildhorseconspiracy dot org

    • September 27, 2017 at 4:38 am

      Thank you Craig! Laura and I really enjoyed your book! I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in wild horses or horses in general. Cheers! Bill

    • October 3, 2019 at 3:34 am


  • September 27, 2017 at 2:19 am

    This is bunch bull the cattle farmers are pushing this to rid horses the horse is part of our history I love horses had a quarter horse when I wasyounger I don,t understand our goverment

  • September 28, 2017 at 5:17 am

    Fabulous article William – I’ll be referring people to it every time I hear these worn-out arguments. Thank you.

    CS Purdy
    Author,The Equine Legacy: How Horses, Mules, and Donkeys Shaped America

  • September 29, 2017 at 4:42 am

    The author’s nice demo of the differences between cow/horse hooves and the huge differences between them as to impacts on the ground…and in the Great Basin….on the biomass between sage brush plants….is a point I’ve been trying to make for years. So obvious, so destructive….the cow footprint….

  • September 29, 2017 at 5:32 am

    I agree with the above! Very good & common sense article. Its obvious to me & to most people who have actually SEEN hoof prints from cows & horses – but apparently someone who doesn’t want to change their thinking – wont believe this anymore than any of the actual truths. The naysayers do not want to read or admit anything that takes away from their propaganda and their profit!

  • January 23, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Glad to see your continued elucidation of the very benign contributions wild horses make to ecosystems, including restoring soils. Remember that the wild burros also do this, another species with post-gastric digestion. Also remember that in more greatly restoring humus content of soils the horse and burro droppings enhance soils’ water, or moisture, retentiveness, and this greatly helps to prevent incipient fires such as caused by lightning strikes.

  • February 25, 2019 at 11:50 am

    Thank You Sir, finally a straight shooter on the topic about our Wildhorses verses Livestock…when it comes to the lies consistently written on this issue… Our Wildhorses have gotten the raw deal forever, but even worse now.. they’ll be all gone off the range if our Representatives don’t stop this… NOW… I for one appreciate this article emensly . Will be sharing it with our idiots (idiots) in Washington….

  • September 15, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    He is correct.
    And the return of Objawi herd that was their last her and spirited away in fog of night 20 years later in the fog the Angel guardian of safety returned the Objawi Horse to the Objawi. Equs Callabus, DNA Proves RNA of St Croix Forrest Pony, Bay to Dk. About 13.2 14. The old Stallion was said close to 15 hands. Bay the Objawi Pony is Electric to only these horses in the world.
    In selecting an outcross for DNA herd preservation a Liver Mustang Stallion proved to be closest
    These were cross Registered with American Indian horse registry.
    Please include this recently saved and registered Objawi Horse there still are St. Croix Forest Ponies most were herded onto private land to continue running free. When the Old Growth Forrest started logging about 5 yrs ago.


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