Dr Mitch Wilkinson examines what draws us to the horse, suggesting we need wild mustangs not for the ecosystem or for tourist dollars, but for our very being and our spirits. Illustrations by Mitch Wilkinson, wildlife photography by Pat Doak, paintings by AmyLyn Bihrle.
In 1871, Lewis Carrol wrote the story, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Today our culture is just realizing that animals like horses are sentient beings that have much in common with us than our grandfathers ever realized. In the past; other societies have also discovered this basic and universal truth.
What is “through the looking glass” of those large expressive eyes?
Why are humans drawn into the soul of such an animal to find peace and comfort? Is it because of a horse’s grace and physical beauty? This undoubtedly is a factor, but there is more than that. There is a fierce individuality within the eyes of these animals. Millions of years of instinct have allowed these animals to survive, but each is a sentient being with individual fears and wants.
All horses form intimate social bonds; in the wild herds, these bonds are critical for survival. While the bonds are fluid and constantly change throughout a horse’s life, a horse needs social bonds to survive, both emotionally and physically. In this trait, humans and horses have a commonality.
Interactions with wild horses, even with only distant eye contact, forces us to confront our own existence as fellow living creatures sharing a planet. The self-assured nobility, grace, and beauty of a distant wild stallion makes the observer realize that as humans, we can never hope to achieve the level of raw power and physical presence observed in horses, our fellow members in the web of life.
Of all forms of life on earth, only humans have the ability to comprehend the evolutionary story of life and to be emotionally moved by the tragedies and triumphs, not only of our own species, but of other species, like the horse.
Horses are an evolutionary triumph which makes our own pale in comparison. Equines began on our planet in a completely different form around 56 million years ago. The tiny creatures whose fossils can be found in Utah have been given the name Dawn Horse. From the beginning, equines have been shaped by an incredible ability to adapt to their changing environment. They have changed their shape, size, and function in an ever-evolving quest simply to live and to survive.
The horse in its current form began somewhere around 4 million years ago. This current form of equine began in North America. Over the millennia, the North American form of horse spread to Siberia, Europe, Asia, and beyond. There were times that the horses in North America were cut off from their cousins in Asia by rising sea levels, but the connection at the Bering Strait was above water far more than it was below sea level.
Finally, the Bering Strait fell below sea level once again; this is the era in which we now live. This occurred around 11,000 years ago. For some reason yet to be fully explained, horse populations in North America began to decline. Permafrost data from frozen horse dung in Alaska show that the horse managed to survive to at least 7,500 years ago in some parts of North America. North American horses, after having survived for millions of years, became absent for around 3,500 years until Spanish re-introduction in the 16th century. The horse is a re-introduced species to its original habitat, not an invasive species.
Horses don’t migrate; they expand their range. Geese migrate from their winter habitat to their summer breeding grounds flying in some cases thousands of miles in their migratory patterns. In contrast, a band of horses may find better grazing and water on the other side of a distant hill where other horses are currently not found. In occupying this new biome for a home, the band has extended the range of all horses. This is a slow process and takes thousands of years to make major additions to the horse’s range. In other range areas, the water source may dry up and grazing conditions change. In these areas, horses may die out causing the total range of horses to decline.
Thus, the range or areas where horses have lived throughout the millennia has ebbed and flowed throughout geological time.
To illustrate how slow the process of range expansion is, we need to look at modern wild horses in the North American Southwest. There have been numerous cases when wild horses have either been fenced off from their water source or the water source has dried up. Instead of searching for a new water source, hundreds of wild horses have died standing before a fence or at a dried-up water hole. Horses as a species are not adventurous. The thought of leaving their home range in search of another water source does not cross their minds. Therefore, a tragedy occurs.
A version of a common map showing horse expansion of range in North America after Spanish re-introduction is shown below. In looking at the map and approximate dates of horse expansion, one might imagine large groups of wild horses or even small bands trekking across the arid landscapes of the Western United States searching for new homes, but this was not the case. Remember, horses are not adventurous.
So how did the rapid expansion of horse populations occur after re-introduction? The dates on the map are taken from winter counts (pictographs on tanned hides kept by native tribes for generations), Native American oral traditions, and journals of European explorers.
These dates represent the approximate times when different tribes acquired the horse. They acquired this new domestic animal and the knowledge of horse care from other tribes. As the knowledge of horses and the horses themselves spread from tribe to tribe, the acquisition of the horse transformed whole Native American societies. Before the horse, Native Americans had only the dog as a beast of burden. After the horse, the transportation of large tepees was possible, and the ability to follow the buffalo herds upon the plains became the iconic plains lifestyle.
Tepee poles and household goods were normally transported on older mares. Young boys looked after the band’s horse herds. Native Americans did not fence their horses as Europeans did; instead they relied on the natural herding instincts of the animals. After millions of years of survival, horses had learned that to stray away from their herd made them vulnerable to predators. Therefore, with only minimal effort young boys served as outriders keeping the band’s precious horse herd together. Of course, some horses strayed and were lost. Many rejoined the tribe’s herd when the tribe returned to the same location the following year.
Like the Spanish before them, Native Americans quickly learned that a horse could be a weapon of war. Tribes who did not develop expert horse handling skills were at a distinct disadvantage during times of intertribal warfare which was common.
Horses spread throughout the North American continent not by migration, but through trade from one tribe to another. So how did the vast herds of mustangs come to be?
The tragedy that led to large feral horse herds took place without notice and with scant documentation by Europeans. Communicable diseases inadvertently introduced by European settlers decimated entire populations of Native Americans. Smallpox was one of the major killers. Entire villages and pastoral bands disappeared from disease. In some cases, they died without ever seeing or making contact with Europeans.
The major measure of wealth of a Native band was its horse herd, but when most or all of the band died of disease, the horses strayed away and became feral. Interestingly enough, the horses did not disseminate far from where their Native American masters had taken them. In many cases, they are still there today. The ancestors of American mustangs became feral not by choice, but due to loss of their humans.
Centuries ago Native Americans loved their horses; just like their descendants do today. Mustangs are part of the living legacy of warriors who rode their ponies across the plains. Painted ponies with the exploits of their masters depicted on their bodies danced with manes, tails, and feathers in the wind. Their children can still be found in the exact locations where the remains of those valiant warriors sleep under the prairie sod.
Even though horses are not adventurous explorers, they are incredibly resourceful in adapting to and finding ways to live in the most incredibly diverse environments found on the planet.
This ability to survive and adapt to diverse conditions allowed horses to be family companions in small pens behind trailer houses, in the freezing temperatures of Siberia, or in the deserts of Africa, North America, and Australia. Here is where our responsibilities as humans, who have the ability to be moved by the evolutionary story of life and are emotionally touched by it, must make allowances for our wild horses. They are the companion creatures we brought back to their ancestral home range, North America, in the 16th century. With enough room and resources available, horses can survive wherever we allow them to survive, and we manage them in a humane way.
A beautiful painting of a horse or a heart-stopping encounter with a wild horse even from a great distance makes our world larger, more inclusive, and more beautiful.
I was asked why mustangs are important. After weeks of thought about what answer to give, I now realize I knew the correct answer instinctively all along.
We need wild horses for the enrichment of the human soul.
Seeing free ranging horses in their natural habitat running with manes and tails flying like wings that catch the air makes my heart race and lifts my spirit more than I can express.
Seeing a wild stallion and his family standing a quarter mile away is humbling. The presence and nobility of such a regal figure shimmers in the air around him. The stallion sparks an emotion that is easy to feel in one’s heart but impossible to describe in mere words.
Many horse trainers have realized they see in the eyes of a horse the owner’s personality. A horse mirrors its owner.
Horses have shared our lives as loyal companions for at least the last 5,000 years, but they share much more than that. What they share as fellow living creatures goes down to their basic genetic structure. Genetically, horses share over 50% of their genes in almost the same order and function with humans. A dog, man’s best friend, shares less than 30%.
Several of the horse chromosomes (there are 32 pairs in horses) are ordered almost exactly like their human counterparts who have 23 chromosome pairs. The horse chromosomes, X, #11, and #22, correspond in order and function to the human chromosomes, X, #17, and #20 in an almost exact match. So even on the molecular level, we share much with our horse companions.
A Comanche Tale
“Look into the Eyes of My Pony”
Years ago, when I was much younger, I was sitting under the shade of an ancient oak tree near Cache, Oklahoma, with a wise Comanche elder whom everyone called “Uncle Ray.” Uncle Ray was showing me how to fleche an arrow with sinew as done a century before. As we were working, he told me a story which shows that the Comanche people knew the “truth” about horses, centuries before some of us in the modern world even thought of such a concept.
In the olden days, before there were many white men brave enough to enter the lands of the Comanche, Franciscan Friars ventured into our territory to convert us to Christianity. We called these white men “Black Robes” or “Brown Robes” because of the thick cloth they covered themselves with.
One day a young Comanche warrior on horseback encountered a Black Robe and stopped to talk to him in Spanish, a language they both knew. The Comanche warrior asked the Black Robe why he was in Comanche lands, since surely the next warrior that encountered him would kill him on sight. The Black Robe said he was there risking his life to save the souls of the Comanche.
The young warrior then asked, “Save our souls from what?”
The friar answered, “I am here to save your soul from an eternity of pain and fire after you die.”
This made the warrior curious, and he wanted to hear more. “What do I have to do to escape such a fate after I die?” said the warrior.
The Black Robe answered,” You have to be converted to a new religion called Christianity. With a little instruction and honest commitment, your soul can be saved.”
The warrior asked if his parents could be saved, also.
The friar answered, “Absolutely, they can be saved if they accept Christianity.”
The warrior then asked if his wives could also be saved.
The friar replied,” Christians can only have one wife, so you would have to give up one of your wives!”
The warrior thought about it for a moment and answered, “Well, one of my wives is rather mean and hard to get along with, so I can do that.”
After a few more moments of thought, the warrior asked the Black Robe how he could save his war pony when it died.
The friar answered, “Your pony is just an animal and does not have a soul, so it doesn’t go to heaven or hell; it just ceases to exist.”
The Comanche warrior was horrified and a little shocked. After recovering his composure, he told the friar, “Look in my pony’s eyes and tell me he doesn’t have a soul.”
The warrior rode off leaving the friar to his fate.
The Comanche were some of the last Native American people to accept Christianity.
This story as told decades ago illustrates the point I make. There is something in the eyes of a horse that touches the souls of all men and women regardless of what culture they represent.
Through the looking glass of a horse’s eyes, what we find is ourselves.
We find a reflection of what is best in our own souls.
We find what makes us human and inspires us to be more kind, noble, and caring not only to ourselves,
but to our fellow creatures.
We need wild horses free in their environment not for the ecosystem or for tourist dollars, but for our very being and our spirits. The glimpse of a wild horse even from a distance gives us excitement and beauty. It is important to know that somewhere, over the distant mountains and away from our crowded cities, there is something of beauty and spirit that is one with the earth. It is important for us to know the wild horses are there, even if we never actually see them. In video footage and photographs, we can run with them. Their freedom and majesty are the freedom and nobility our own spirits strive for. As long as the last mustangs are running free somewhere out there, our imaginations can run free with them, and for a moment, our spirits will be free, also.
This essay is dedicated to our noble spiritual companions both domestic and wild that share our lives and planet.
May their bones lie as lightly upon the earth,
As their dancing hoofs touch its face.
It is my hope that the efforts of many dedicated people will help preserve our wild horse heritage for future generations.
About the Authors:
Dr. Mitch Wilkinson has been a lifelong horse enthusiast. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and professional dental degrees, he earned a post-doctoral master’s degree from Baylor University in biology. Currently, Dr. Wilkinson is Chairman of the Curly Mustang Association and Vice- Chair of the ICHO Research Department. wdocmitch16@Yahoo.com
Pat Doak is an internationally published wildlife and landscape photographer. She has been studying and photographing wild horses since 1976. Her work is very popular among horse enthusiasts and is featured on many internet sites. She has extensively photographed the Salt Wells Herd Management Area which is located near Sweetwater County, Wyoming, where Pat Doak resides.
AmyLyn Bihrle is a full time professional artist and illustrator living and working in New York. Her work is found worldwide in both private and commercial art collections. Over the years as a self-representing artist, AmyLyn Bihrle has become a juried member of several prestigious equine art organizations and animal art charities. She hopes her works touch the viewer’s imagination and evoke a wide range of personal feelings about the subject. http://www.amylyn-bihrle.com/