I hope most people are enjoying Robert Redford’s new movie The Mustang as much as I did.
From my chair, producer Redford did a great job, and like Disney, Redford made a solid business move to fund his examination of a niche criminal rehabilitation program and the importance of equine therapy. But the movie stops there as to any real impactful solution for the tens of thousands of wild horses and burros that are being rounded up.
The BLM’s commitment to reduce the total US Population of wild horses down to about 27,000 from the current population of about 72,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros, will produce about 45,000 wild horses and some burros into BLM/US Forest Service holding. The point is that the aggregate effect of all adoptions, rescues and social programs combined that are using wild horses can only realistically address saving a fraction of about 45,000 wild horses that are coming off the range in the coming 12-16 months. Making matters worse is that most sanctuaries are at capacity and underfunded.
The dark meme of ‘breaking’ wild horses for any reason is of course a construct of mankind’s perspective stemming from the management of domesticated breeds of horses over a period of five millennia. It is reckless and inhumane to diminish the spirit of any wild animal, especially a wild horse. And according to the California 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, wild horses and burros are “native species” and are “wildlife¹”.
The movie fails to properly explain that wild horses that are made available for such programs have already suffered PTSD themselves through the harrowing experience of the brutal ‘helicopter roundup’ and separation from family and friends. Let’s keep in mind that mustangs are highly intelligent sentient beings with an IQ said to approximate a sub-adult human.
Essentially, the wild horses thrust into these programs are already suffering from physical and psychological trauma. And then to have their spirits broken down further in any manner, is in my opinion after living among wild horses for the past five years, cruel and inhumane.
If we compare the standard of care for any other wildlife, let’s say an eagle or a deer that comes into a conservation center due to an injury, once recovered it is immediately returned to the wild, unless its injury places it at longstanding grave risk, in which case it might be re-homed in a zoo, etc … but that is not in any way ideal for any wild animal, and breaking the spirit of a wild horse is in my opinion a moral crime.
And even though domesticated horse breeds look, smell and have the same anatomy of wild horses, wild horses are not the same because they have a vastly different behavioral ecology; they have evolved quite differently than domestic breeds that have had humans as part of their artificially managed evolutionary environment with paddocks, barns, protection, as well as sustenance being provided.
The will and spirit of a wild horse to live free is radically different than that of most domestic horses and that ‘will’ or ‘spirit’ is an absolute necessity for wild horses to survive in the wilds, where many domestic breeds would perish quickly. As it has been said; the “vigor of the species is preserved” in the wild (Craig Downer).
We have documented (with photos), time and time again here at Wild Horse Ranch, serious injuries, the trauma of which would have killed most any domestic horse right-off from shock. Yet the local wild horses overcome. We have sent photos and videos of some of the many injuries (most from mountain lion attacks) to our highly experienced area equine veterinarian, who upon seeing such photos told us to put the horse down, there was no way the horse can survive … of course his clinical experience is with domestic horses. And time and time again, the injured wild horses healed and some are alive years later.
Like this colt, who was attacked by a lion:
And this young stallion, Buck:
Both horses are alive today without any medical intervention beyond Laura and I giving them a little hay, grain, salt and a bit of loving encouragement.
Approaching the point of no-return from path to extinction
Once the BLM and USFS complete their planned population reduction, they will then likely divide the remaining 27,000 wild horses across the US landscape into small groups as we already have seen in existing Herd Management Areas (HMAs) today that can be a small as 38 horses. It’s a plain fact that any herd less than 200 or more intact wild horses is a genetically non-viable herd, and will lead to devastating inbreeding, genetic failure and ultimately, extinction.
The foregoing is critically important in regard to forest management because our North American landscape has had its native species large-bodied herbivory decimated over the past 300 years.
It is estimated that more than 100-million large-bodied herbivores were eliminated in that period, which included about 50 million bison and 20 million wild horses that existed just 300 years back. That former combined native species herbivory consumed about 383 million tons of grass and brush annually.
The ongoing maintenance of this ground fuel loading by a balanced population of native herbivores is what keeps both the frequency and intensity of wildfires to a nominal level, which is beneficial to our forests. But when these fuels are not naturally maintained, especially in wilderness areas where artificial fuel reduction methods (such as mowing and burning) are impractical and/or illegal. The resulting excessive fuel loading leads to more frequent and intensely hot wildfires, that are so hot, they kill even the conifers that have evolved to use normal wildfire for their reproduction.
Now with further depletion of cervids — primarily black tail deer in the western states (California is down two million deer in the past five decades; which would have accounted for about 2.6-million tons of excess grass and brush annually) — the vegetative ground fuels for wildfire have become prodigious. And these fuels are renewed annually, dry quicker, stay dry longer with warmer climate and present a longer window of opportunity to any source of ignition.
We cannot control the behavior of humans, even laws seems relatively ineffective. We cannot control the amount of oxygen in the air. We can change the amount of excessive fuels in our forests by simply re-balancing the forest ecosystems with the addition of immediately available wild horses; a solution that can be implemented to save both wild horses and our forests and related ecosystems before they are gone.
At the rate we are losing forests in North America, we must effect a solution virtually immediately!
It will take decades to bring back cervid populations with all of the challenges there. Wild horses are currently readily available and need places to be rewilded into, and my “Wild Horse Fire Brigade” plan has identified wilderness areas that are well-suited as natural habitat for wild horses and burros. Equids survived the Ice Age as forest dwellers, and here in the western states landscape, wilderness forest areas with abundant water and grazing, yet ill-suited for livestock, are available, and need ground fuels abatement, lest this area burns catastrophically.
Even though I was entertained by Redford’s movie The Mustang, I found myself asking; ‘why inmates breaking wild horses’ as a core concept, when there are certainly other more compelling (dramatic) social issues that are positively affected by equine therapy?
One such social issue is the suicide rate among American soldiers (about 20 each day) and how equine therapy is impacting that tragedy, which is much larger in scope than that of our penal system, and from my chair, should be the basis for an even more compelling movie, especially when considering how suicide affects many families each year. And the now lost men and women were valiant, courageous people, as are those at risk as I write this.
National Geographic touched on this topic with their mini-documentary Horses Help Heal Veterans’ Invisible Wounds.
My wife and I had a first-hand experience with the effect a wild stallion (who freely and willingly) made in a veteran’s life (with PTSD) via an encounter that Laura and I documented here at the ranch:
The human cost of wildfires
Hydrocarbon toxins from the deadly Klamathon Wildfire gravely affected my wife Laura and she went from being a super-healthy vegetarian (since 1971) and a very active lady to being reduced to a quadriplegic in just five months. And there are thousands of other people who were made ill from just the wildfires of 2018. The amount of hydrocarbon (greenhouse gases) compounds being released from catastrophic wildfires (and novel compounds formed at new super high temperatures) is accelerating the rate of atmospheric warming.
My wife and best friend of 46 years is a genuine hero! When the evacuation order came during the big Klamaton wildfire via California Fish & Wildlife officers, Laura decided, even in the face of the 200-foot tall flames heading directly for Wild Horse Ranch and our cabin, to stay and provide concerned oversight of the wild horses and wildlife on the landscape during the inferno. Few people would put their lives on the line for other people, let alone wildlife and forests.
If we are going to change the current trajectory of the human condition and how we deal with our natural resources, we’ll need many more people as committed as Laura Simpson.
 The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California recognized wild horses as native species, explaining that BLM “establishes Appropriate Management Levels (“AMLs”) for populations of native species – including wild horses, burros, and other wildlife – and introduced animals, such as livestock.” In Defense of Animals, et al. v. U.S. Dept. Interior, et al., No. 12-17804, *6 (9th Cir. May 12, 2014). On Sep 28, 2011 (See Craters AR at 16698. Memorandum Decision & Order) The court addresses “sensitive” species pursuant to BLM’s 2001 Special Status Species Policy. This Policy requires that “sensitive” species be afforded, at a minimum, the same protections as candidate species for listing under the ESA. It called on BLM managers to “obtain and use the best available information deemed necessary to evaluate the status of special status species in areas affected by land use plans . . . .” See Policy at § 6840.22A. Under the Policy, those land use plans “shall be sufficiently detailed to identify and resolve significant land use conflicts with special status species without deferring conflict resolution to implementation-level planning.” – Courtesy of Kathleen Hayden.