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Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

by Deanne Stillman; Mariner Books, 2009. Paperback, 348pp. RRP $US14.95. ISBN: 978-0-547-23791-6.

April 17, 2011

It is difficult in a single book review to do justice to this important work about the wild horse in the US and the struggles the once revered animal now faces simply to survive.

Stillman's award-winning book is a must-read for those who want to be informed about the plight of the mustang today.

It has been a long journey to date - from thousands of years ago when horses once roamed North America, to their return with the conquistadors in the early 1500s, their partnership with the native Americans, and the settlement of the vast land in war and peace - and it is not over yet.

In the early chapters Stillman delves into the history of the horse in the Americas. Once horses made their escape from man, or were turned loose for whatever reason, they thrived on their former homelands.

Luckily there were many of them, as horses proved invaluable in war - on both sides - and they thrived in many other places also - Hollywood, and television included.

But the world moves on. Viewed as nuisance livestock by cattle ranchers, people known as "mustangers" rounded up wild horses by the dozens, sometimes by aircraft and helicopter, and trucked them off to slaughter for a quick buck.

The horse today has a precarious existence, and as it has over the past few hundred years, the whims of men and governments shape its path. One can't help but notice similarities between the treatment of the native "indians" in the 1700s and 1800s and the plight of the wild horse in recent decades. Driven from their homes, captured, and eradicated.

Had it not been for people like Velma Johnston - Wild Horse Annie - then maybe there would be no wild horses left today. As it is, the existence of the wild horse is uncertain.

Now, it is government authorities which are "gathering" wild horses from the plains and fencing them into corrals.

The horse played such a pivotal role in the development of civilisation. What did it do to lose mainkind's respect?

Excerpt from chapter 1

» "Mustang" is the winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction and was a Los Angeles Times "best book" in 2008.

55 Million-4 Million Years Ago: The horse evolves on the North America continent.

1519: Horses return to their ancestral turf, arriving with Cortes.

1700s: Wild horse herds transform Native American culture.

1860: Pony Express carries news of Lincoln's victory.

1864: Age of cattle drive begins.

1876: Comanche, a wounded cavalry horse, stumbles out of the Battle of Little Bighorn, billed as "the lone survivor." A year later two million mustangs still roam the range.

1894-1926: Silent films launch the cowboy and his horse as screen icons; meanwhile wild horses are taken in brutal round-ups and shipped to factories or foreign wars.

1971: Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act passed, thanks to Wild Horse Annie.

2000-2009: With only 20,000 mustangs left, the wild horse makes it last stand. The law is unravelled, government roundups rip up horse families and tear into populations.

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