Once, somewhere in the middle-top of Nevada, I saw a mustang. It was once and never again. Wild horses are not an everyday sight in America even though, in every American’s ego, there’s a horse running wild and free. I was traveling north, alone, and would eventually travel east, and all around me was the expansive, oppressive Southwest. For miles I had been driving in silence without a single hint of fauna, human or otherwise. I was semi-hypnotized by a dirt backdrop that went on, on and on, and by the realization that I was leaving all this Western stuff behind me forever. For a change of scenery, I turned my head to look left, and there it was: a light brown horse running fast alongside my car with the mountains behind it, spraying dust from its feet like you see in movies. I’ve always told people I saw a mustang that day, though in truth I know nothing about horses and can barely tell a mustang from a mule, especially if both are running. But I grew up in the Southwest, where sagebrush is considered a flower and all horses are mustangs. So a mustang it was I saw that day, and it took my breath away.
Last week, I read that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was planning a roundup of 1,700 wild horses in eastern Nevada. This happens every so often, though it’s an event largely distanced from Americans not living in the West. For much of the 20th century, America’s wild horses were seen as pestilence, primarily by American ranchers, and they were treated as such. Wild horse carcasses, on the other hand, were profitable sources of glue, clothing, violin bowstrings and, most lucratively, pet food. More than a million horses were destroyed in the United States between 1900 and 1950. From 1934 to 1963, the Bureau of Land Management and its predecessor paid private contractors to kill wild horses and let them profit from the carcasses, to the horror of wild horse advocates. With public pressure, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 gave horses protection, and the BLM’s role changed. Instead of elimination, the agency was suddenly charged with the preservation and protection of wild horses (and burros) “from capture, branding, harassment, or death:”
That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.
Since 1971, America’s wild horses have been allowed to live on reservations of sorts, corralled in public rangelands monitored by the BLM. But according to the Bureau, these rangelands have room for only so many horses. Overpopulation, it says, could mean the destruction of a “thriving natural ecological balance,” and could create mass starvation. So every once in a while, to control wild horse populations, the Bureau of Land Management gathers up excess horses deemed a threat to the environment and to themselves. Without roundups, the BLM claims, the program is unsustainable.
The videos of roundups I’ve watched online are all similar. A band of horses — maybe seven or 10 — is running across a field, the desert, the prairie, in Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming. A helicopter comes up low behind them. The helicopter will swoop left, swoop right, driving the horses toward a trap. The horses will fake left, fake right, trying to outrun the helicopter. They will stick together for as long as they can, changing direction on a dime. Sometimes a single horse will make a break, racing along the brush with the helicopter at its heels — left, right, left, right, the helicopter moving closer and lower. The horse or horses will be urged nearer the pens, and then, suddenly, they will be in the pens, standing with horses gathered earlier. A metal gate will be closed behind them. When the pens are filled, the horses will be loaded onto trucks and taken away.
Melancholy music is another thing these videos share; the trill of Native American flutes or sentimental piano arpeggios are common accompaniments to a roundup video. This is because most videos are created by people who stand opposed to the roundups. Roundups, protestors say, contradict the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, contradicts the horses’ ability to be wild and free-roaming and to enrich the lives of the American people.
Once the horses are rounded up, the Bureau of Land Management offers them to the public for adoption. (I remember well the television spots advertising these adoption programs when I was a child. Oh, how I longed to see a family of burros living blithely in my bedroom.) Protestors don’t deny these adoption programs exist. What they claim, however, is that the programs are cruel, sloppy, and mismanaged. The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign Injuries asserts that spontaneous abortions, trauma, and death are common. Horse families are pulled apart, it says. Horses with “defects” and those too traumatized to tame are euthanized. Also, finding private adopters is difficult — owning a horse is no minor venture in any economic climate. The organizations and individuals allied to stop wild horse roundups say the many horses who aren’t adopted are sent to long-term corral facilities, or purchased by “killer buyers” who resell the horses for food (pet and human). It’s all about the oil industry, say some: The “mixed use” clause in the 1971 act allows drilling on protected lands and horses get in the way. It’s all about the beef market, says PETA: Wild horses compete with ranch animals for grazing. Those specific protests aside, for many Americans, the very sight of wild horse roundups violates the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. “The mustang is as American as George Washington,” drawls Viggo Mortensen in a public service announcement for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, played over clips from his film Hidalgo. “Sad,” “greedy,” “a national disgrace,” write online commenters. “ENOUGH of this madness! I want my country AND MY Mustangs back.”
To be measured, the word “wild” is loaded. Loaded, and false. The more accurate term for America’s horses is “feral.” Feral, like pigs. For American mustangs to be truly wild, their ancestors would have to have been native — an uncommon circumstance for anyone gracing this Union. Horses were first brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, as essential as guns and swords and European disease in conquering the territories. Across the Americas, natives were gripped with a documented terror of the beasts. On horseback, a man is a centaur, quick and towering.
Year by year, the horses began to separate from their owners. Some were relocated to Native American tribes, who in time became adept at horse trade and theft, and learned to incorporate horses into all aspects of tribal economics and tribal mythology. Some horses survived war when their owners did not. If a horse’s rider died, the horse would drift off into the wilderness, making its own way, joining others whose riders had met with a similar fate. In the 19th century, Western ranchers would release their horses into the wild to forage for the winter, and then recapture whichever animals they could come spring. Slowly, these domesticated horses unhinged themselves from civilization and blended into the natural landscape of the New World.
America’s horses are foreigners, but their history contains an extraordinary fact: Horses evolved in North America, long long ago, in prehistoric times. They were here before any of us, and so are more American even than George Washington. Around 45 to 55 million years ago, the first hints of Equus thrived in the wet, subtropical forests that spread across the North American continent, little leaf-eaters not larger than dogs. Around 35 million years ago, as climate changes turned forests to plains, the taller, grass-eating ancestors of Equus ferus evolved. Horses would eventually make their way to Eurasia, we know not exactly how, possibly over a land bridge in the Bering Strait. Those left behind disappeared. But long ago, before George Washington, before any of us, the horse roamed the fields of North America, indigenous, wild. So you could say that horses were introduced to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors. Or you could say they were brought home.
To me, the aura of prehistory still surrounds the modern-day horse. Standing by horses, I’ve always felt myself in the presence of dinosaurs, of ancient creatures far removed from my everyday existence. It wasn’t so long ago that horses were essential to the daily lives of Americans — our primary mode of transportation, a necessary weapon in our wars against nature and each other — and yet today, what living being feels more exotic, more superfluous when you stand right close? In the presence of a horse, one is in the presence of a great mystery, a mystery that is incomprehensible, awesome, and unnerving.
Just off the coast of Georgia, on a barrier island named Cumberland, the Dungeness mansion stands in ruins. Past a hot thicket of oaks and marsh and armadillos a great lawn opens out, and as you approach the old mansion, you see families of feral horses drifting among the wreckage, eating grass, mindless of visitors. The horses, like the Dungeness, are leftovers from Cumberland’s bungled attempts at civilization, and their story runs parallel to the island’s history. The 16th century brought the Spanish, who lived there until French pirates and infection wiped the island clear of inhabitants. In 1733 English General James Oglethorpe built the first Dungeness as a hunting lodge among a series of forts as protection against the Spanish. But the ultimate success of the English in Georgia made a fortified island irrelevant. Cumberland was again abandoned, the remnants of the forts and the original Dungeness faded away. In the late 18th century, Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene picked up the loose threads of the vacant island, building a new Dungeness on a thriving slave-run plantation. Then the Civil War came, and the inhabitants of Cumberland found themselves on the now-familiar wrong side of history. The second Dungeness was deserted as well, burning down in 1866. In the 1880s, the industrialist Thomas Carnegie arrived with his wife Lucy, and together made Cumberland their winter retreat. Among their first tasks was to build a third Dungeness on the site of Greene’s Dungeness. There the Carnegies wintered happily until the Great Depression, when Cumberland evicted them, too. Once more, Cumberland played host to an empty Dungeness. And in 1959, when the last of the Dungenesses burned down, the island was left mostly deserted. Today, Cumberland Island is a national park, and one of the most undeveloped sites in the United States.
As each party quit Cumberland, their horses were left behind. Now the island belongs to them — at least, this is how it feels. The feral horses of Cumberland move around the island like ghosts. A colt stands over the fading tombstone of Robert E. Lee’s father. A lone horse trots along the barren, dune-fringed beaches, indifferent to the passing of time. The illustrious residents of Cumberland are gone and, in their place remain ruins and horses.
There’s definitely an “Ozymandias” air to Cumberland: the inevitability of destruction, the laughter of the gods in the face of our hubris.
“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Toward the dunes, there’s a herd of Carnegie-era cars sinking hollowed with rust into the earth, and the wild horses of Cumberland wander unperturbed in the distance. The cars, and the horses, are reminders of how quickly and easily a civilization can be built, and how easily a civilization can go, back to the beginning, into Nature’s hands. Don’t look away, the horses say to us, don’t take leave of your purpose. For the instant you do, they say, Nature will fill the vacuum. Nature is patient.
For 500 years, horses have been integral to our fight for civilization. What would the modern city be without the horse? Or modern agriculture, or warfare, or exploration? We made the horse our tool. And somehow, they slipped from our grasp. We cannot use the wild horses, and we see how little they need us. So we try to protect them or we try to destroy them—whatever it takes to bring the horses back under our control. As much as they narrate our adventurous past, America’s wild horses embody the fragile barrier between civilization built and civilization gone. If an American “Ozymandias” were written, it would need, above all, the image of a riderless horse, that ubiquitous metaphor for glory, and for loss.
On July 15, the Cloud Foundation — a horse advocacy group suing the federal government on the grounds that gathering wild horses is illegal — convinced a federal appeals court to order a temporary stay on the proposed Nevada roundup. A few days later, the court lifted the emergency injunction and gave the Bureau of Land Management the go-ahead. The court has announced that it still intends to hear further appeals from the Cloud Foundation, but Rachel Fazio, the foundation’s lawyer, says that the roundups will likely be complete by then. Nonetheless, she admits, in the whole history of the world no one had successfully stayed a roundup for even a day. The battle is certain to continue. Whether we deem them invasive pests or indigenous heroes, there’s something in the aloof, majestic horse that we need, something we can’t ignore, something that reminds us of ourselves. Wherever there has been a battle lost or a building demolished, there it is: the terrifying, wonderful, riderless horse, that ubiquitous image of glory, and of loss. • 29 July 2011