The Three Great Myths About America's Wild Horses

Photo Credit: Laura Simpson

by Capt. William E. Simpson II

Throughout American history, the cattle industry has been for the most part unreasonable to other livestock producers. The American range and Sheep Wars of the 18th and early nineteenth centuries are clear evidence of this statement, as is outlined in this summary:

Wikipedia: The Sheep Wars,[1][2] or the Sheep and Cattle Wars,[3][4] refers to a series of armed conflicts in the Western United States which were fought between sheepmen and cattlemen over grazing rights. Sheep wars occurred in many western states though they were most common in Texas, Arizona and the border region of Wyoming and Colorado. Generally, the cattlemen saw the sheepherders as invaders, who destroyed the public grazing lands which they had to share on a first-come, first-served basis. Between 1870 and 1920, approximately 120 engagements occurred in eight different states or territories. At least 54 men were killed and some 50,000 to over 100,000 sheep were slaughtered.[1][3][5][6]

One of the favorite tools used by the cattle industry to push competing grazing animals off the lands they covet, is that of supporting outright myths and also funding questionably designed studies and then promoting the highly questionable results. Over the last century, this has led to the demonizing of grazing animals that compete with cattle for forage on public lands. And sadly, some of these methods and the resulting idiotic canards still permeate common knowledge in society today. This is tragic from the standpoint that; in order to manage any grazing animals, including wild and or domestic herbivores, a clear and precise understanding of each animal's behavioral ecology is critical. 

These days, most grazing herbivores wild or domestic have lobbies based-upon an economic foundation. The economic value of cattle, sheep and swine are obvious due to the market demands for these animals as common human food sources. Not quite as obvious are the economics that support many wild animals, such as deer and elk for instance that have economic support from the hunting industry as 'game-animals'. On the other hand, wildlife that are not seen as 'game animals', such as wild horses, have no such economic value placed upon them as they did in the century past when they were a key source of transportation and logistics in America.

The myths herein below were relatively easily perpetrated during the time that predated the Internet, when advanced scientific information was available via relatively few and obscure resources. Today the information is available for those who are willing to spend some time to conduct some research and due diligence using Internet-based resources.

Therefore, let's examine the three greatest myths that the cattle industry has perpetrated upon Americans in regard to America's wild horses: 

Myth One:  Wild horses are not a native species in North America:
Fossil Records say no; wild horses are a native species:
Today, with the prolific publication of paleontological records of wild horses in North America and the well documented horse fossil record on the North American continent (horse fossils exist in many states), the evidence is compelling; they are native. In fact, all horses on the planet today originated from North America and migrated over the Aleutian land bridge into Asia sometime around 17,000 years ago. 

Dr. Ross MacPhee has in fact criticized the BLM for publishing manifestly incorrect information for public viewing on their Wild Burro and Horse website. Here is the transcript of the testimony from the curator of vertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History.

Furthermore, according to Professors Kirkpatrick, J.F., and P.M. Fazio, in their article; Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife (The Science and Conservation Center, ZooMontana, Billings. 8pp, revised January 2010): “The issue of feralization and the use of the word “feral” is a human construct that has little biological meaning except in transitory behavior, usually forced on the animal in some manner. Consider this parallel. E. Przewalskii (Mongolian wild horse) disappeared from Mongolia a hundred years ago. It has survived since then in zoos. That is not domestication in the classic sense, but it is captivity, with keepers providing food and veterinarians providing health care. Then they were released during the 1990s and now repopulate their native range in Mongolia. Are they a reintroduced native species or not? And what is the difference between them and E. caballus in North America, except for the time frame and degree of captivity?

Cultural Archeological Records say no; wild horses are native and did not go extinct in America:
Some interesting studies have recently brought to light important details from the journals of the French explorers who penetrated more deeply onto the North American continent than any other explorers as of the early 16th century. And in fact, had made contact with the Lakota Indians that resided on the plains-lands the stretched between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and observed them riding horses and hunting buffalo using methods and tools (evolved spear designs) that were advanced in that place and time. The journals of these explorer-cartographers are now being studied from their secure locations in museums, where scientists have uncovered these illuminating revelations of wild horses having been tamed and ridden for centuries in America prior to the arrival of the French explorers in the early 1600's, thus predating the arrival of any Spaniards and even the Vikings on the North American continent.

The clear implication is that the Lakota tribes had been taming and using wild horses for buffalo hunting for at least several hundred years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards and the re-introduction of their horses to America. Here is a link to a very interesting study that details some of these facts.

Molecular Biology & Genetics say no; the DNA doesn't lie, wild horses today are descended from the Yukon Horse ('E. lambei'):
With the recent advent of new field on science of Molecular Biology, there are new genetic studies 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.

Myth TwoWild horses compete for the same foods that depleted deer populations need:
Another common fallacy even among hunters is that; 'wild horses deprive deer and elk of their preferred grazing choices in the wild', which is false.

The study by R. M. Hansen, R. C. Clark and W. Lawhorn titled 'Foods of Wild Horses, Deer and Cattle in the Douglas Mountain Areas, Colorado' shows that wild horses do not adversely compete with deer for food. The key statement in the study is on Page 117, which states;

"The similarity indices and correlation coefficients show a strong potential for competition between wild horses and cattle, but little potential conflict between mule deer and the other two herbivores" [horses and cattle].

Black tail deer in western coastal areas similarly have little potential for grazing competition for foods with wild horses, hence the characterization used by wildlife biologists in regard to the co-evolutionary grazing adaptation between wild horses and cervids as being 'commensal'; essentially eating from the same table without competing.

Myth ThreeWild horses damage North American range and riparian areas:
Arguably one of the cattle industry's favorite whoppers is that wild horses damage range and riparian lands. Cattle require extensive management to minimize the extensive damage they do to pastures and especially wetlands and riparian areas. The fact is that cattle are an invasive species imported onto the North American continent by settlers as early as the very end of the 15th century, and certainly to the Americas by the first part of the 16th century from Africa. It is important to note that there are no cattle fossils anywhere to be found on the North American continent. It is also important to note that cattle have an evolutionary adaptive hoof design that arguably provides extra traction in wetlands which are their preferred homesteads in a natural ecosystem.

More detailed information and photos about the differential evolutionary adaptations between cattle and equid (horse) hooves and the impacts of those differently evolved hooves on range and wetlands is found here.

Another damaging aspect of cattle is their multi-stomach ruminant digestive system, which is quite effective at digesting most of the plant and grass seeds they consume when grazing native pastures, rending those seeds non-viable and thereby eliminating the natural reseeding process of the plants and grasses consumed.

Wild horses on the other hand have a very simple single stomach gastric system, which passes most of the seeds they consume intact and viable back onto the pastures they graze, thereby effectively reseeding the pastures. This is without doubt an evolutionary symbiotic mutualism where the plants and grasses provide sustenance for the wild horses and in-turn the horses provide a reseeding mechanism via their hummus rich droppings, which also contains nutrients valuable to the seeds when they germinate. More information here.

Wild horses have many other mutualisms within the ecosystems of the American landscape, including with trees, which they adopt as their means of shelter from the heat of the summer and rains and snows of winter. In return, wild horses graze-down all of the grasses and plants under the trees thus removing that fuel for wildfires. They also use the trees for scratching, and due to their height and body mass, are able to break-off low-hanging branches (fire ladders) which are subsequently broken-up on the ground by the hooves of the horses as they decompose, adding to the nutrients from the horse’s droppings, all of which build hummus and nutrient-rich soils under the trees. The results of this mutualism is that trees so adopted are made more fire resilient. And, as we see in the photo below, wild horses grazing in and around forests will create 'natural' fire-breaks, which changes the characteristics of wildfires in a manner that benefits the forests.

As we consider the foregoing, it becomes strikingly obvious that the logic that follows from millennia of evolutionary processes leading to the complex mutualisms between plants, grasses and wild horses is the basis of a perfectly adapted symbiosis that cannot be duplicated be any animal(s) which has evolved in another off-continent ecosystem, such as the genetic lines of cattle that stem from African evolutionary processes. 

It’s a sham for any scientist to disparage or minimize the intrinsic value of wild horses to American ecosystems.

The cattle industry desperately attempts to paint wild horses as a current problem on public lands by stating that wild horses are damaging to range-lands. It is very well-known that cattle and sheep operations have wreaked more havoc on U.S. range-lands than all other species combined over the past 5,000 years, as cited by Professor Thomas L. Fleischner, Ph.D. to wit:
“The most severe vegetation changes of the last 5,400 years occurred during the past 200 years. The nature and timing of these changes suggest that they were primarily caused by 19th-century open-land sheep and cattle ranching.”

So, as we can now see, the cattle industry and others who repeat these myths and false narratives have done and continue to do a grave injustice to the reputation and the natural history of America's wild horses, which have been a great blessing to mankind; literally a gift from the Creator. America was built off the backs of horses, so where would we all be today without their mutualism with man?

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.

Capt. William E. Simpson II is a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Simpson has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. He holds a U.S.C.G. 500-ton captain’s license for commercial-inspected passenger vessels and he is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot.

Simpson spent his formative years growing up on the family’s working ranch in the mountains of Southern Oregon, where horses were an integral part of the daily life. William left the family ranch to attend college, which turned out to be a stepping stone into a bizarre lifestyle that led him around the world on an entrepreneurial quest. An adventurer at heart, Simpson and his best friend and wife Laura, spent many years at sea during two sailing expeditions (1991-1994 and 2008-2011) where they experienced some of the many wonders and mysteries of nature. Since retiring, Bill and Laura have changed lifestyles and are once again engaged in a new adventure; living an off-grid lifestyle in the remote wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains, where they enjoy coexisting with herds of wild horses, along with a myriad of other wild animals. The staggering beauty of the local mountains and valleys is awe inspiring and has influenced Bill to frequently write on subjects related to wild horses as well as wild and domestic horse advocacy, rescue and sanctuary.