American Wild Horse Campaign shares history of our wild horses

Wild horses are deeply interwoven into the fabric of the American West. Yet, many people are unaware of the long history these iconic animals have in the United States. Today, we’d like to tell you about a little wild horse history.

America’s wild horses roaming free. Photo by Kimerlee Curyl

Origins
America’s wild horses are considered a native re-introduced species.  A native reintroduced species is a species that at some point became locally extinct in its indigenous lands, but eventually returned, either on its own or by being reintroduced back to the land by human beings. This is what happened to America’s wild horses.

Wild horses began to evolve and grow on the North American continent millions of years ago. In fact, the forerunner to the modern horse was traced to the Tennessee Valley. During glacial periods, when the sea level would drop, wild horses would move back and forth across the Bering Land Bridge into Siberia. About 12,000 years ago, the wild horses of North America went locally extinct, but they were not globally extinct.

On the contrary, wild horses thrived in Asia and were eventually domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago. The domestication of horses spread throughout Asia and Europe. Finally, when Europeans came to North America in the 1500s, they brought their horses with them, re-introducing a native species back to its place of origin.

A lone wild horse surveys the landscape. Photo by Kimerlee Curyl

America’s disappearing wild horses
In the 19th century, the population of wild horses in America was estimated to have reached more than two million. But by the time the wild horse received federal protection in 1971, it was officially estimated only about 17,000 of them roamed America’s western lands.

More than 1 million had been conscripted for World War I combat; the rest had been hunted for slaughter, and even for the sport of it. These innocent animals were chased by helicopters and sprayed with buckshot; they were run down by motorized vehicles and, deathly exhausted, weighted with tires so they could be easily picked up by rendering trucks. They were run off cliffs, gunned down at full gallop, shot in corralled bloodbaths and buried in mass graves.

This horror brought America’s wild horses to the brink of extinction until one woman decided to take action.

Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnson — a champion of the wild horses.

The beginning of wild horse conservation
One morning while on her way to work in the early 1950s, Velma Johnson, who would later come to be known as “Wild Horse Annie,” witnessed an appalling scene — a truck full of bloodied, injured wild horses recently captured from Nevada’s Virginia Range.

Bravely, Annie followed the truck to its final destination, a slaughterhouse. After this experience, she learned that ranchers, hunters and “mustangers” would capture these horses for commercial slaughter using airplanes and trucks, often with no regard for the injuries they caused. Annie was horrified.

From that day forward, she dedicated her life to stopping the inhumane treatment, abuse, and slaughter of wild horses. She began her fight in Nevada where she led the State Legislature to pass a law, the Wild Horse Annie Act of 1959, banning the use of aircraft and land vehicles for roundups. But she didn’t stop there.

She went on to lead a nationwide campaign that inspired thousands of schoolchildren to write letters to their elected officials and even testified before Congress herself.

After another decade of advocacy, Congress finally passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the most significant and influential piece of legislation affecting wild horses in the United States, which finally established federal protections for these iconic animals.

Wild horses in captivity. Photo by Kimerlee Curyl

Wild horse conservation today
Today, more than 50 years later, the 1971 law passed thanks to Wild Horse Annie’s efforts has unfortunately been significantly weakened – largely due to lobbying by special interest groups that see wild horses as competition for their commercial livestock.

As a result, wild horses have been subjected to constant roundup operations for the past several decades by federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management. In fiscal year 2024 alone, more than 20,000 wild horses and burros are scheduled to be removed from their homes on public lands – the majority of which will be done using helicopters, an inhumane practice that often leads to severe injuries and even deaths.

That’s where American Wild Horse Conservation comes in. Our team has boots on the ground in some of the most remote corners of the West where these operations take place to document this mistreatment. We’re fighting to bring these stories to light and taking the federal government head-on in the courts to protect these innocent animals.

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