Wild at Heart

by Belinda Recio
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Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wild Mustangs still roam free across North America

Horses have always conjured feelings of freedom and power in the human psyche. But there is something especially stirring about the unbridled spirit of wild horses. Watching them run free across open land, all muscle and mane as they race the wind, is one of the most breathtaking ways to connect with the untamed heart of nature.

North America and horses have a long and storied history that goes back much further than the days of the western frontier. About 55 million years ago, a small, fox-sized proto horse, named Eohippus (“dawn horse”) appeared on the North American continent. Over time, this little equine ancestor evolved into Equus caballus—the majestic creature that we know as the modern horse—and spread across the continent. Then, about 10 million years ago, horses mysteriously started to leave North America. They moved across the Bering Straight into Asia, Europe and North Africa, and disappeared from the continent about 10,000 years ago.

It wasn’t until the 1500s, when Spanish explorers arrived, that horses once again set foot on their native land. Some of the horses escaped and became feral. These were known as “mustangs” from the Spanish word, mesteño, which means “wild.” For over 200 years, the mustangs populated the Great Plains in vast herds. But then, after finally re-establishing themselves in their native land, ranchers began to regard them as a nuisance and started to exterminate them.

Other populations of wild horses also started with domestic horses that escaped captivity, but sometimes the exact origin of the wild herd is a mystery. For example, the wild horses of Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia have inspired several origin theories. One asserts that the horses arrived on the island from a shipwreck in the late 18th century. Another claims that pirates hiding out on the island abandoned their horses. But most historians believe that farmers put the horses on the island to graze (as a way to avoid paying grazing taxes) and the horses simply wandered and became wild.

Today, thanks to The Wild Horse Annie Act of 1959, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and other protection measures, the wild horse once again roams North America. You can find wild horses in western states and on islands off the Eastern Seaboard. Check out a few of the best destinations, listed below. Bring your binoculars, your camera, and your own “mustang” heart.

Adopting Wild Horses Because wild horses do not have any natural predators other than the relatively rare mountain lion and black bear, their populations can grow quickly. When their numbers exceed the capacity of the public lands on which they graze, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gathers horses and makes them available for adoption through their “Adopt-a-Horse-or-Burro” program. Potential adopters must prove to the BLM that they can adequately care for the horse within the U.S. and sign a statement asserting that they will not sell the horse to a slaughterhouse, or use it in a rodeo or other commercial venue. For more information, visit blm.gov/adoptahorse/.


Out West

Go Wild Horse and Burro Watching (Nevada)


About half of the nation’s wild horses roam on public lands in Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management produced a brochure that includes a map showing the location of herd management areas, which means good chances of seeing wild horses. For a digital copy, go to the link above. For a printed copy, email nviac@blm.gov


Eastern Seaboard

The Outer Banks (North Carolina)


At one time, wild horses roamed the entire length of this coastal barrier island chain. Now the horses are primarily located in Corolla, Shackleford, Beaufort and Ocracoke.


Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world. 

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