Wild Horses

Lost Highways

A Wild Horse Isn't Just A Horse, Of Course

Season 4, Episode 6

On this episode of Lost Highways, we look at the mustang, the wild horse of American myth and legend. Though they’re widely revered as symbols of untameable American freedom in the West, the reality of the wild horse in the 21st Century is far less romantic. From the long history of the horse's evolution in North America to the helicopter roundups on rangeland in The West, we'll follow the blurry line between the way we've mythologized horses to how we actually treat them. 

Guests: Leisl Carr Childers, Andrea Glessner, Grace Kuhn, Dave Philipps, Carlton Quinn Shield Chief Gover, Yvette Running Horse Collin, Will Taylor



A Wild Horse Isn’t Just a Horse, of Course (Script)

Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by the Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the humanities and the power of story-telling for more than twenty years. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor. 

[Helicopter sounds mixed with The Lone Ranger theme]

Noel: These are the sounds of one of the myths and one of the realities of wild horses in America sandwiched on top of each other.

It’s the theme from the radio and television western The Lone Ranger, and the sound of a helicopter, rounding up wild horses.

It’s one of the most iconic television themes ever. Even if you’ve never seen The Lone Ranger, you’ve probably heard it. It’s the William Tell overture, or “March of the Swiss Soldiers” from the Rosini opera “Guillaume Tell” about the man who’s supposed to have liberated Switzerland from Austrian oppression in the 1300s, after shooting an apple off the top of his son’s head. It’s almost impossible not to hear the clarion call of freedom when the staccato yips of the trumpets begin and you hear the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver’s hoof beats underneath it. 

The Lone Ranger began as a radio show on January 31, 1933. It ran for almost 3,000 episodes, and evolved into multiple television shows and movies. He wore a mask to disguise his identity from his enemies, and he was sort of the moral archetype of Superman, who didn’t appear in comics until five years later in 1938. He lived by a code of all things America wanted to believe it stood for in its ascendant years as it was becoming a world superpower: honor, friendship, hard work, resourcefulness, the common good, truth,  justice, and, above all: freedom. And nothing about The Lone Ranger symbolizes freedom more than his trusty horse, Silver.

[“Hi Ho, Silver, Awayyyy”]

In the second episode of the first season, we learn that The Lone Ranger, the sole survivor after he and his small band of Texas Rangers were ambushed by the Cavendish gang, needs a horse. He and Tonto – the Lone Ranger’s problematically portrayed Indian sidekick – come upon a wild white horse that’s just been gored by a Buffalo lying on the ground. After they nurse it back to health, the horse gets up and starts to flee…

[Clip: Tonto: “Me get bridle and lariat. Him run away.” Lone Ranger: “No, wait, Tonto.”]

Noel: The horse starts to run away, then turns back. 

[Clipt: Lone Ranger: “I’d like that horse more than anything in the world. But if he wants to go, he should be free.”]

Noel: The Lone Ranger gradually gets Silver to accept him, saddles him, and mounts. 

[Lone Ranger: “Later that hackemore is exchanged for a bridle and bit. Here is no conflict between animal and master. Here instead is a partnership between horse and rider. The Lone Ranger and Silver accept each other as equals”...]

Noel: Silver is the symbol of everything free and wild that The Lone Ranger values – and the horse submits to him only because he is worthy and values his freedom.

Dave Philipps: And that's the story of the wild horse as the good guy. The wild horse as an individual that comes from no special breeding or no special privilege, but is deserving because it is free and proud and strong. Which is exactly the story that we to tell ourselves about ourselves.

Noel: This is Dave Philips, a national correspondent for The New York Times and the author of the 2017 book Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang. 

Dave Philipps: That's Jeffersonian democracy, right? Like, we're all just little people here, and and what makes us great is not that we're related to kings or anything like that, it's that we work hard and have virtues. And so the wild horse really became a symbol of those American ideals. You know, freedom, a lack of any sort of, like, classist hierarchy and grit. It's like, you have to be deserving of this democracy. You have to be deserving of this liberty. 

Noel: It makes for a great story, and even better propaganda for the romanticized values of truth, justice and freedom that America wallpapered over the West. But the reality of wild horses in the West is far more complicated. 

[Helicopter sounds]

Brian Clopp: The helicopters that you're hearing, there's two of them coming.

Noel: This is Brian Clopp, a photographer and former field representative for the American Wild Horse Coalition. Producer Jake Rosenberg interviewed him at Sand Wash Basin in northwest Colorado in September 2021 during what the Federal Bureau of Land Management calls a Wild Horse Gather. It’s a roundup designed to thin the herds of “unbranded, unclaimed, free-roaming horses” that share BLM land with grazing cattle, sheep, and other wild animals. 

Brian Clopp: So there were multiple horses with broken legs yesterday that were just left out there to hobble around and die slowly and painfully. And I believe that to be the definition of animal cruelty. When you know that you have injured an animal, it now has a broken leg and you're just leaving it without veterinary intervention or euthanization… That's the definition of animal cruelty. 


Noel: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.

Maria: And I’m Maria Maddox.

Noel: On this episode of Lost Highways, we look at the mustang, the wild horse of American myth and legend. Though they’re widely revered as symbols of untameable American freedom in the West, the reality of the wild horse in the 21st Century is far less romantic.  

Maria: We’ll also take a look at the long history of the horse in North America, and the many ways humans have integrated them into their lives and cultures.

Noel: Finally, we’ll return to the present where the line between the way we mythologize horses and how we actually treat them has gotten blurrier. 

To understand the whole story of the horse, we start in the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming. Here’s author and journalist Dave Philipps again:

Dave Philipps:  It's like a moonscape. It is bare shale hills, maybe with a tiny bit of like thorny brush, hot, dry. Arctic in the winters. It's just like the harshest place you could imagine. 

Maria: 55 Million years ago, during the Eocene Era, says Philipps, the Big Horn Basin was a tropical paradise. 

Dave Philipps: It was like Costa Rica. It was this rich, lush, dense forest and living on the forest floor was this very delicate leaf nibbler that eventually became the horse. 

Noel: The horse’s earliest ancestor was tiny. Like a fox or a large cat. And the fossil record shows lots of them living in present-day Big Horn Basin. 

Maria: Towards the end of the Eocene, the Earth grew cooler and drier. 

Noel: As green forests gave way to open fields, grasslands, and deserts, the wild horse evolved with them. And they didn’t just adapt; they thrived in this new, far more arid environment..

Dave Philipps: They went bonkers. Within a couple of generations, there were horses all over the West, millions of wild horses, pretty much everywhere, except for above treeline.

Maria: They got bigger, faster, stronger.

Dave Philipps: They develop into what we know as the modern horse. And for 55 million years, North America is sort of the center of their evolution. There are dozens of species here. They're living all over the entire continent. 

Noel: And then humans arrived about 15,000 years ago, and the horses, it seems…

Dave Philipps: They disappear, along with wooly mammoths, and giant sloths, and all sorts of other large mammals that disappeared during that time. 

Noel: There’s some controversy about the horse’s disappearance from the North American continent, but what is clear is that horses remained, thriving and proliferating in Europe and Asia. 

Maria: And some of those domesticated horses were brought back to North America during the Spanish colonization of the Americas that began in 1492. 

Carlton Shield Chief Gover: When they get to the continent of North America in the Yucatan Peninsula, they maintain their horses pretty heavily. They don't allow tribes to get horses. They regulate access to horses. 

Noel: This is Carlton Shield Chief Gover. 

Carlton Shield Chief Gover: I am a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and curator of public archeology at the Indiana University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. 

Noel: It’s clear that much of the genetic makeup of the present day domestic and wild horse population is descended from horses that were reintroduced to the Americas from Europe. 

Maria: For a long time, people thought that all those horses got loose in what’s now the United States in 1680.  

Carlton Shield Chief:  The predominant myth is that Indigenous societies outside of New Mexico, outside of New Spain, received horses after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which the Pueblos revolted against the Spanish and not only burnt down the Spanish buildings in Santa Fe and other places around New Mexico, but released all the horse herds. 

Noel: Shield Chief says that Eurocentric bias, historical over-reliance on colonial records, and a failure to listen to indigenous oral histories led to false narratives about the horse in North America. 

Maria: And new evidence confirms what some tribes have known for centuries. 

Noel: In a paper titled “Early Dispersal of Domestic Horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies,” that was just published in Science Magazine on March 30, 2023, genetic and archeological analyses show traces of domestic horses as far north as Idaho, and Wyoming and as far east as Kansas, and the Great Plains by the 1st half of the 17th century.

Maria: In other words, at least decades before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. 


Yvette Running Horse Collin: My name is Dr. Yvette. Running Horse Collin. I'm an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. The Oglala Sioux Tribe. And I'm the Executive Director and principal Science officer of Taku Škan Škan Wasakliyapi: Global Institute for Traditional Sciences. 

Will Taylor: I'm William Taylor. I'm Assistant Professor of anthropology and curator of archeology at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Noel: Dr. Running Horse Collin and Dr. Taylor are the principal authors of the recent study. Their paper is the result of a five-year-long, multidisciplinary collaboration with over 80 authors, including partners from the Lakota, Comanche, Pueblo, and Pawnee Nations that sought to bring greater understanding between traditional scientific methods of First Nations and western academic research methods.

Maria: They say that their findings are just the beginning of a new way of challenging and rethinking the way we discuss horses and our relationship with the world. 

Yvette Running Horse Collin:  So, Lakota always follow the horse. I mean that figuratively and I mean that literally. Lakota always follow the horse. And so this horse research is leading us to where we need to be together. 

Noel: Dr. Running Horse Collin says that Lakota knowledge keepers are clear that they have always had the horse. 
Yvette Running Horse Collin: So as long as there's been Lakota, we were with horses. In fact, to try to separate them... As one knowledge-keeper taught me, "My girl, I don't think you could separate a Lakota from the horse. It would be like cutting something whole in half." That's how deep and embedded it is in our culture and in our traditions and in our and our daily lives.

Noel: Dr. Running Horse Collin recently got her PhD from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She says that her elders sent her there to try to find ways to bridge the gap between the Lakota framework for scientific inquiry and western academic methods.

Maria: She also says it can be incredibly difficult to find commonalities because the two approaches are almost completely opposite. 

Yvette Running Horse Collin: So the point is for us to come together and to really learn how to communicate, because if you look around, we're having really serious environmental challenges right now. And life as we know it is changing right before our eyes. There are species that are dying, right? And so we have, indigenous peoples have sustainable systems to deal with these things and actually to prevent some of this from happening. We have sustainable scientific systems that know how to deal with this.  

Noel: The Lakota scientific approach, or framework, begins with sustainability as both a goal and an ethical responsibility. It also relies heavily on tribal oral traditions and songs. And The Horse Nation, as the Lakota call it,  guides the way they manage and care for the land. 

Yvette Running Horse Collin: As the environment changes, the horse will change. The people will change. This is not a bad thing at all. This is actually quite beautiful to us, right? And we're extremely interested in that process. So, you know, as the field of genomics, Western genomics is evolving, right? They're finding, right? Neanderthal in their own genetics. This is to us, a celebration, you know, it shows the sustainability of life, diversity. To us, diversity is a great medicine. 

Maria: This approach to science can be difficult for many non-Native people to accept or understand.

Noel:  And Dr. Running Horse Collin says she has struggled to find ways to reconcile the two scientific worlds she inhabits. 

Maria: But when she met Will Taylor, the two of them knew it was important to find a way to work together. 

Noel: Will Taylor grew up around horses in Montana. When he began studying archaeology, he felt like there was something missing from the story of the horse. 

Will Taylor: Understanding, you know, Indigenous horse cultures has been pretty much outside of the purview of archeology up until, you know, this project, or relatively recently. And from Yvette’s dissertation work, for example, part of the work that she did was combing through some of that historical approach and identifying, you know, a lot of discrepancies, problems and gaps in that story.

Maria: Challenging those discrepancies and asking the academic scientific community to broaden the way it considers American Indian science and history has been difficult at times.

Will Taylor: The story of people and horses here has been extraordinarily contentious within the archeological sphere. So as has almost every aspect of our study of the past in this continent in many ways, because of that process of colonization and the birth of archeology, it's important to understand the birth of archeology sort of arose out of that process in many ways.  

Maria: Western scientists, says Taylor, tend to see themselves outside what they're studying – as objective observers. But the history of archaeology as a science also reveals the deeply racist, colonial framework and motivations of that supposed objectivity. 

Noel: For example, it served the interests and ideology of the United States to erase the living history and knowledge of the First Nations it was destroying and relegate them to a distant past. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny was predicated on North America being a blank slate, a new Eden. 

Maria: The widespread looting of grave sites and removal of remains in the name of science is just one example of the ways early anthropologists dehumanized the ancestors of First Nations.  

Noel: By relegating them to the realm of scientific study, archaeologists, biologists, and western science more broadly lumped Indigenous peoples and their history into the world of what became known as "natural history." The same realm as the extinct megafauna, as dinosaurs. Something non-human and long-gone.

Maria: Dr. Running Horse Collin and Dr. Taylor are trying to step outside that framework together to ask much larger questions:

Will Taylor: is there something wrong with that Euro American kind of historic narrative? And what can we learn from the archeological record from that direction? 

Maria: Again, the findings of their study came as no surprise to Indigenous peoples, who’ve known all along that their relationship to the horse predated contact with the Spanish. 

Noel: It might seem like scholarly nitpicking, but their research raises a much larger question about the place of wild horses in North American ecology and history. Especially given the long, prehistoric evolution of the horse on the North American continent. Dave Philipps:

Dave Philipps: The question is, if you're a species that lived here for 55 million years and you disappear for maybe 10,000, 15,000 years, are you native or are you invasive? And if you are one or the other, what does that mean in terms of what your place is in the West? 

Noel: And it’s not just about horses. The conundrum of who belongs, who doesn’t, and who gets to decide raises many other uncomfortable questions.


Maria: This question – are you native, or invasive – has huge policy implications for how the US Government and the Bureau of Land Management now oversee wild horses in the West. 

Noel: Here’s Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign, which advocates for mustangs.

Grace Kuhn: The BLM considers them non-native invasive species, which I think is problematic anyway. When you call something not-native or you call it invasive, you give that intent, like these animals came over to pillage the country on their own. 

Noel: This question of who or what belongs, or doesn’t is called nativism. And it’s a particularly American idea rooted in our history of colonialism, says Dave Philipps. 

Dave Philipps: It's a very powerful idea of you were here first, you have intrinsic belonging, and if you came along later, you don't. And so I wanted to understand, okay, “Does the horse belong or not? Is it really part of the West, or is it something that got tacked on as part of our myth?” 

Noel: Grace Kuhn says nativism debates are basically just arguments over what we like and what we don’t.

Grace Kuhn: The idea of nativism is not really a scientific term. It's more of a values-based system. It's what whoever in the area decides is more valuable than the other. 

Maria: And in that debate, wild horses and burros often lose. Cows and sheep, which graze widely on public land, are commodities. And for most ranchers, this makes them far more valuable than wild horses. 

Noel: And even if we wanted to eat wild horses, which many other cultures do, we couldn’t because they’re protected. But again, mustangs present a peculiar dilemma: though they’re considered wild, they are managed as though they’re livestock, says Grace Kuhn. 

Grace Kuhn: They have never, not once, tried to understand the wild mustangs' place in the American West, even though wild horses we know have been out there at least since the 1500s. 

Maria: The more you think about it, and the further back you go in history, the more contradictions and problems you find in nativist thinking. 

Noel: The matter seemed to be settled by decree in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The act states: 

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; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

Grace Kuhn: At that time, he said in his signing statement that it was the second most written in issue to the White House at the time, next to the Vietnam War. And we know how big that was and how many people protested that. So it's pretty significant. 

Maria: Along with the Bald Eagle, Wild Horses and Burros became the only Federally protected animals in the United States. However, the BLM still considered them non-native and invasive, which meant that their numbers had to be managed.

Noel: And though the act created a civilian oversight board, it provided NO clear guidance for how to manage them, except: unless they were sick or gravely injured, wild horses and burros weren’t to be “harassed” and couldn’t be slaughtered or euthanized. 

Maria: Within just a few years, populations of the wild horses and burros in the West exploded. 

Noel: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Maria: To understand how we got to The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, we have to go back to 1848. 

Noel: That’s right – 1848: the year of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, created what is now much of the western and southwestern United States, and marked the beginning of its rapid Anglo-European settlement. 

Andrea Glessner: When the settlers came West, they encountered these tribes, they encountered wild horse herds, they encountered, you know, even the bison herds at the time.

Noel: This is Dr. Andrea Glessner. She studies the history of the Great Plains and the American West. She says that by some estimates, there were as many 35 million bison and 2 million wild horses west of the Mississippi at that time. 

Maria: Like the Buffalo, wild horse populations dwindled quickly as Anglo-European settlers began to arrive in droves. 

Andrea Glessner: It wasn't until later, you know, where we see more and more people coming West because of the Homestead Act, that we see more competition between cattle, sheep and horses that were free ranging in the late 1880s. So horses were pushed, especially the wild ones, they were pushed further west as more and more people moved into the area. 

Noel: Those that survived in the wild, says Leisl Carr-Childers, quickly moved onto arid western lands that farmers and ranchers didn’t want. 

Leisl Carr Childers: The Great Basin is an area that had very little homesteading and so a lot of the area is public land.  

Maria: Wild Horse populations grew in spaces like this throughout the West. 

Noel: Wild horses that could be domesticated and put to work joined the nearly 5 million other horses that a USDA agricultural census counted throughout the country in 1850. And that number doesn’t include horses used by the military.

Maria: Horses did enormous amounts of the labor it took to build the United States.

Leisl Carr Childers: The horse was a cornerstone in developing Western industries, and moving mobility throughout the West before the railroad, and even after the Transcontinental Railroad was built in 1869. I think that horse bodies during this time, they were incredibly disposable. The military churned through horse bodies in wars, in conflicts such as the civil war, in conflicts Indigenous peoples. The horse, we built so much of this country on the power and back of the horse. 

Noel: Contrary to the romanticized images of horses conjured by western novels, movies, and TV made in the mid-20th Century, horses were seen as property. 

Andrea Glessner: If we look back into the late 1800s, even into the early 1900s, horses were still being used, you know, on a wide scale, for transportation, for farm work, for hard labor…

Leisl Carr Childers: We don't really have a sense of animal rights until we get to the later 19th century. And then the animal protection associations and humane societies that emerge out of this use of horse bodies in a moment where we're beginning to transition into the use of engines, steam engines, internal combustion engines.  

Andrea Glessner: Once we start to see mechanized vehicles take the place of horses, they no longer become a resource. They become something else. 

Noel: And that something else, says Andrea Glessner…

Andrea Glessner: People started to look at these images that came off of the range or look at these book covers that depict a wild horse, and they give that, you know, romantic qualities, they give it mythical-like qualities, and they kind of put the horse on a pedestal,

Noel: A nostalgia for the horse began to set in as Anglo-European settlers and their descendants needed it less. 

Andrea Glessner: And I would argue to say that it's because of the way the horse looks: majestic, it's an intelligent animal, it's not viewed as a predator, so it has different qualities to it than, say, other other species out on the range. So it was easy to get people to connect with the horse, especially, with young people per se, they view it in a different light.  

Maria: But at that same time, wild horses in the west became a nuisance to ranchers looking for more and more land to graze their cattle and sheep. 

Noel: By 1900, Bison – the primary food and material resource for many Plains tribes who’d been waging war with the American Military since the early 1800s –  were nearly extinct. It was estimated that there were only 300 left in the wild as a result of intentional eradication efforts aimed at forcing Western Tribes to submit to American authorities. 

Maria: But wild horses had thrived. 

Noel: By some estimates, there were as many as 5 million wild horses west of the Mississippi in 1900.  

Dave Philipps: So many horses that when Americans came through the Great Plains, they described it as like waves of the ocean, these herds running. 

Maria: For some ranchers and farmers in those early decades of the 20th Century, the wild horse was still seen as a kind of free resource. 

Andrea Glessner: And they would go out, they would capture wild horses and they would keep the younger ones and use them as ranch stock. So for them, the range was a resource to bring in surefooted animals with a lot of endurance who could work hard in the ranch life. And so these individuals were very close to the wild horse issue. 

Maria: But the American appetite for beef was high, and growing. 

Noel: The average American ate over 100 lbs of beef per year in the early 1900s, which is twice the average of today. 

Maria: Wild horses found themselves competing with cattle and sheep for forage on open rangeland.

Noel: And when the The Dust Bowl hit in the middle of the Great Depression, the devastating effects of over-farming and overgrazing on western lands forced the government to step in. 

Andrea Glessner: So the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in June of 1934, and what that did, was it enforced more rangeland management practices. So the goal was to try and maintain a balance between the animals and the land to make sure that the land was able to sustain the animals that were living off of it. 

Noel: The Taylor Grazing Act also forced ranchers to begin paying a small fee for every animal they grazed. And with millions of horses still living on western rangelands and competing with their livestock for forage, many ranchers began to hate the wild horse. 

Dave Philipps: For a number of years, the state of Colorado had a bounty on wild horses. You could bring in the ears and get a couple of bucks for them. They saw it as as essentially an invasive weed. 

Noel: The West, which had for a brief period in the second half of the 19th Century seemed like an endless expanse of land and natural resources, had begun to find its limits. And for ranchers, the wild horse became an expendable part of the problem.

Dave Philipps:  As the West grew more ordered, as the number of fences grew, it was eradicated. You know, they were shot on sight or sold to the glue factory. Like there was nothing romantic about what the cowboy did to the wild horse during the 20s, 30s, 40s. They rounded them up and liquefied them. 

Noel: Many were slaughtered for human consumption, others for glue or animal feed. And some were killed for sport. But until the 1950s, few people outside of rural areas were aware of the situation at all, says Andrea Glessner. 

Andrea Glessner: So unless you were from a small community, small rural community, for that matter, you probably had little to no knowledge that wild horses even existed in the United States.

Noel: But that changed after the Second World War when two people, an artist and a horse lover who didn’t even know each other, brought national attention to the treatment of wild horses outside rural areas for the first time. 


Noel: Artist Gus Bundy moved from New York City to Reno, Nevada in 1941. He bought a lodge outside of town where wealthy businessmen and Holywood types would come to stay while they waited for a Reno Divorce. 

Maria: For many years beginning at the turn of the 20th Century, Reno, Nevada had the most liberal divorce laws in the country. It could be nearly impossible to get a divorce elsewhere no matter how unhappily married you were. 

Noel: But in Reno, it was essentially a rubber stamp – what’s now known as “no fault” divorce – as long as you could establish that you were a Nevada resident. 

Maria: Reno saw an economic opportunity in providing such liberal divorce laws, and required only six weeks to establish residency. 

Noel: It was just short enough to attract the miserably married, and just long enough to create an economy. The courthouse in downtown Reno was surrounded by hotels and restaurants where divorce-seekers came to put in their six weeks. 

Maria: Gus Bundy’s lodge was about half an hour south of Reno in the Washoe Valley. Its relative seclusion appealed to Hollywood types and other public figures seeking divorce. 

Noel: It was discreet and bucolic – more of a dude ranch tucked away against the mountains. Here’s Leisl Carr-Childers again: 

Leisl Carr Childers: And Gus Bundy would, in fact, take Hollywood actors and playwrights into his guest ranch, host them for the duration of the divorce – six weeks at least – and, during that time, entertain them.

Noel: And in the early 1950s, one of his guests there to get a divorce was was Life Magazine photographer Bud Gourley.

Maria: Bundy sometimes drove a transport truck for mustangers in the Great Basin north of Reno. He’d deliver the horses to slaughterhouses after they’d been caught. Gourley asked him if he could photograph one of the roundups in the Smoke Creek Desert. 

Noel: Though Bundy was trained as a painter, he never went anywhere without his own camera. And he and Gourley both photographed the roundup, which included roping horses from the back of a flatbed truck. 

Leisl Carr Childers: The roper on the back of the truck would throw a rope that was attached to a chain that was attached to a tire. And, if the roper was able to lasso the horse, then the weight of the tire pulled the lasso tight as it dropped from the truck, and the horse would drag that tire and become exhausted. But it's brutal, it's brutal on horses.  

Maria: The mustangers weren’t comfortable with the idea of their work appearing in Life Magazine and confiscated Gourley’s film. 

Noel: But they knew Bundy because he worked with them, and he walked away with over 200 stunning images of the mechanized round up that day. 

Maria: And those photos quickly took on a life of their own. 

Leisl Carr Childers: At the same time Gus Bundy is basically taking these photographs that depict this process and showing Arthur Miller around. A woman from Story County, Nevada, right next to Reno, named Velma Johnston, who is a rancher herself, although we can call it more of a hobby ranch, she observes a truck filled with wild horses dripping blood on the highway. 


Maria: Johnston was horrified. 

Noel: Not long after that, Gus Bundy published a photo essay in a local magazine with a handful of the photos he took at the roundup. 

Maria: One of Bundy’s favorite subjects to photograph was working class people doing their jobs. And his photo essay on the mustangers was no different: just straightforward documentary photography of their work. 

Noel: A horse in a cracked playa tethered by two huge tires in the foreground; a mustang in full gallop just in front a long black truck with a cowboy swinging his lasso from the flatbed; a bi-plane and two trucks, noses pointed together in a holy trinity of the mechanized cowboy; a hobbled horse being dragged on its side up a ramp into the back of livestock truck. 

Maria: But when they appeared in Reno Pace Magazine in 1952, Velma Johnston saw something entirely different and ran with it. 

Maria: Andrea Glessner.

Andrea Glessner: She was just this petite woman, very, very strong and feisty. She survived polio as a child. She was, you know, the daughter of a rancher and a man who ran wild horses, so something she grew up around. But she was also raised by somebody who trained these wild horses and didn't send them to, say, a slaughterhouse. So her perception is a little bit different, but it was her efforts that really pushed this wave to protect these animals because they symbolize what she would have said, the wild, noble and free spirit of the nation. So she connected the animal on a different level to what the United States represents, right? So she was pushing it as a living symbol of what we were.

Noel: Johnston, who came to be known as Wild Horse Annie, showed Bundy’s photos to anyone who’d print them. 

Leisl Carr Childers: She secures copies of the Gus Bundy photographs, and then uses them to narrate a story of tragedy and brutality with reference to wild horses. And this is the seed of that changing sentiment that we need to protect them and stop rounding them up. So to sum up the pivot point for capturing the public's imagination and attention about the plight of wild horses is not roundups themselves. It's roundups using mechanized equipment, because of the brutality. 

Noel: Johnston knew that children would be more sympathetic to the mistreatment of horses, and encouraged them to write to their representatives. 

Maria: And Hollywood soon joined the cause. 

Noel: In 1957, the playwright Arthur Miller came to Gus Bundy’s ranch for a divorce.  After seeing Bundy’s photos and visiting the Great Basin, he wrote a short story called The Misfits that got made into a dark, anti-western starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in their last roles before they died. 

Maria: By 1959, public outrage about the mechanized roundups and slaughter of wild horses for dog food reached a fever pitch and congress passed The Wild Horse Annie Act. 

Grace Kuhn: And that act prohibited the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on all public lands, but it didn't include at that time her recommendation for federal protection and management of the wild horse population.

Noel: Even after the Wild Horse Annie Act passed, mustangs were still being rounded up for slaughter. So Johnston kept pushing, and kept imploring children to write to their congressional leaders. 

Maria: Children were easy to motivate for her cause. Horses had become iconic with the popularity of Marguerite Henry’s Misty novels. And the Bryer Plastics Company had begun manufacturing toy horses for young children to play with. 

Noel: Ultimately, says Leisl Carr-Childers, it was the letters from young children that led to the passage of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. 

Leisl Carr Childers: Politicians go along with this law because there's so much public pressure, so much public pressure. They don't want to be seen as the congressmen killing wild horses or allowing the horses to die. 

Noel: At first, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 seemed to be a major success. The population of roughly 20,000 horses throughout the West were safe, a symbol of American freedom had been preserved, and young children who loved horses could rest easy at night. 

Maria: The 1971 law had only called for the maintenance of the existing population of wild horses. 

Noel: But remember: Horses are ideally suited to the arid landscapes of the west where they evolved. And within three years, the wild horse population more than doubled to around 45,000.  

Maria: Farmers and ranchers, who paid to graze their livestock on BLM land, once again began to complain that wild horses were a nuisance – eating all the forage, tearing up the land.  

Noel: The Federal Bureau of Land Management had been created under the Department of the Interior in 1946. It was a merger of the grazing service, which oversaw livestock and the general land office, which oversaw the use of public domain lands. But despite its broad authority over public lands and grazing, all the BLM could legally do about wild horses after 1971 was to round them up to reduce the numbers on the range. 

Maria: But there were already too many to roundup on horseback. And they couldn’t kill them. 

Noel: So they created Federal holding facilities, which look a lot like feedlots for cattle,  just for the purpose of keeping wild horses alive, but off the range.

[helicopter sounds]

Noel: And in 1976, the Wild Horses Act was amended to allow, once again, mechanized roundups. 

Jake Rosenberg: It might be an obvious question, but why is rounding up with a helicopter not the best thing for the horses? 
Jaqueline Coplin: Because first of all, there's brand new babies. There's a day old baby in the Basin now without her mom because of the Round Up. They are chasing them through very tough terrain with badger holes and foxholes and washes that are the equivalent of cliffs, and horses running scared are not the best at watching their footing. And they're going to get hurt.  

Maria: This is producer Jake Rosenberg again, speaking to horse advocates Jacqueline Coplin and Jeanie Burdick at the helicopter roundup at the Sand Wash Basin in September 2021. 

Noel: The injuries and trauma of the stampedes: foals being separated from their mothers, family bands being broken up – these are just a few of the problems that advocates say wild horses face during the helicopter roundups. 

Jake Rosenberg:  And so where do they bring the horses once they're rounded up by helicopter? 

Jacqueline Coplin: Well, they'll take them in these holding pens and then they'll be trucked out to Canyon City, where we have more holding pens, which BLM has currently 50,000 horses in holding and they're rounding up another 20,000 this year. 

Noel: Just in case you didn’t catch that, Jacqueline Coplin said that wild horse populations in Federal holding facilities now total more than 50,000, and the BLM is planning to round up another 20,000 this year. 

Maria: The BLM does try to manage herd size with contraception. And they have an adoption program they claim has found homes for almost 300,000 wild horses since 1971. 

Noel: But as of 2022, the BLM estimates the wild horse population on the range throughout the West is now at more than 80,000 – four times what the 1971 law provides. And there are currently more than 60,000 wild horses in federal storage facilities. 

Maria: Even more frustrating for many advocates of the American Wild Horse Campaign is that the number of allowable horses isn’t based on any scientific number of what’s actually sustainable.  

Noel: Grace Kuhn of the Wild Horse Campaign says that a 2013 study commissioned by the BLM and conducted by the National Academy of Sciences found no scientific basis for what are called acceptable management levels.

Grace Kuhn: So right now, in wild horse habitat, there are, and this is a conservative estimate, about 50 cows for every one wild horse in designated wild horse and burro habitat. So that was the second thing that the National Academy of Sciences says, that the AML or the Appropriate Management Level was not based on science. And I'm bringing this up just because, it's it's the it's the way I explain, like, how we got here. It's just that none of this makes sense. 

Maria: In the Sand Wash Basin here in Colorado, for example… 

Grace Kuhn: The BLM says at most, only 235 wild horses are permitted to graze in their designated habitat, which is 190,000 acres. But public records show that there are currently four different ranching companies that hold grazing permits in the horses' habitat, and those four ranchers are allowed to graze more than 12,000 cows a year.  

Noel: And, says Kuhn, the study noted that apex predators like mountain lions, which might otherwise help limit the number of horses, were being removed by the BLM to protect cattle.  And all of this was making the problem worse through a biological phenomenon called “compensatory reproduction”:

Grace Kuhn: You have animals and you take a portion of them away, all of a sudden they have less competition for the resources, the lands, the area, and biology says, “Oh, I can have more babies and I should, I should replenish, and now we have enough forage, we have enough space, we have enough, etc. to produce more.” 

Maria: As we know now, The 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act was a very well-intentioned law with many, many unintended consequences. 

Noel: Here’s Dave Philipps again:

Dave Philipps: You know, we wanted to protect this idea, like liberty. You know, wild horses. And that's easy to do. But trying to figure out, okay, what was their place in the West, and what is it now is a lot harder. So what they did, instead of figuring that out, was they just treated wild horses like every other piece of livestock in the West.

Noel: And the cost to the American taxpayer since 1971? According to the BLM’s own figures, it’s about $80 Million per year for roundups and storage. 

Dave Philipps: So, we've created this program where we're trying to preserve something, but by trapping tens of thousands of horses in a really expensive bureaucracy, what we've done instead is we're slowly eroding the myth of the wild horse, right? Because if you let that go on too long, the horse is no longer a symbol of everything that's wild and free. The horse is a symbol of our fraught relationship with our own homeland and, you know, the inefficient and wasteful bureaucracy that has come in and tried to solve our problems. And I don't think those two things can both exist very long together. 


Noel: From the many people we spoke to for this episode, there doesn’t seem to be a ready solution to the conundrum of the wild horse in the West, and the ways that our myths about them have complicated the reality. 

Dave Philipps: The federal government's sort of in this junkie's dilemma, you know, where it's so addicted to gathering horses that it can't afford essentially the rehab that would teach it how to do anything else. They spent so much money gathering and storing horses that they can't study and establish ways that would be more sustainable.  

Maria: One of the pragmatic possibilities would be a kind of horse preserve that would separate them from livestock. 

Noel: Leisl Carr-Childers points to “The Little Book Cliffs Range” in Colorado as a model. 

Leisl Carr Childers: There are three basic reasons why this particular area has been so successful, the management of this area has been so successful. The first is that it's wild horses only. Wild horses do not intersect with cattle on this range. It's only horses. The second thing is, it's fenced. The entire thing is fenced. So horses are contained in this area and it can be fenced because it's actually not so big. A lot of the herd management areas in Nevada are three times as big, four times as big. And the third reason is that in Grand Junction there is a robust friends group that partners with the BLM through a memorandum of understandingoOn roundups, infrastructure improvements, like water tanks, and then adoptions. So that level of assistance is very important to maintaining the appropriate animal management level or AML. But that doesn't exist anywhere else. 

Noel: Charging ranchers and farmers for the real costs of grazing, including management of Wild Horses, would provide more funding and, in all likelihood, reduce the number of cows and sheep on BLM land. Grace Kuhn:

Grace Kuhn: A lot of people don't know that if you are a rancher grazing on public land, you are taking advantage of a social welfare program called the Public Lands Ranching Program, and it's a highly tax-subsidized beef-growing program. So if you are a public lands rancher grazing on public lands, you have access to a lot of different services. You get a kickback if you are in a drought year and your cows don't make weight. You get a kickback if it's a fire, a fire happens in your area, you still get paid for those cows. 

Maria: But perhaps more than anything, we may need to let go of the myths and stories we’ve told ourselves about horses and the West.

Noel: Stories like The Lone Ranger, and the hundreds of others like it that represent the freedom and possibilities of the mythic West that never really existed. 

Dave Philipps:  We all know this story, right? The guy with the white hat comes in to solve the problems and, like, help tame the West and make it a good place. And, oh, by the way, he rides this wild horse with a heart that's true. It started back there, but it really wasn't, it wasn't. The people who wrote those books, they didn't live in Laramie or Durango. You know, they lived in New York City.

Noel: Instead, says Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin, we should do away with this kind of romanticism and listen to the horse and to Indigenous knowledge about how to sustainably manage the land not just for their survival, but for our own. 

Yvette Running Horse Collin:  We like to look at relationality, interdependence, all of those things, because in fact, that's how we exist as human beings, right? From a Lakota science perspective: I'm an ecosystem. You're an ecosystem, right? Because there are so many millions of life forms that give us the opportunity to have this existence. Because our scientific systems are completely based on sustainability. We've been here a very, very long time.
And we've been through the Ice Age, thank you very much. Massive floods, massive droughts, right? So we've learned a thing or two, 
This is a time now for narrative correction.
[Theme Post]

Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

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Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; to Tyler Hill, our story editor; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.

Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Devin James Fry composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.

Many thanks to our editorial team:
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and Marissa Volpe

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and Cara DeGette

Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.