In the annals of the modern West, 1998 was an especially violent year. In May, Kip Kinkel whacked his parents, then shot up his Oregon high school, killing two students and wounding 25, kicking off a wave of school shootings that has yet to subside. In October, Matthew Shepard was found stabbed to death and tied to a fence in Wyoming, like an unwanted coyote. By the end of the year, the situation had reached a bizarre crescendo: in the mountains outside Reno, just beyond the old mining town of Virginia City, 34 wild horses were gunned down at Christmas time. I learned of the incident in a series of newspaper articles published as the crime scene unfolded. Each day, they became more horrifying. At first, there were six dead horses found in the Virginia Range. A couple of days later, there were 12. By the end of the year, as people gathered at Times Square to ring in the New Year, 34 horse carcasses had been found in the mountains, and the crime scene stretched for five miles.
That incident propelled me into writing Mustang, and during the 10 years that I worked on it, I learned that a bizarre war is underfoot across the American West. It is a variation of the old range wars of the 19th century, and it is waged by stockmen and sagebrush rebels with copies of the Second Amendment tucked into their back pockets, and it is backed by Republicans and Democrats and a federal agency that circumvents the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, along with small-town officials who march to the great American battle cry "Don't tread on me." Their target is the wild horse, and the war has been going on for decades.
In 1973, in Howe, Idaho, ranchers on snow mobiles and saddle horses chased a herd of 32 mustangs for 45 days, driving them into a narrow canyon and trapping them on a shelf. Some jumped off the cliff to their deaths. Others panicked and jammed their hoofs into rocks. To make them more manageable, ranchers sewed hog rings into their noses. The fright escalated, and some horses broke their legs as they scrambled on the rocks. "We didn't know what to do," one rancher said. "We disposed of them by cutting their legs off. I mean it was gruesome. We sawed that one sorrel mare's legs with a chain saw." When it was over, the six surviving horses were shipped to a packing house in Nebraska. A few days later, the dead and mutilated horses were found at the foot of the cliff.
In 1989, over a period of months in Nevada, at least 500 mustangs were mowed down by rifle fire. When coyotes came to feed, they, too, were killed. In 1992, 54 burros — protected under the same law as wild horses — were gunned down on Good Friday outside Oatman, Arizona. In 1999, four wild horses and two burros in the Spring Mountains in Nevada were shot and killed. (In the same year and the same state, this time in Fallon, a grazing and military town, eight cows were raked with automatic weapons, one while giving birth, by two Navy airmen.) In 2000, 37 wild horses were shot to death in the Rock Springs area of Wyoming — one of the largest federally sanctioned livestock grazing regions in the country. In 2001, seven wild horses were shot to death in eastern Nevada, and six more later that year. In 2002, nine wild horses were gunned down by two ranchers in Utah. In 2003, possibly as many as 500 Nevada mustangs — known for the record as the Fish Creek horses — died after being rounded up in an ongoing territorial dispute between a pair of Shoshone Indians and the feds. They had been adopted by a rancher in California, but left without food in government corrals as they awaited relocation, and then dumped in the wilderness after they starved to death. In 2006, a mare and stallion were shot to death in Gerlach, Nevada. The mare had aborted her foal during the incident and it too perished. In fall of that year, seven horses were shot and killed near Pinedale, Arizona. The Bureau of Land Management offered rewards, but no one has come forward, and more recently the agency has done so again, in the case of 13 burros gunned down outside Phoenix this year as the Easter season unfolded.
In the beginning of my research, I didn't know what to make of these horse and burro killings, other than the fact that they were a scourge on a nation that reveres freedom and names its greatest road-trip car, the Mustang, after the one animal that most represents the open road. I had known for a long time that people go out into the wilderness to whack wild animals, and also that the government has its own brutal policies to take out animals it views as unnecessary — often at the behest of the cattle industry. As I began to investigate how we had gotten to this place, I saw a disturbing pattern emerge: horse murders on a large scale began in the 19th century during the war to wipe out Native Americans.
As settlers advanced into the frontier and wars broke out on the Great Plains, the cavalry was stymied by the formidable horsemanship of the tribes. It became clear to the U.S. government that the only way to vanquish them was to strip them of their ponies. And so began the brutal campaign that prefigured the government's war against the wild horse today. In 1858, Colonel George Wright ordered the massacre of 800 horses that belonged to the Palouse tribe, east of what later became Spokane, Washington. The site is now known as Horse Slaughter Camp, and it has a stone marker. On Thanksgiving night in 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked Black Kettle and his tribe along the Washita River in Oklahoma, killing the chief and many of his people, and then their 800 ponies. The Cheyenne woman Moving Behind, who was 14 at the time, would later remember that the wounded ponies passed near her hiding place, moaning loudly, just like human beings. There would be other horse massacres, including the mowing down of 1,500 Comanche steeds in 1874, carried out by an army colonel known to the Indians as Bad Hand. Like others who have trafficked in violence against horses, he later went mad.
By the end of the 19th century, Native Americans had been dismounted and conquered. At the time, there remained vast rivers of horse running across the West, descendants of the four-leggeds that had returned to this continent with the conquistadors after disappearing during the Ice Age. With the Indians and buffalo and wolves purged from the range, and the car and train upon us, the horse was no longer needed and it was time for it to go. Thus began a sad era in American history, known in some circles as the great removal. Hundreds of thousands of mustangs were taken from the range in brutal round-ups. Many were sent back to Europe in tin cans and others were shipped to foreign wars, where they perished in battle or were consumed by famished soldiers. Alas, the campaign to purge wild horses from the land where it came from continues to this day.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two million wild horses in the West. Today there are at most 20,000, their ranks depleted by repeated and voracious round-ups carried out by the agency tasked with their management, the multi-use Bureau of Land Management, which is dominated by the cattle industry and various other industries based on extracting natural resources from public lands. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that protects mustangs is often not followed and was rolled back in recent years; a new bill, H.R. 1018, now on the House floor, seeks to expand it. But meanwhile, the wild horse remains imperiled, with the BLM now actually offering payments of $500 to anyone who wants one of the thousands of mustangs now in government housing. In this time of economic turmoil, this is a bribe that can quickly double and triple itself, as desperate and unscrupulous people take the cash and then turn around and sell the horse to "killer buyers" — who sell it again to the slaughterhouse.
Around the world, we continue to fight wars. But in the West, we are at war with ourselves. In the Virginia Range on Christmas a little over ten years ago, one of the mustangs died as she faced the setting sun — land of the Thunder Beings, according to the Lakota Indians, the place where horses come from. I like to think that as the light faded, she caught a glimpse of her ancestors and then closed her eyes and joined them.
Alas, what we have done to Native Americans we are now doing to ourselves, stripping ourselves of our great partner — the animal this country rode in on. As the horse goes, so goes a piece of America, and one of these days, bereft of heritage, we may all find ourselves moving on down the road.
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Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books include the award-winning Mustang, and Twentynine Palms, a cult classic that Hunter S. Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer." Her latest book is Desert Reckoning.
Books mentioned in this post
Deanne Stillman is the author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West