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A Cowboy Nation Destroys the Horse It Rode in On

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.

÷ ÷ ÷

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

  1. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse... Used Mass Market $5.95
  2. Twentynine Palms : a True Story of... Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a... Sale Hardcover $7.98
  4. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse... Used Hardcover $11.95

Deanne Stillman is the author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

7 Responses to "A Cowboy Nation Destroys the Horse It Rode in On"

    Rob Pliskin May 28th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    kick a-- and take names Deanne. I should be as dedicated an advocate for these horses and burros, and the REAL American Way, as you are. We have given ourselves the time and money to spend both at our leisure. What better way to do it than an activist approach to protecting these horses and burros. People -- get on the horn to your Congressional Representative to co-sponsor H.R. 1018, the latest next bill needed to protect these four leggeds who put their hearts in our hands for generations, and will in the future, if we help them to preserve it.

    Gayla Nelson May 29th, 2009 at 11:13 am


    We met in Las Vagas (you have no reason to remember me) but I have read your book and am taking it to a promotion this weekend here in Sisters, OR along with my mustang who will be on display at the Sisters Ranch Life and Rodeo event in a Native American display. It is a first annual event of it's kind here to celebrate Oregon's 150th birthday with art and music and depictions of the history of the West. Sisters is a small Western town.

    Your book is amazing. Whereas it would be wonderful to have these horses run free, we have adopted several over the years, burros too, and work with ISPMB. I agree with the above....The public HAS to be educated in the plight of these horses and burros. Annie did it all these years ago. I/we do what I/we can to educate locally and riding my beloved first Mustang in the mountains we are so fortunate to live in always creates conversations on how wonderful they are.

    "Mustang" is a difficult book to read with the so often "ugly" facts but thank you so much for putting the history together is such a thorough and honest way.

    D. Masters June 1st, 2009 at 6:13 am

    Unbelieveable. Simply, unbelieveable. These Ag Hags with their crazy self-righteousness are just as wrong and destructive as the extremists to the left. The 2d Amend. in their back pocket is so relevant. Thank you for your work. I lived in the high desert and miss it so much...just spectacular. Still have family in the Coachella Valley and remember the spanse and beauty...what's left is so important to preserve.

    Just want people to know that the protrolls and Ag Hags are still in control as Cloud's herd is still scheduled for another assualt this August. Let's see, used to be roughly 6 million, then at turn of 20th century there were approximately 1-2 million and now we are down to less than 60,000.

    Hmmm...I guess the management to "extinction" plan is almost complete. Thank you meat and mining industries with a ton of help and incompetence from the States and Feds. Thank you for your noble work! NOT!

    NTF June 4th, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Read this article and you'll realize that 20,000+ feral horses create a HUGE problem.

    People easily forget that horses are not native to the Americas but were first introduced by the Spaniards in the 1500s and 1600s. There are not enough predators to keep their numbers in check, and the market for feral horses keeps declining because there are not enough people willing and able to take on and train a mustang - a problem that has been intensified by irresponsible backyard breeding all over the country and of course the economic crisis.

    Alana June 9th, 2009 at 7:59 am

    There is no left wing, there is no right wing, there is only the system, stop screaming people down because you think they dont use bibles as firewood if you KILL a person it should carry the same penalty gay or not, murder is murder, how many school shooters were on SSRI's during these Prozac massacres?
    Some jerk killing horses is A JERK, who is going to jail, you want to change the constitution and rip up part of what made this country what it is. STUDY YOUR HISTORY, the second the people are disarmed ITS OVER im a chick and i live on the south side of chicago, dont give me that feminist crap either, gloria steinm worked for the CIA she is laughing at all you bitter rotting old women for your inability to come to terms with the fact you got pwn3d! you dont care about those horses, you want to run out there and snip their twig and berries [far right=make babies] [far left=no babies] idiot lady gtfo

    radical militant librarian June 13th, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Ms. Stillman,
    I admire your courageous stand against the slaughter of wild horses, I have dedicated my life to stopping the slaughter of Native Americans. The parallel you draw between the two is apt yet tragically sad.
    P.S. Alana - see a psychiatrist, please!

    Suzanne January 25th, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Hey, NTF ~ You need to keep up with the march of science. These horses ARE native. The horse originated in North America, became almost extinct before being reintroduced into their homeland by the Spaniards in 1519. DNA tests PROVE these horses are E. caballas, the same species that was almost wiped out. Even newer evidence PROVES that the horse survived in North America thousands of years later than had ever been thought.

    Geneticists call them a reintroduced native species. The US Forest Service says the same thing on its web site. The BLM has their own reasons for promoting the misinformation that the horses are "feral."

    Plus, 20,000 horses are a dot in the acres that were designated for them in the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. These are millions of acres sitting empty and millions more overrun with definitely non native cattle which outnumber the horses at least 400-1. CATTLE are the problem, not HORSES.

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