The saga of the wild horse
Deanne Stillman set out to recreate the history of the wild horse in an effort to better understand its current perilous situation and the reasons behind it.
Wed, Sep 16 2009 at 7:58 AM
WILD HORSES: About 50 percent of the country's remaining mustangs still roam in Nevada. (Photo: Candice Towell, The Gazette-Journal/AP)
Most people know the tale of Paul Revere’s ride, but does anyone know the name of the horse that he rode? She was a mare named Brown Beauty, and after Paul’s ride was over, “she was seized by a British soldier, who mounted her and galloped away. She collapsed in mid-run and died later that night — spent, after launching the war for independence.”
As it turns out, the tragic story of Brown Beauty is not an uncommon one. The wild mustang, with its powerful strength and quiet beauty, has carried humans across the U.S. and throughout history, serving as four-legged soldiers in wars like the American Revolution and the Civil War and later serving as reminders of the American Old West with its cowboy heroes and wide-open spaces.
Yet despite having carried American settlers on their backs for centuries, these unsung heroes are under attack and facing extinction by the very people they helped conquer North America, an unfortunate and mostly unknown truth brought glaringly to light by literary author Deanne Stillman in Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), now out in paperback.
In 1998, after hearing about a horse massacre that left 34 mustangs riddled with bullets in the mountains just outside Reno, Nev., Stillman set out to painstakingly recreate the history of the wild horse in an effort to better understand its current perilous situation and the reasons behind it.
Through mounds of research, the author uncovers a heartbreaking story of the wild creature, from its evolutionary origins in North America, to its iconic status in Wild West movies, and up to present day, where it’s making its last stand as “vermin” accused of degrading rangeland meant for cattle and sheep.
As the author explains, the battle over land has resulted in the widespread purging of mustangs from the wild frontier, which is condoned by the government under the guise of population control. The land wars rage most intensely in Nevada, where more than 50 percent of the country’s remaining mustangs still roam, making Nevada “ground zero” in a “personal-rights fest” over the West rangelands, writes Stillman.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed by former President Nixon in 1971 in response to the wild horses’ almost near extinction, temporarily slowed the culling of the nation’s herd. But that legislation has since been undone by former President George W. Bush, whose home state of Texas just happens to contain two of the three remaining horse slaughterhouses in the country.
In response, activists across the country have taken up the cause of the mustang in an attempt to prevent the American icon’s total extinction. Many of these horses carry out their days in horse sanctuaries or ever-diminishing rangelands, a small consolation for an animal that thrives on freedom.
Stillman covers these stories and others in eye-catching prose that makes the reader want to learn more, and more importantly, motivates them to actually do something about the mustang’s plight. After all, as the book’s overall message makes clear, mustangs are as much a part of our culture as the bald eagle and American baseball, so if we lose them, we also lose a part of ourselves.
This is a realization that some hunters who took part in the horse killings have already come to, who now express regret for the loss of the wild horse.
This makes Stillman wonder, “What will today’s government contractors think in two or three decades … when they may have worked themselves out of a job because there are too few horses to take, or the only mustang left in Nevada is on a sign in front of a brothel, or their grandchildren ask them where all the wild ones have gone?”
For both the mustangs’ sake and ours, hopefully it won’t take the loss of yet another wild species to realize our mistake until it’s too late.