Mustangs for Your Ears

Deanne Stillman’s Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West came out in 2008 and remains definitive. It takes you from the arrival of the first Conquistadors’ horses – like Pedro de Alvarado’s “bright bay mare” “good both for tilting and to race” and the grey “Bobtail” who was “fast, and had a splendid mouth” – to the politicking of the Bush years when America’s wild horses once more came under threat. It will give you some pointers about their fate in the next four years, too. Her next book, Blood Brothers, flows out of it and tells the story of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Simon and Schuster will publish in the autumn.

Those of you who like books but have to fit them into a life that includes school runs, commutes, housework, an exercise schedule and/or poo-picking might be interested in the audio version of Mustang. It features the voices of Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, Wendie Malick, Richard Portnow and John Densmore.

Thematic Variation in the Przewalski’s Horse


A domestic horse with a decidedly Przewalski look. Near Hustai, Mongolia. Photo by author.

Two pieces that turned up in internet searches within minutes of one another. Firstly, a rather gruelling article about the complications involved in trying to breed Przewalskis and return them to a degree of wildness in China. And secondly, as light relief, an entire site full of chocolate moulds, which includes one for a… Przewalski. The photo is of a Przewalski-esque domestic horse belonging to a herder just outside Hustai National Park, Mongolia.

The Mustang Problem: $67 Million a Year to Keep Wild Horses in Pens?

Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons

Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons

“They are a symbol of the American West, but do we need 35,000 symbols of the American West?”

Nathaniel Messer, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri, quoted in the NYT in September 2010.


Horses are well habituated to much of the North American landscape. After all, it was in the forests and open plains of what’s now the USA that the horse as we know it evolved. Lately, with few predators to trouble them, they’ve been thriving at such a rate that they create problems for landowners and ranchers, and now the government.

The American wild horse or mustang is the descendent of equines that have gone feral in the US since the first arrival of the Conquistadors. They have no real “type” as a breed and, thanks to the efforts of 20th-century campaigners, are permitted to roam free on public lands as “an integral part of the natural system”. The government authority in charge of the herd of 33,000 or so animals is the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. If you want to know more about the back story of the mustang and the laws that were hammered out to protect it, I recommend Deanne Stillman’s excellent Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.

The BLM are authorised to remove horses from the wild in order to prevent overpopulation and resulting environmental damage. Regular round ups funnel horses to short-term holding facilities where they are sorted into adoptable and unadoptable (the unadoptable are humanely destroyed). Some horses go from the short-term facilities to new homes as domestic animals. Most go to long-term facilities, where they remain, often indefinitely. The BLM pays for their care, and as many of these horses will live in the longterm facilities until their natural death, it makes for some pretty expensive “wild” horses.

A report published today by Robert A Garrott (Montana State University) and Madan K Oli (University of Florida) in Science makes it clear that what the BLM are doing is utterly unsustainable. The budget for the National Wild Horses and Burros Program clocked in at $19.8 million in 2000, and, despite the Credit Crunch and government cutbacks, was a mighty $74.9 million in 2012, with 60% being spent on the “wild” mustangs in those short- and long-term holding facilities.

Garrott and Oli drew on the records of 165,459 horses that have been dewilded by the BLM for their sums. It will take some 30 years for all the captive horses to live out their lifespans and die naturally, and it will cost the BLM approximately $449 million (with allowance for inflation) to maintain them. Total expenses for these and new horses taken from the wild would hit $1.1 billion between 2013 and 2030, and after that it would cost $67 million a year to keep all those publicly owned horses.

The BLM is already slowing down its round ups due to lack of funding, which will of course lead to a larger wild population even though water and forage are running low in some areas due to drought. Garrott and Oli endorse the use of “effecive vaccines that prevent pregnancy in both captive and free-ranging mares for 1 to 3 years”. This, they calculate, would halve the population growth and save $16,110 in maintenance for every horse, or $1 million per 62 horses. Fewer horses would require removal from public land, and fewer horses would be in short-term or long-term holding facilities. Rosiest of scenarios: the number of horses removed might even match the number of willing adoptive homes.

Of course, any contraceptive programme would mean more distressing round-ups for the wild herds, but, as Garrott and Oli rather bleakly point out, this would be preferable to the current Australian situation, where once more there are proposals to reduce outsize herds by gunning them down from helicopters.



Hermaphroditism in Horses

When is a mare not a mare?

South African racing authorities have just reclassified a filly called Tuesday’s Child as a colt after post-race checks showed a raised testosterone count. Nothing to do with dodgy injections or rum dealings: Tuesday’s Child is a male pseudo-hermaphrodite, and he had his breeder, owner and trainer fooled. I’ve actually “met” a horse like this – “Ladyboy*” is pictured above in a group of Konik horses kept by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust for conservation grazing. Like Tuesday’s Child’s owners, the NWT had no idea that the young horse was a hermaphrodite. “She” peed backwards from under her tail and had a small udder, like any filly. However, when she reached the age of two, she began fighting for dominance with the harem’s stallion, and trying to steal mares. She was eventually removed from the group and a veterinary examination revealed that the udder was in fact a scrotum, and that there was a rudimentary penis tucked under his tail. The newly christened Ladyboy was all male, although he was never going to father foals. He was gelded and given his own herd of youngsters to supervise, those solving his own frustrations and that of the main band’s stallion.

26/10/2014 Here’s a news item on a new study on pseudohermaphrodites.

* yes, awful name.

PS. At the time I was researching If Wishes Were Horses, and looking for early instructions for sidesaddle riding. Browsing an eighteenth-century French manual called Le Nouveau Parfait Maréchal, I found a short chapter on hermaphroditic horses who “urinent fur leur queue” (“urinate through their tail”).


“Fly Grazing” – the New Name for Crappy Horseownership Practices

The BBC reports on a herd of forty cobs dumped on a conservation area in the Vale of Glamorgan and left to decimate the grazing and starve to death. The police cannot get involved as this is a “civil matter” and the villagers have explored every legal avenue, so the horses will probably be destroyed. Sad and pointless, though my flippant suggestion would be that the Woodland Trust tidy them up and sell ’em in the US as gypsy vanners for five-figure sums.

EDIT: At 3pm today I received a round robin email from Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norfolk saying that they were in negotiations to rescue the ponies. The BBC has, however, reported that all the ponies were removed overnight – presumably by the owner.

Hunting Horses

Dance of the Cave Horse: a Przewalski at the West Berlin Zoo

Geoff Nicholson sent me a snippet from an interview with German director Werner Herzog on his new 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the film, Herzog explores the Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche, a fine-drawn menagerie that includes horses, rhinos, big cats and mammoths. Yesterday in the library I was poring over photographs of the equines, trying to work out if they were  Equus ferus przewalskii or Equus ferus ferus – Tarpans, the much-disputed “other” wild horse of prehistory,  usually associated with the Western Steppes and Central or Eastern European forests. I think they were the former. Rats. I need to see some paleolithic Tarpans.

Stone Age humans ate a lot of horses, as we know from Solutré, where a vast collection of horse bones were found; for a long time it was believed that the hunters had driven the horses off a cliff and collected the smashed remains, but now the theory is that migrating animals were instead herded into a natural “corral” and picked off. Herzog has obviously been reading up:

“I would hunt a horse,” said Herzog, in a recent interview with The Plain Dealer. “A deer zigzags, but a horse runs straight, so with two or three men you could chase him into a ravine or into a deep hole that you’d cover up so he’d fall in.”

Does he know that’s exactly what happened to the last free-running  Tarpan? Specimen hunters accidentally chased the poor mare off a cliff and into a ravine in the late nineteenth century. Previously Equus ferus ferus had been the game animal of game animals in the Polish forest of Bialowieski. In the twentieth century the Poles “reconstituted” a kind of Tarpan from domestic horses bred near or in the forest who had Tarpan traits and ancestors: a breed now called the Konik:

Up close and personal with Marek, one of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Konik stallions