There was a time when rhinos, elephants, tapirs, camels, lions and horses roamed wild across the American continent. Then they all mysteriously died off, victims of a mass extinction that killed off most of America’s large animals. After a 10,000 year absence, horses returned to the continent, brought over by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Today there are over 37,000 wild horses roaming free on public lands in the west, descendants of domesticated horses. These horses are different from the horses that roamed the continent 15,000 years ago, and the west is a different place now—more arid and with very few large predators.
Wild horses played an important role in the settlement of the west, allowing the Plains Indians to adapt from hunter-gathers to mounted buffalo hunters and warriors. They also play a significant role in the cultural history and folklore of the American West. However, with the invention of the internal combustion engine, horses were no longer needed as work animals and they became undesirable. Those that weren’t slaughtered were set free. With increased competition for free range for livestock and the threat of disease spreading to domestic animals, the wild herds were seen as a problem. They were often rounded up and sold for pet food. Their numbers dwindled dramatically until 1971 when they acquired protection as a national heritage species.
Australia also has thousands of wild horses, descendents of horses brought over with the convicts and early settlers. These horses have evolved into a breed capable of enduring the extreme conditions of the large outback. Many Australians love the image of the wild horse that “epitomized the spirit of freedom, roaming through rugged bush land and the harsh outback areas of Australia where they are free to run wild and survive,” according to Save the Brumbies. Australian wild horses are known as brumbies.
In America there is also another term used to describe wild horses—feral horses. The Wildlife Society has recently released a report on the management of wild—or feral—horses on public land. They consider these horses to be an invasive species, not a natural part of the western ecosystem. Invasive species are one of the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of an ecosystem. Wild horses that roam freely damage large swathes of habitat. These large herbivores graze on desirable plants, making it easier for non-desirable plants to thrive. They trample vegetation and nesting sites, pack the soil, and alter the distribution of nutrients in an ecosystem. Of particular concern is their impact on the sensitive sand dunes of the barrier islands off the Atlantic coast, a region where overgrazing increases erosion, leaving the islands more vulnerable to storm damage. However while they may do a lot of damage to the island ecology, the horses also play an important role in the islands’ appeal.
Due to the popularity of horses, control is an issue. Of the 69,000 wild horses in the United States, 32,000 are kept in government-run corrals and pastures. Due to dwindling demand, very few wild horses are adopted or sold. Removing them from undesirable ranges is a public image nightmare. They are herded into holding pens, often through the use of helicopters that force them to run for long distances. In Australia, passive trapping and removal of excessive horse populations receives priority, however they frequently face slaughter as a result of helicopter massacres. With very little funding, Australia plans on slaughtering 10,000 wild horses—about 10% of the population.
Great Britain, however, has a different attitude towards its wild horses. The wild Konik horse—considered the closest living relative of the wild forest horses that lived in Britain during the Neolithic times—are being reintroduced. The horses are being used to help manage wetlands where their wild ancestors grazed thousands of years ago. They help control shrub that was previously controlled through the use of heavy machinery. Grazing also keeps the grass short and increases biodiversity, breathing life into rare habitats where rare geese, spoonbills, bitterns and corncrakes live.
The Konik horse has a unique history. Koniks are believed to be descendants of the wild Tarpan horse that once roamed freely throughout Europe. Herds of these wild Konik horses were stolen for genetic experiments between the world wars. Later, during WWII, starving people began to slaughter and eat the animals. Fortunately, several horses were saved and protected. After the war they were protected in Polish national parks during the Soviet occupation. After the Iron Curtain fell, horses were sent to national parks all across Europe.
The story of the Konik horse is the story of a survivor. Great Britain has found a way to positively use the wild horse to manage protected areas. Horse lovers across the globe would like to see more countries protect their wild horse populations in such a positive way.