Millions of wild horses, called mustangs, once roamed North America. Today, just a fraction of that number are left, mostly in the American Southwest. A new book titled Mustang by author Deanne Stillman celebrates the wild horse and warns that it is threatened by human activity.
The wild horse, or mustang, from the Spanish word for a stray animal, has become a symbol of freedom for many Americans. The name and imagery were used to market a classic American car, the Ford Mustang.
But supporters say treatment of wild horses has been less than exemplary. In the late 1800s, millions were rounded up and shipped to the Western United States.
Deanne Stillman tells the story in her book Mustang. She says as the train and car replaced horses as a means of transportation, some horses were sold for food.
"They were shipped back to Europe in tin cans," said Deanne Stillman. "There is a demand for horse meat. And also, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were a number of wars being fought all over the world, and horses were shipped to the front lines in all of those wars, including our own, in World War I."
Today, there are only 33,000 wild horses and burros on U.S. government lands. The rest have been removed in response to complaints from ranchers, who are angry that the animals graze on their land. U.S. officials have thinned the herds, putting some horses in pens and up for adoption, over the protests of mustang advocates like Stillman.
There have also been random shootings. In fact, a wanton act of violence got Stillman involved in the issue. In 1998, she was sitting in a bar in the California desert, while researching an earlier book.
"And I picked up a local paper and saw an item that said six wild horses had been gunned down outside Reno," she said. "And, of course, I was completely shocked and horrified."
A few days later, more than 10 horses were shot and killed, and a short time later, dozens more. The incidents made an impact on Stillman who had grown up around horses. Her mother worked at a race track, and, she says, from an early age, she has respected the animals. So she began an investigation that led to her book.
Horses have a long history in the Americas, and the author talked about it at a famous Los Angeles site that contains the remains of many horses. The La Brea Tar Pits is a series of asphalt deposits filled with the bones of Ice Age animals, trapped more than 10,000 years ago. Along with wild horses, there are saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths.
"During that period, those horses were living right here at the famous tar pits, along with the mastodon and sloth, and many other mammals of that period," said Stillman.
The horse died out in the Americas, but was reintroduced by the 16th century Spanish conquistadors. One, Hernando Cortes, marched through the jungles of Mexico with 16 horses on his way to conquer the Aztecs.
"I went back into the old archives and found out their names and their personalities and what happened to them along the way," explained Deanne Stillman. "And think about it. Those horses opened up the New World, really. Without them and without the horse, we have no America."
The horse was vital to American settlers moving westward. In the 19th century, the horse was celebrated by showmen like Buffalo Bill, and it later became an icon in cowboy stories and movies.
In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed a law protecting the wild horses and burros, and preventing their commercial sale and slaughter. But advocates like Deanne Stillman say loopholes in the law leave the animals under threat. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to restore the protections. The measure is called the ROAM Act, which stands for Restoring Our American Mustangs.
The Humane Society of the United States backs the measure. And Stillman is pleased that her book is drawing attention to the issue.
"What's been most gratifying to me is that it's become a driver in the ongoing grassroots campaign to preserve our wild horses and burros as well, and that was always my goal," she said. "That was why I wrote this book."
A companion bill to the ROAM Act has been introduced in the Senate. If it passes, Congress will send the president a final bill for his signature.