I’m a horse lover — and I also consider myself to be a conservationist. But when you examine the current controversy surrounding wild horses in the western U.S., there isn’t as much overlap as you’d think. The more radical management proposals, like culling and slaughter, are upsetting animal rights activists, and while everyone is busy arguing about what’s best for these animals, their numbers continue to explode. Some reports suggest feral horse populations can double every four years, and there are already over three times as many horses in the western U.S. as the land can sustain.
Adoption and birth control are the most “friendly” solutions, but they also require the most resources, and this won’t help every animal. I’d like to volunteer at a rescue ranch, but I don’t have the means to adopt a horse, and I know this is the case with many other individuals. I don’t want to support strictly regulated slaughter or culling (and I know I’d get ripped apart for it online), but it’s an option we have to seriously consider. On the plus side, I like the idea of any carcasses going to predator sanctuaries, because there are thousands of animals that could benefit from that. There is now a stricter limit on how many horses can be snapped up for slaughter outside of the U.S., so we’re seeing the noose tighten even more. While holding facilities are not great options either, we have to consider the volume we are dealing with.
Our inability to find a solution has only exacerbated the problem, and we are past the point of keeping everyone happy.
I see a lot of armchair conservation with regard to this topic, and it’s frustrating. I love horses and I don’t want them slaughtered or crammed in holding pens, but I don’t want them to suffer due to a lack of management, either. And given how many people are on the planet, and how much climate change is affecting ecosystems all over the world, we can’t just let nature run its course, because we have altered the course of nature. As such, management is necessary, both to maintain balance in the wilderness, and with communities. If you're unfamiliar with this topic, I highly recommend watching "Horse Rich and Dirt Poor," an incredible film by Charles Post, Ben Masters and Phillip Baribeau, which I've embedded below. The 15-minute piece shows the beauty of these animals -- and also puts a spotlight on the challenges they face.
Earlier this summer I visited a friend in Nevada, and we spent the better part of an afternoon watching a group of wild horses, comprised of a stallion, two mares, two foals and one male yearling. Though one of the mares looked a bit old and skinny, they were all in good shape and very much a cohesive family unit. I photographed them on a long lens, and as I inched a little bit closer, I spoke softly. I know they’re “wild” animals, but they had definitely encountered humans before, and we seemed to have some sort of a strange understanding with one another out there in the middle of nowhere. And herein lies the problem: While it’s not hard for me to separate feral animals from those bred as working animals, I know this isn’t the case for everyone. The fact that you can adopt the wild ones throws everyone for a loop, and when emotions are involved, it becomes less about conservation and more about agendas.
Are they pets or problem animals? Can they be both?
I began to wonder what traits make mustangs “adoptable” these days. Would any of these horses be ridden by a loving owner someday, or would they run wild for the rest of their lives? And, if they left this little patch of idyllic desert land, would they starve to death, or would they end up on a BLM holding facility? If laws changed, would they be shot, or shipped off to Mexico, where they’d be slaughtered in conditions far less humane than those that once existed in the U.S.? The more I read, and the more experiences I have, the more I start to question everything…