Horses and the Land

Imagine you stood in line for something really important, like a movie opening or a new technological gadget, for 11 long weeks — almost 3 months. You were in that line all that long, long time. You got to know everyone else in line, and the stores alongside the sidewalk, the cop on the beat, all of it. After all, 3 months is a long time to wait in a line! But near the end of this 11 weeks, you had to go take care of a sudden emergency. So you asked someone to hold your place and left the line. You were gone for 20 minutes and came back — just 20 minutes, after 11 weeks of being in that line. And now imagine that,  in the very same minute you got back, someone else arrived to stand in that same line. But unlike you, they had not been there the whole 11 weeks. So of course they didn’t realize you’d been there all that time. And what they do when they arrive is grab you and throw you out of the line, saying, “You can’t be here; you only just arrived and don’t belong!” And then on top of that, they stayed in the line themselves after throwing you out!

Well, that’s what has happened to wild horses in North America, according to scientists who study the fossil record. Their research indicates that horses evolved here for 55 million years, and seem to have vanished for only the last 10,000 of those years.* At a scale of one minute in the story being equivalent to 500 years, horses were in North America for 11 weeks (nearly 3 months) and then disappeared for just the last 20 minutes of those 11 weeks. As a result of that possible 20 minutes gone, at least some well-intentioned people of the dominant culture — a group that showed up in North America during the last one minute (500 years) during which they say they themselves brought horses to this continent — have said to horses, “Hey! You only got here when we did! So you don’t belong in wild habitats of North America. Get out!”

Horses evolved in North America to begin with. This is their home. Furthermore, horses co-evolved with the grasslands of this continent. The anatomical features such as hooves, long legs, and high-crowned teeth that developed in horses over time are ones that specifically adapted them to life in the grasslands that once covered about half the North American continent. When we ask if horses belong on North American prairies, these are the scientific facts of the matter.

So why do people think the “20 minutes” (10,000 years) horses may have been gone matter so much, rather than the “3 months” — in real time 55 million years — that horses were an integral, co-evolving part of the North American landscape and ecosystems that still exist?  What they’re worried about is ecosystem destruction. They point to the damage being done to grassland by wild grazing horses. So let’s consider the state of North America’s grasslands.

The prairies that were here until settlers colonized this continent have been steadily reduced in size by the impacts of human beings — replaced by hardwood forests on the east side of the continent, mixed scrublands to the south and west, and enormous swaths of corn, wheat, and soybeans almost everywhere. Fenced pastures, highways, and cities have occupied or covered a lot of the original grassland, and they’ve also made seasonal migration that used to serve as a major type of natural “pasture rotation” impossible. Competition for increasingly scarce resources between wild horses and other animals trying to occupy the same over-pressed landscapes applies more pressure to grasslands. The disappearance of natural predators that  keep grazing populations in balance makes things even worse. When over-grazing by any animals, whether horses, deer, elk, sheep, or cows, depletes rangeland, it’s not uncommon for stake-holders to want to pick and choose which grazing animals to keep around and which to remove — and of course to favor their own livestock over wild horses. But that’s an issue of human preference, not biology — specifically, the preference of people who have to “manage” a habitat they’ve so seriously over-stressed that it can’t function properly anymore. The pressure on America’s grazing lands has nothing to do with horses themselves, or their natural evolutionary relationship with North America’s grasslands. The problem was caused by people.

In that regard, it doesn’t seem fair for  people to tag horses as the invasive species that’s been horrifically destructive to North America’s grasslands, when horses don’t even run a close second to the biggest culprit. It’s often easier to throw stones at a convenient scape goat than it is to acknowledge one’s own guilt.

Of course, none of these facts changes the reality that wild horses are being removed from public lands right now. But we wanted the people we work with to understand at least one of the reasons that we welcome horses to the work we do. Another reason we welcome their partnership is that horses have partnered with the Indigenous peoples of this continent for a very long time. Many of our Elders say they they never left, but have always been here.

But the biggest reason of all for partnering with the Horse Nation is that we have worked with Mustangs and Indian ponies enough to know they are uniquely adept at helping facilitate the kind of work we do. We feel privileged to work in partnership with the individual horses who’ve come to us to help people learn about the deeper and very important relationships between horses and the Land they’ve been an integral part of for millennia. When you learn with Mustangs and Indian ponies, in Indigenous worldview, you touch the Land of which they are a part.

It may be important to note that this document was authored by Dawn Hill Adams, who has a Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology from the University of California, Berkeley and is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.


* Recent DNA evidence indicates that horses persisted in North America until at least 5,000 years ago. This date cuts the period of time horses were supposedly absent from North America in half. So are Indigenous people who say horses were here all along, though perhaps only in certain geographic areas, correct after all? Once again, our response is that too much focus on the time horses were or were not absent from this continent obscures the mores salient issue: that horses co-evolved with the North American prairies for almost the entire 55 million year period of time during which that happened. When we ask if horses belong on North American prairies, this is the scientific fact that matters.