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. 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 then, exactly one minute after you got back, people who had first arrived to stand in the same line at the very same moment you’d come back, who hadn’t been there the whole 11 weeks and didn’t realize you’d been there all that time, grabbed you and threw you out of the line and said you couldn’t be there because you had only just arrived. But, you know, they stayed in the line themselves after throwing you out.

That’s what has happened with wild horses in North America. According to the fossil record, horses evolved here for 55 million years, and might have stepped out for the last 10,000 of those years.* At a scale of one minute in the story being equivalent to 500 years of horse history, that’s 11 weeks here compared to the final 20 minutes gone. As a result of that possible 20 minutes gone, at least some well-intentioned people of the dominant culture who showed up in North America during that last one minute (500 years) have said to horses, “Hey! You only got here when we did! So you don’t belong in wild habitats of North America and should be removed.”

The time in this story is accurately to scale, with one minute in the story being equivalent to 500 years of horse history. It’s not the 20 minutes horses may have been gone that matters, and it’s not really up to people who’ve just arrived to make that judgment. What matters is the 3 months in the story — the 55 million years of real time — that horses were an integral, co-evolving part of the North American landscape and ecosystems.

That’s right. Horses evolved in North America to begin with. Furthermore, they co-evolved with the grasslands. Those grasslands have been steadily reduced in size by the impacts of human beings — replaced by hardwood forests on the east side, mixed scrublands to the south and west, and enormous swaths of corn and wheat almost everywhere. But the anatomical changes such as hooves, long legs, and high-crowned teeth that developed in horses over time are ones that specifically adapted them to life in grasslands that once covered about half the North American continent. The disappearance of horses from the fossil record that makes paleontologists speculate they became extinct here before historical times didn’t take place until the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. Of course, not having fossils in the record is what’s called “negative evidence,” meaning it can only suggest horses were not here then, not prove it. But as you can see, whether or not there was a period of time horses were not on this continent is not actually relevant to the question at hand. That question is simply: Are horses a natural part of North American’s grasslands ecosystems? And the answer is: Yes. Horses were an integral part of North American grasslands for the whole 55 million years of their evolution, which is also the period of time during which grasses and grasslands evolved right along with them. If horses disappeared from North America for a while, it didn’t happen until the very last moments of that whole time span. And the possibility that today’s Mustangs might be descended, entirely or in part, from domestic horses (a slightly different line of reasoning sometimes used to explain why Mustangs “don’t belong” here), isn’t relevant because Mustang behavioral ecology is not distinctively different from that of wild horses anywhere.

What’s different here and now is the grasslands themselves. Fences, highways, and cities have made seasonal migration that used to serve as a major type of natural “pasture rotation” impossible, and pressures on habitat area from surrounding development of wildlands constrain even the limited amount of natural pasture rotation roaming bands of wild horses typically engage in. And competition for increasingly scarce resources between wild horses and other animals trying to occupy the same over-pressed landscapes — especially as predators who usually help keep grazing populations in balance are also removed from those same areas — makes things even worse. Of course over-grazing by any animals, whether horses, deer, elk, or cows, depletes resources. When that happens, it’s not uncommon for rangeland stake-holders to want to pick and choose which grazing animals to keep around and which to remove. But that’s about human preference, not the fitness or natural appropriateness of Mustangs in those habitats.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that wild horses are being removed from public lands right now. We have worked with Mustangs enough to know they are unique, and uniquely suited to the kind of work we do. That’s why we are offering some of them a refuge with us, and giving them the chance to help people learn about the deeper and very important relationships between Mustangs and the grassLand they’ve been an integral part of for millennia. Because when you learn about Mustangs within Indigenous worldview, you touch the Land of which they are an imminent part.

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*It is important to point out that quite a few Native people in North America report oral histories that suggest horses never became extinct on this continent but were present all along. According to these traditions, horses were an important part of Native culture long before first contact with Europeans. If so, the impact of escapee Spanish stock was one of inter-breeding with existing wild horse bands and Indian pony stock rather than one of totally (re)introducing horses to North America and its Native peoples. Other Native people have good reason to believe that contemporary Mustangs are, at least in part, descendants of Indian ponies that escaped slaughter on some of the occasions when the US Army killed bands of ponies during the Plains Indian wars. (These slaughter events are themselves well-documented, as are the occasional escapes.) Unfortunately, the difference between those who focus on a possible very late Pleistocene extinction of horses in North America and those who focus on a long history of relationship between Native North American peoples and horses is often framed as a “science” versus “Indians” conflict. That particular framework is a very old one. It casts Indians as ignorant and superstitious, and science as inherently True. Therein lies a gigantic load of serious and long-term cultural oppression that doesn’t help resolve the conflict at all. What’s most unfortunate about this particular conflict, however, is that it doesn’t even address the real issue relevant to whether or not Mustangs are a natural part of North America’s grasslands ecosystems. As outlined above, they clearly are. Whether they became extinct for a brief period of time just before first contact or were here the whole time is immaterial. Horses co-evolved with North America’s grasslands for 55,000,000 years. That’s why all this information appears in a footnote, is because the purpose of this page is to refocus the entire discussion on what actually matters. It may be important to add that this document was authored by Dawn Hill Adams, who has a Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology from the University of California, Berkeley, is enrolled in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and has owned and worked extensively with Indian ponies, Mustangs, and Quarter horses and knows how they are both similar and different.