It’s amazing what you learn when you open a book.
I thought I had a solid grasp of North American history, until I picked up Wild Horse Country by David Philipps.
I got the book because Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize New York Times correspondent, has a theory of how mountain lions can solve America’s wild horse problem. The read taught me something about wild horses, but more importantly how the horse changed North American history.
The wild horse, or mustang, is an American icon, and a problem that costs U.S. taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars. Eighty to 100,000 mustangs freely roam public lands in the West, exhausting grassland food supplies for themselves and other wildlife.
Their numbers need to be controlled but the U.S. government can’t decide how that should be done. Slaughter or mass sterilization are two options being considered but there is a dilemma: the wild horse is as much a symbol of America’s freedom as the bald eagle and the general public wants the horse left wild and free.
So the U.S. federal government rounds up hundreds of wild horses and puts them in holding areas where it pays to room and board them. Meanwhile, open range wild horses continue to breed and the overpopulation problem continues.
In explaining the wild horse issue, Philipps gives a fascinating history of the horse in North America and that’s where I got my history tuned up.
Horses did not always exist in North America. Ancient forms of small, horse-like animals did exist tens of millions of years ago but disappeared. Horses, as we know them today, did not appear on this continent until the 1600s, arriving on galleons with the Spanish Conquistadors.
To the Spanish the horse was a weapon of war that allowed them to conquer the Americas and enslave its indigenous populations. They brought horses by the thousands to the Americas.
Before then, North American Indigenous peoples lived in forested areas or southern pueblos near water needed for growing food. Their movements were restricted because the only transportation they had was their feet and various forms of dugouts and canoes.
The Conquistadors’ horses changed all that, and the history of the continent.
The Spanish conquered the Pueblo of the southwest and put them to work doing jobs they needed done, including looking after horses.
The inevitable happened. The Pueblo learned how to care for horses, how to treat them and how to ride them. They also learned how to steal them.
Horses wandering off, thefts and trades soon had horses showing up in the territories of other tribes. The result was the birth of the Horse Nations, tribes such as the Navajo, Apache, Kiowa, Sioux ,and the greatest horse people of all – the Comanche.
Horses freed these people from coaxing vegetables out of parched soil and chasing bison on foot. They hunted and explored on horseback and moved their villages to better locations as needed.
Tecumseh, the celebrated Shawnee warrior and diplomat, travelled thousands of miles on horseback organizing the pan-Indian confederation aimed at stopping American takeovers of Indian land. The Americans chased and killed him in a battle along southern Ontario’s Thames River during the War of 1812-14.
The horse, an animal unknown to any North American native before the Europeans arrived, allowed tribes to hold off total colonization for decades, if not a couple of centuries.
All that, however, is a historical explanation in Wild Horse Country. The book’s main message is that the U.S. government ignores the wild horse management potential of mountain lions.
Philipps has noted the federal agriculture department killed 305 lions in 2014, gave grants to agencies that killed hundreds more while private hunters, encouraged by government bureaucracies, killed almost 3,000 lions the same year. Had those lions not been killed and had eaten three horses each that year, there would have been almost no growth in the wild horse population.
Government initiatives continue to promote killing lions in some areas where the government also wants wild horse populations limited.
Philipps says killing fewer lions so they can eat more wild horses will restore an important balance and save taxpayers money.
In other words, let nature do its work without more human meddling.