Though most Americans hardly ever glimpse them, wild horses are synonymous with the American West. From John Wayne Westerns to The Electric Horseman and even the Ford Mustang, the iconic horse gallops across our memories, wild and free. But how did they arrive in the West? And how have we coexisted with horses?
In her forthcoming book (due in June), Deanne Stillman takes us through the American West's equine history, starting not just at their arrival in the New World aboard Spanish galleons but going much, much farther back to trace the genetic origins of the American horse and then leading us down through the centuries as she, in effect, brings us full circle.
While at times encyclopedic in her thoroughness in tracing the history of the West's emblematic horse, the mustang, Ms. Stillman does not bog us down in delivering that history. Rather, she figuratively sits us down before a cracklin' fire and, over the course of several nights, slowly unfolds a story that keeps the pages turning.
The record tells us that the original sixteen horses that came with Cortes -- the two bays, the light bay with the three white feet, the piebald with the black markings, El Morzillo, and the others -- perished during the early years of the conquest. And so too did the 350 that came with de Soto, according to history. But there's a legend that says otherwise. It says that the foal born to the brown mare en route from Spain survived, escaped at some unknown time, and ran toward its ancestors, over mountains and across valleys and canyons and rivers, through cloudbursts and dust storms and days of no water, left to carry on by jaguars and wolves and snakes, perhaps aided by animal spirits, particularly chattering birds that urged the foal onward as it grew older, and eventually finding its own kind -- six horses that are said to have escaped the de Soto campaign and moved westward. This small band too had traveled great distances, across wetlands and then into the parched flats just beyond the Rio Grande, like the foal, getting a reprieve from predators, or perhaps not appealing to them for reasons that we do not know, drawing ever closer to the American West, possibly sensing in their bones and marrow that one of their own was waiting for them, needed their kinship, and it was in the Sonoran Desert possibly, or the Mojave, that one day the six happened upon the one, drinking at a depression in a canyon rock, or grazing on some rabbit brush, and then they exchanged some information and headed for freedom, El Norte, their home.
Such rich imagery is a hallmark of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. More important, though, is the chronicle provided, for the days of the wild mustang are fleeting as the West becomes increasingly urbanized and as some humans become less, in a word, humane.
"In 1998, I was finishing up my book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave," Ms. Stillman said when I ask what inspired Mustang. "It's about two girls who were killed by a Marine after the Gulf War in Twentynine Palms, California. I heard that 34 wild horses had just been massacred outside Reno, Nevada. Two of the accused were Marines and one was stationed at Twentynine Palms.
"I knew that some grisly crimes had emanated from that base. Now Marines had allegedly killed America's greatest partner - the horse that blazed our trails and fought our wars!," she continued. "I grew up around horses; my mother was an 'exercise boy' at the racetrack, one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the track. I always felt that horses saved my family's life by providing us with a living. I wanted to return the favor. In 1998 the time had come, and that's when I started looking into the story of the wild horse on this continent."
Through the book's 310 pages, the author leads us through the Spanish assault on the New World, up to and through the events surrounding General Armstrong Custer's ill-fated battle at the Little Bighorn, along the long, dusty cattle drives of the late 1800s, into Hollywood, and onto the landscape of the modern-day wild horse roundups conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Ten years in the making, Mustang not only recounts the millions and millions of years of equine evolution, but throws a cautionary message to how we just might snuff out the horse's future if we're not careful.
When I asked Ms. Stillman what was the most unusual, the most unexpected aspect of the horse in North America that her research revealed, she replied, "That the horse is America's gift to the world. It originated here, in the West, then went extinct and was reintroduced by conquistadors. I had no idea that it came from here, but it makes perfect sense. We are one of the world's greatest horse cultures, although we don't think of ourselves that way on the surface. But the wild horse runs through our blood and that's why our most iconic road trip car is the Mustang. As the wild horse goes, so goes America - and right now, the mustang is on its way out and we cowboys are in danger of leaving the world's stage on foot."
And how does this book tie into national parks? After all, despite the West's many iconic parks, many would be hard-pressed to name one that harbors wild horses. Not Yellowstone, not Grand Teton, not Grand Canyon. Indeed, you'd have to travel to North Dakota, to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, or to Death Valley National Park in California/Nevada if you hope to spy a wild horse within the park system, and even then you'd have to be in the right spot at the right time.
But pay attention as you read Mustang and not only will you become better versed in the West's icon, but you'll know where in the Western national parks and monuments to look for the horse's heritage. Within the book's pages you'll learn of an ancient horse track site in Death Valley. Travel to Idaho, to the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, and you'll find the richest collection of Hagerman Horse (Equus simplicidens) fossils in North America - 30 complete horse fossils and portions of 200 individual horses. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park it's said that some of the wild horses galloping there are descendants of Sitting Bull's horses, and in her book Ms. Stillman devotes a section to Native Americans and horses, and in particular the Lakota. Even the Little Bighorn National Battlefield has a horse story attached to it.
Too, near the end you'll come to better understand "Brighty," the burro that established its fame in Grand Canyon National Park, and how the National Park Service came to deal with these non-native animals. Here's a snippet:
There’s a statue of Brighty the burro in the Grand Canyon Lodge. Brighty lived at the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1922, along with countless other burros whose ancestors had come with the Spanish and carried the ensuing parade up mountains, across deserts, into mines and history. Named after the Bright Angel Creek in the canyon, Brighty originally belonged to a gold prospector. When the prospector was killed, Brighty was adopted by the Park Service. He helped build the canyon’s first suspension bridge across the Colorado River and carried Teddy Roosevelt’s packs on a hunt for mountain lions. He was an icon of the West when he died, and Wild Horse Annie made sure that his kind was included in the 1971 act, which placed most burros under the mandate of the Bureau of Land Management because they lived on public lands.
Those that found themselves managed by other agencies, such as the National Park Service, had no protection – as a non-native species, they had to go. In 1979, the extirpation began - with Brighty’s descendants. Because getting them out of the Grand Canyon would be difficult, all 577 of them were to be shot. The late writer and animal defender Cleveland Amory intervened, along with his organization, the Fund for Animals, putting together a daring and complicated rescue in which the burros were airlifted from the canyon and taken to his Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which he founded for this occasion.
But that was the beginning of the end for the burro in national parks and preserves. Since then, NPS has continued its policy of “direct reduction,” and thousands of burros have either been shot by contract hunters or harried to their doom or into overcrowded government adoption pipelines in airborne round-ups. From 1987 to 1994, the Park Service shot 400 burros in Death Valley alone – just one of various burro sites all over the desert West. When Death Valley went from monument to park status in ‘94, the Park Service escalated its plans to remove burros - and Death Valley’s remaining wild horses.
History is not always pretty. But it's important to understand, and Mustang is an important book.