Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, South Dakota Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, South Dakota
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The History of Wild Horses

What is a wild horse and where did they come from?

Long ago all horses were wild animals. They ran free in large herds, or bands across the vast grasslands all over the world. In the United States they were a prairie animal along with the bison and elk. The early form of the horse migrated over land bridges to other parts of the world such as Spain and Portugal and developed into the animal we know as Equine/Equus today. When the climate in North America changed, the early horses called dawn horses died out in the United States. For several thousand years, the plains of the West heard no more the thunder of wild horses running until the early explorers brought tame horses with them when they came looking for riches in the unexplored regions of this country.
The Conquistadors brought fast, strong and sturdy work horses from Spain and Portugal that carried the explorers through the jungles and across the deserts in search of gold in the New World. In the 1600’s, Spanish settlers raised their tough little horses on cattle and sheep ranches in New Mexico. Some ranch horses escaped to live in the wild. The free-running horses came to be called “mustangs,” probably from the Spanish word meaning mesteno, which means stray or free-running animal.

Some of the escaped Spanish horses grazed freely on the open plains. Later as other settlers came across the prairies other types of horses and ponies such as saddle horses like Morgans; and draft horse breeds including Percheron, Belgians, and Clydesdales escaped or were turned loose to join the wild herds.

Even though most of the wild horse herds were no longer all pure Spanish horses, even the mixed breed animals were called mustangs. In the mid 1800’s there were millions of wild mustangs free roaming in the United States. Because of the harsh habitat of the wild horse ranges, they developed into strong small horses capable of living on their own.
In 1971 a federal law was passed that banned capturing, harming or killing free-roaming horses or burros on public land. The care and management of the wild horse herds on federal land was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management. Today about 50,000 wild horses live on private ranches, wildlife refuges, Native American reservations, federal land and in sanctuaries. Nearly all of the ranges are rugged and dry environments where the wild horses must work hard to survive. The future of wild horses on federal ranges is now in transition as the court system battles the status of the ban on wild horse slaughter.

* Information on wild horse history from Wild Horses by Julia Vogel. 


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