by Rita Goldner
As an avid plein air painter, I often find myself on a folding chair on the banks of the Salt River. The landscape itself is picturesque enough, but sometimes I get a bonus. Several small herds of wild horses wander around in the shallow river. Last time I was there, a few weeks ago, I saw 45 horses. I’ve recounted my horse sightings to some friends, and having never heard of or seen the horses, these people assume they are a recent addition to our wildlife assortment. That couldn’t be further from the truth, a ranger told me as he handed me a brochure about the horses’ history. They’ve been here for hundreds of years, long before settlers arrived.
Fifty million years ago, a small animal called Eohippus lived in North America He was the precursor to the modern horse. During the evolution process, most of them wandered over land bridges into Asia and Africa about 12,000 years ago. They were brought back with the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s. Some got loose and joined other escapees from wagon trains, farmers, ranchers, etc. These runaways were of various sizes and shapes, from large draft horses to small ponies. They joined the wild ones, and all evolved into the most efficient size and shape for wild living and foraging, which is the small, tough, and hardy Mustang we see today.
This back–and-forth travelling gives rise to the question: “Are they wild or feral?” Wild means they were always roaming free, whereas feral means they were domesticated, escaped or were let go, and are now free. The different definitions have political ramifications.
Proponents of the “feral” definition say that since the horses’ recent history involved escaping from a domestic life, they should be considered an invasive species, competing with wild game animals and cattle for food. Wild game brings in revenue from hunting licenses, and cattle bring in revenue for the meat industry. There’s no revenue for anyone from the wild horses. Since the numbers of all three species are carefully managed, these people feel every wild horse that is removed or killed gives room for one more deer or cow.
The advocates who endorse the “wild” definition want to take history much further back to a time when all horses were wild animals, running free all over North America. Other coexisting prairie animals were the American camel, saber tooth tiger, and wooly mammoth. All of these have died off; the American horse is the only one still alive today. If we ignore the fact that they left for about 8 centuries and came back, then they surely deserve the “wild” classification and are indigenous.
The divergent viewpoints came together in 1971 as both sides voted to pass the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act. This law prohibited the wholesale slaughter of wild horses from helicopters and trucks, for dog meat or for sport. It also regulated and managed the population, declaring it would remain at 1971 numbers, or about 17,000 horses in America. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are the agencies that enforce the 1971 Act. They keep the population numbers stable by occasionally rounding up the horses and auctioning them to private owners.
The situation is different for the horses on the Salt River. They’re in the Tonto National Forest, where they’ve lived since long before the Tonto National Forest was designated in 1902. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service gave notice of a plan to capture, remove, and auction these horses as part of their population control mandate. Local horse lovers jumped into action and formed The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. They were able to reach an agreement with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Now, this nonprofit group manages the horses in lieu of the Forest Service. They control the numbers by darting the mares with a birth control vaccine.
Volunteer members of the Management Group patrol the river, cautioning visitors to keep their distance, keep dogs on a leash, and refrain from making loud noises. Kayakers drift by, taking pictures.
Even if the horses don’t show up while I’m painting, I have the company of blue herons, bald eagles, and river otters. I can hardly believe I found such a bucolic place to paint, five miles from a fairly big city (Mesa), but there it is!
Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series.For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. Works in progress: H2O Rides the Water Cycle, The Flying Artist, and Rose Colored. To view additional illustrations and Rita’s books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook. Subscribe to Rita’s newsletter, Orangutans and More! and receive a free coloring page of today’s illustration.