Animal Warfare

'Wild Horses of the West' casts an objective eye on equine history

The challenging nexus of free-roaming horses, ranching and public lands in the West is an ongoing news item, especially in states like Arizona and Nevada, where wild mustangs fall under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management.

These animals today are viewed in one of two ways—they're either rangeland-destroying pests competing with private livestock for public-range food, or beautiful symbols of the old frontier that inspire the human soul.

University of Arizona professor J. Edward de Steiguer doesn't solve this debate with his new book, Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs, but he does unsentimentally contextualize the issue by acknowledging the ugly side of American horseflesh.

Written for a general readership—though equine historians will still find much to admire in this thoroughly researched book—Wild Horses of the West wobbles for the first 30 pages. Perhaps self-conscious about his lack of formal training in animal science and world history, de Steiguer's textbook-ish prose style is initially as arid as much of the terrain that mustangs inhabit. But as he starts referring to his own experiences to confirm social aspects of the mustang—for instance, when he witnessed the adoption of a filly named Shadow in Arizona—Wild Horses drops the "text" and becomes a proper book:

My wife and I stood directly between the departing trailer and the pens that contained the remaining herd of thirty or so wild horses. Each of Shadow's plaintive cries grew fainter by the second as her trailer pulled away from the site. The herd, with eyes riveted and ears alert, responded to each of Shadow's cries by whinnying back to her en masse. ... Shadow would eventually be consoled by the fact that she was going to a good home, but the lesson to be learned here is this: Quite clearly, horses communicate effectively among their own kind.

Sad as the moment is, de Steiguer doesn't heed the oft-cited belief that horses are as smart as humans; he addresses the "problem in trying to measure the intelligence of horses, or for that matter of any species" by accepting that horses don't perform well on tests involving memory and reason. De Steiguer also repeats renowned American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson's remark that "the brightest horse is abysmally stupid in comparison to the dullest man," and cites Joel Berger's landmark study of the social behavior of free-roaming horses in the remote Granite Range of northwestern Nevada, in which the biologist concluded that, while wild horses' negative environmental impact wasn't clear or measurable, "without careful planning and wise management, horses, native species and people will soon be without fresh air, clean water and room to run."

However, it's the military history—or just plain history—of horses in Europe and America that de Steiguer absolutely nails. He shows how frightening these animals can be, especially when seen through the eyes of indigenous Mexicans who at first thought conquistadors and horses were joined together as one, centaur-like, nearly unstoppable. Indeed, the conquest of the Southwest couldn't have occurred without horses like the hundreds used by Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who in 1540 pushed an expedition all the way to present-day Tucson. Eventually, of course, American Indians would master horseback warfare in their own right and instill dread in the U.S. military, including George Armstrong Custer, who a few months before his own famous death once wrote about Lakota fighting precision:

I beheld bursting from their concealment, between three and four hundred Sioux warriors mounted and caparisoned with all the flaming adornments of paint and feathers which go to make up the Indian war costume. When I first obtained a glimpse of them—and a single glance was sufficient—they were dashing from the timber at full speed, yelling and whooping as only Indians can. At the same time they moved in perfect line, and with as seeming good order and alignment as the best drilled cavalry.

From the European taste for horse meat, to the 19th-century near-extermination of American mustangs in the Great Plains, to the legacy of Nevada animal-rights activist Wild Horse Annie and her struggle for wild-horse protection, de Steiguer doesn't miss a hoof beat. After reading his book, I feel informed about a creature—and the complex issues surrounding it—to which I hadn't given much thought.

Once hideous beasts of war, today's free-roaming horses are beautiful reminders of man's violent history, and deserve a place of their own—far away from man's violent ways.

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