Public Land

This section examines the wild horse's reciprocal relationship with the land.

On federal lands, like the Pryor Mountain Preserve, wild horses roam free. After legislation and public protection, the horse once again is secure in its connection to the land, but only in sanctuaries and public lands where they are protected as a valuable asset. In certain cases, the horses themselves protect the land from the ongoing encroachment of urban sprawl. A critical relationship exists between the wild horse herds and the land they roam today.

The Pryor Mountain Wildhorse Range near Lovell, Wyoming, is one of the few places remaining where mustangs roam free and interact with the land in their own ways. In 1968, the U.S. Government created this first wild horse refuge to protect a legendary band of mustangs. Today biologists visit Pryor Mountain to study the mustangs' natural behavior and relationship with the land.

Attribution: Jaime Jackson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Biologist Kate Schoenecker studies the herds in the Pryor range.

"We're kind of lucky with this population [of horses], that they will behave and do a lot of their normal, natural social behaviors while we're here and while we can get pretty close to them."

For Kate and anyone else, it's a jolting three-hour drive up canyon slopes and through the woods to reach the plateau. This rugged terrain has enabled the horses to evade capture and to live as wild creatures for at least a hundred years. One would think the horses would be safe and unchanged by events in the human communities down below.

But it's not that simple. Things have changed in the wilderness. The natural predators of the horse have been reduced. Wolves and grizzly bears have been almost eliminated from all but one National Park. Natural fires have been reduced. The parks have been fenced, so when the herds grow too big, individual animals can't move away to other parts of the west.

So, Schoenecker and her colleagues at the Fort Collins Science Center have several studies going to help determine how best to manage the population. In one, they are using CDs and a website to consolidate photographic identifications they've made of horses at both Pryor and at the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Range in Colorado. In another, they are using the identification system and computer modelling to evaluate all the factors that impact the viability of the herds and suggest the best ways to manage their population. 

Yet, these projects raise the question:

How do you manage something that is supposed to be wild?

Volunteers, like Floyd Schweiger, are helping the biologists identify the herd. He comes up to Pryor Mountain every chance he gets. When he first saw the mustangs 30 years ago he thought they were like any wild horse.

"But finally one day I climbed up on a pile of rocks or a little mound and looked down. I saw a dark stripe down the back of one of the horses. The horses we had back in Minnesota, my home state, were not like that. And then sometime later I went out again and saw a horse similar to it turned sideways. I saw the tiger stripes on its legs. That's really what got me started on this whole thing. Until finally after one of the round-ups, the park service provided $5,000 to do some blood-typing on these horses. There are only about three or four such bands left in the wild today."

These horses are the only remaining legacy of the free roaming herds who thundered over the plains centuries ago.

Attribution: SteppinStars, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tourists and Public Lands

But the isolation that has preserved the range is threatened by its own success. Floyd Schweiger is not the only one fascinated by the mustangs on Pryor Mountain.

By late morning, people are beginning to outnumber horses on the refuge. What seemed wild and remote now feels more like a theme park. Schoenecker says,

"I can't believe how many people are up here. You know, you can't keep people off public land. It's public land, but there are ways to manage that. Like, I don't think they're going to fix this rocky, bumpy road. You saw the road we came up on, and I don't think they're going to grate that road. They're certainly never going to pave it. "How do you preserve and enjoy at the same time? Can it be done? How do you do it?"

This small band of dun striped horses have taught us a great deal about their ancestors and the patterns and social dynamics of wild horses.

Herds and Harems

Like all wild horses, the Pryor mustangs are herd animals living off the land in harems, dominated by the strongest stallions.

According the Save the American Wild Horse organization, a dominant stallion, usually 6 years of age or older, will be in the company of one mare or a group of mares 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He sires the offspring, and these foals are with their band for at least one year, usually two. Many times the band has a dominant mare who will be responsible for leading the family group to grazing. She will also lead the family to a water hole and to the mineral lick where they dig for salt, a dietary supplement. She will guide them to sheltered places out of the wind when winter storms howl. When you see a group of wild horses moving across the landscape, normally the stallion will be in the rear. His main job is to protect the group from attack by another stallion.

Attribution: John Harwood, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally, a two or three-year old will still be with their band, but generally the stallion will discourage a young male who is coming of age from consorting with the band. A young female may be driven off by her mother, or she simply may choose to leave when she comes into estrous. The young female may select or be selected by another stallion who will breed with her and guard her vigilantly from rivals. By encouraging offspring to leave the band, wild horses avoid inbreeding. It's interesting to note that most wild horses are more genetically diverse than any of our domestic horse breeds. In other words, they are more able to deal with changing conditions and environments over time and can resist extreme drought or cold better than their domestic cousins.

This complex social dynamic holds the wild horse bands together, and each individual knows his or her place in the order. Rules of band behavior are carefully followed. Punishment to a young animal is swift, usually just a head movement with ears laid back or a nip or gentle kick. Affectionate displays of mutual grooming (simultaneously nibbling each other's necks and backs) are frequent between family members, occasionally even between the band stallion and his juvenile sons. Mutual grooming feels good and lessens tensions between these powerful mammals.

Schweiger says the Pryor is a unique region:

"You can never again re-create what we have in the Pryor Mountain horses because of their unique genetic make-up and their unique genetic heritage."

Continued: The Mustang Dilemma