Educate Yourself to Safeguard the Future of the Horse
A perfect storm is brewing. It's time to separate the truth from the chaff so we can safeguard the horse (as a species) for the future, and for our planet. Below are the answers - based on the most up-to-date research I can find (this info will continue to be updated regularly) - to some of the most controversial and mis-represented issues regarding both wild-living and domestic horses. If you know of other emerging resources you believe I should be aware of, please use the Contact Page to send me a link.
Q: Are horses native to North America?
The short answer is, "Yes!"
The video below, created by the Cana Foundation/Rewilding America Now, provides an a more detailed explanation. Rewilding America Now funds scientific research through McMaster University regarding the native status of horses in America.
This remains a very controversial subject in America, with most arguments against the native species designation relying on out-dated science. Below are some of the most recent articles providing the latest scientific evidence:
New Research Rewrites the History of American Horses (Smithsonian Magazine, April 2023)
Research Looks at Origins of Presence of Horses in North America (University of New Mexico Newsroom, March 2023)
The Untold History of the Horse in the American Plains, a New Future for the World (National Center for Scientific Research, March 2023)
Is the Przewalski's horse the only remaining "wild" horse species?
The answer to this question isn't as clear-cut as many would have us believe. Multiple scientific names have been given to the Przewalski’s horse by different authorities. Some consider it a subspecies of the domestic horse’s evolutionary lineage, while others consider both Przewalski’s and domestic horses as subspecies of a common wild ancestor. A third opinion holds that Przewalski’s and domestic horses are survivors of two separate lineages that diverged long before horses were domesticated. According to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, recent genome sequencing studies of modern Przewalski’s horses, domestic horses, and ancient horse samples as old as 700,000 years support this third theory.
Regardless of whether it's a distinct species or simply a distinct breed, it's now generally agreed that Przewalski's horses never inhabited North America. They evolved in Europe and Asia, eventually going extinct in the wild. A small number survived in captivity. Today the Przewaski's horse can only be found in reintroduction sites in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.
Przewalski's horses have 66 chromosomes, compared to the 64 that most domestic horses have. One of the arguments against Przewalski's horses being a distinct species is because they can produce fertile hybrids with the domestic horse (resulting in a hybrid with 65 chromosomes) that are able to breed and produce offspring. This is an unusual occurrence in that few distinct species can interbreed and those that can typically result in infertile hybrids (such as mules, which are a cross between the two distinct species of horses and donkeys). The horse/Przewaski hybrids look like Przewalski's horses, and the only way to identify them as hybrids is through chromosome testing.
Przewalski's horses are the only existing horses today that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as an Endangered Species, and are protected as such. The IUCN Red List or Red Data Book, founded in 1964, is an inventory of the global conservation status and extinction risk of biological species. No horses native to North America are on the list, or currently receive related protections.
Why does it matter whether or not America's wild horses are designated as a native species?
This distinction is directly related to the level (and types) of protections a species has or doesn't have. This makes it a very controversial topic and there are many special interest groups in America lobbying fervently to keep equus caballus designated as either a domesticated type of livestock or an invasive species of horse (or both). These special interest groups claim that wild horses should be kept to very minimal numbers to protect America's rangelands from over-grazing. The 2022 documentary, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West (available on Prime Video) contains concrete evidence against these claims and paints a powerful picture of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)'s corruption and (mis)management of wild mustang herds. This documentary also sheds light on why America's wild horses desperately need and deserve native species designation and protection. You can view the official trailer here and watch the full documentary on Prime Video:
Below are some recent articles further addressing this issue:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials don't consider horses a native species. Are they right? by Patrick Springer (The Dickinson Press, June 2023)
Are wild horses of the American West Native? by Bob Holmes (NewScientist, June 2011)
What is a "keystone species" and how do wild horses benefit grassland ecosystems?
A keystone species is a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically. Here are some of the reasons, horses are essential to maintaining North American grassland ecosystems:
1. Mustangs have been shown to commonly graze on cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive graminoid which outcompetes native grasses in the western United States. Cheatgrass is a dangerously dry, flammable species which can contribute to the intensity of wildfires in the west. Through the grazing of cheatgrass and other flammable grasses and forbs, wild horses can effectively reduce fire danger on their ranges.
2. Horse’s unique single-unit or soliped hooves can loosen topsoil as they move across the landscape in high-intensity short-duration grazing bouts. This nomadic soil loosening, combined with their moisture-rich dung, can increase carbon sequestration in soils and promote nutrient cycling. Equine feces, in addition to spreading seeds, builds the humus layer of soils and increases soil’s absorption of water, lowering wildfire risk. These characteristics are unique to horse feces compared with ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, or deer.
3. Plant species richness and pollinator populations have been found to be higher in areas grazed by horses compared to ungrazed areas and can even mitigate the decline of pollinator-dependent plants. By trampling certain vegetation and not wallowing near water to the extent that cows and sheep do, mustangs create healthier microhabitats and redistribute nutrients through seed dispersal.
4. A natural behavior displayed by mustang herds is rubbing and scratching trees, knocking off dead and dying limbs, reducing “fire ladders” while simultaneously grazing grasses and browsing on brush fuel beneath the trees they use for shelter.
5. In the winter horses break ice with their hooves, allowing other species access to water, and in the summer they dig to create small water catchments, creating intermittent riparian habitat for other desert species. Large-scale herd movements in deep snow may also reduce snow insulation in northern landscapes, leading to an increase in permafrost freezing, potentially mitigating methane loss and woody plant encroachment.
6. Horse herds use their ranges heterogeneously, with daily and seasonal movements over large tracts of lands. These wide-spread movements are confined to narrow trails throughout the landscape, which are frequently used as travel routes by many species of wildlife. In a single study, remote cameras recorded movements on horse trails of moose, mule deer, grey wolf, mountain lion, Canada lynx, and others. In more vegetative understories, these trails also create more diverse forest conditions of wind and light exposure, allowing for a greater diversity of plant and animal species to fill in niches. In cold seasons, herd movements open trails through snow, letting smaller animals move through the environment more easily
You can read about these benefits and much more about why horses are a keystone species in the comprehensive article, The Grass Remembers the Horses by Liz Koonce (Medium Magazine, May 2, 2023).
What protections do wild horses currently have in the United States?
In order to answer this question, it's important to understand the history of, and "why" behind, wild horse round-ups, captures and "gathers" in America.
In 1787, when there were likely between 1-2 million wild mustangs roaming the range in America, a citizen-organized round up of 8,000 "free roaming mustangs and cattle" is believed to have occurred. The rounded up animals were used for trade, food and commerce.
The first government sanctioned large-scale roundup of wild horses in America didn't occur until the early 1900's when thousands of free-roaming horses were captured for use in the Spanish-American war and World War I.
During the 1950s, Velma B. Johnston, later known as "Wild Horse Annie," became aware of the ruthless and indiscriminate manner in which wild horses were being treated and rounded up on western rangelands. So-called "mustangers" played a major role in harvesting wild horses for commercial purposes during this time period.
Wild Horse Annie led a grassroots campaign, famously involving many school children. Newspapers published articles about the exploitation of wild horses and burros. In January 1959, Nevada Rep. Walter Baring introduced a bill prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on public lands. The "Wild Horse Annie Act" became Public Law 86-234 on Sept. 8, 1959, but it did not include Annie's recommendation that Congress initiate a program to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros.
By 1971, the population of wild horses on public lands had declined significantly because of the encroachment of man and the impact of mustangers.
In response to public outcry, Congress unanimously passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” (Public Law 92-195) to provide for the necessary management, protection and control of wild horses and burros on public lands. President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law on December 18, 1971.The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service were appointed to implement the 1971 Act (most herd areas are under BLM jurisdiction). This Act requires the BLM to “determine appropriate management levels for wild free-roaming horses and burros on [designated] public lands.” Their responsibilities also include issuing public land grazing permits to cattle ranchers. The Act was later amended by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. Among other things, these amendments preserved valid existing rights such as grazing rights, water rights, mining claims, and oil and gas leases on the same public lands where the wild horses roam. They also defined the current grazing fee formula and inventory procedures for Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service rangelands.
Today, the BLM still sets a national population limit of between 16,000 and 27,000 mustangs and burros on 27 million acres of public lands. This represents the number of mustangs that were known to exist on pubic lands in 1971 when Congress unanimously passed the Act because they were considered “fast disappearing”. There is no scientifically backed evidence that supports the BLM's assessment of how many mustangs is ideal on America's public rangelands.
Whenever the numbers of free-ranging horses surpasses the BLM limits, federally funded round-ups can be scheduled with the captured horses and burros sent to "temporary" government funded holding pens. By 2004 there were more than 14,000 "unadoptable" horses and burros living indefinitely in government holding pens. That's when Congress gave the BLM permission to offer unlimited sales for horses and burros over 10 years of age, or after 3 unsuccessful adoption attempts. In other words, anyone could buy them, for any purpose, and the government was washing their hands of any responsibility to, or for, these specific equines.
Despite this change, today there are nearly 60,000 formerly wild horses and burros living in often in-humane conditions in holding pens, pastures and corrals managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- costing American taxpayers about $50 million annually.
In 2020, the BLM announced that they would begin paying anyone who adopts a wild horse or burro $1,000. Prior to the launch of the Mustang Adoption Incentive Program, the BLM charged potential adopters $150 (except for the previously mentioned older and "three strikes" mustangs). This dramatic policy change opened a floodgate of new adopters, many of whom get paid to adopt a wild mustang or burro only to "flip" the animal after the 60-day period and sell it at auction. Unfortunately, many of these horses and burros ultimately end up in the hands of "kill buyers" who are contracted to buy cheap meat for the slaughter industry.
A major concern for any American who cares to preserve the integrity of equus caballus as a native species species is that all of the BLM's herd management areas currently have far fewer than the scientifically established number of horses required to prevent inbreeding (and eventual deterioration of the species).
In summary, the BLM has done a horrible job managing America's wild horses and burros, which today remain in grave danger of going extinct. The time has come to demand a complete overhaul of the way our government manages wild horses and burros in order to preserve the integrity of a keystone native species!
How is domestic selective breeding affecting the integrity of equus caballus as a species?
According to Smithsonian Magazine, "Horses were a late addition to the barnyard. Dogs were domesticated 15,000 years ago; sheep, pigs and cattle, about 8,000 to 11,000 years ago. But clear evidence of horse domestication doesn’t appear in the archaeological record until about 5,500 years ago." Despite the fact that humans have only been selectively breeding horses for about 5,000 years, there is already a long list of genetic/inherited diseases and abnormalities affecting many of the most popular breeds. In recent years, the increasing occurrence of two very serious conditions now being found in almost all domestic breeds of horses is raising serious questions about the physical integrity of the species:
The veterinary description of kissing spines is impingement (when the bones are touching) or overriding (when the bones overlap) of the dorsal spinous processes (IDSP/ODSP). Kissing Spines is strongly correlated with height in horses because as a horse gets taller and body mass increases, more forces are exerted across the back, and the soft tissue structures supporting the back do not increase in strength accordingly. So, larger breeds are more prone to Kissing Spines Syndrome.
ECVM is a developmental anamoly affecting the skeletal bones and musculature at the base of the horse's neck, specifically the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae (C6 & C7), the 1st and 2nd sternal ribs and associated soft tissue structures. The presence of this condition was brought to the attention of the horse world by Australian equine anatomist Sharon May-Davis. Sharon's peer-reviewed publications, resulting from years of research and hundreds of dissections, established the presence of this condition in a variety of breeds, most notably Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred derivatives. In the past 6 years, others have published similar findings that support her observations. Both American and Italian studies found the ECVM in Warmbloods, Quarter Horses and Arabs.
Below is a list of other common breed-specific genetic diseases and abnormalities:
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP)
Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM type 1)
Glycogen-branching enzyme deficiency
HERDA (hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia)
Overo lethal white syndrome (OLWS)
Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds (race horses)
Developmental orthopedic diseases, such as osteochondrosis
Atrial fibrillation (a heart arrhythmia)
Roaring/recurrent laryngeal neuropathy
Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID)
Lavender foal syndrome (LFS)
Cerebellar abiotrophy (CA)
Draft Horse Breeds
Junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB)
Equine recurrent uveitis
Roaring/recurrent laryngeal neuropathy
Guttural pouch tympany
Equine recurrent uveitis
Equine recurrent uveitis
What is the current state of the equine industry and what does this mean for horses?
Horse Ownership Trends:
The World Animal Foundation reported in October 2023 that there were almost 10.31 million horses in the US and almost 60 million horses worldwide. The lastest data I could find on horse ownership trends was from 2017 when EquiManagement reported that the number of domestic horses in the United States had decreased by 23% in the last 10 years. However, the 2017 AVMA Pet Ownership & Demographics Survey suggested that pet horse numbers had fallen by a whopping 61% in the last five years prior to their survey. The American Horse Council (AHC) Foundation's 2017 Economic Impact Study indicated that domestically owned horses are located all around the country, with the top three states, in order of horse population, being Texas, California and Florida.
According to the AHC’s 2017 Study, 1.3% of the U.S. population owns horses, 29.2% of American household members participate in equine-related activities but do not own a horse, and 13.2% spectate at horse events but do not own or participate. This means that almost a third of U.S. households own horses or participate in some way in the equine industry. Among horse owners, the study found that 22% have incomes of $100,000-$149,000 and 28% have incomes greater than $150,000.
The 2017 AVMA Pet Ownership & Demographics Survey also showed that 42% of horse owners considered their horses to be pets, 47% as family members, and just 11% as property.
Social License to Operate:
The increasingly common societal view of animals as sentient beings worthy of humane care is seriously impacting equine sports. Social license to operate is defined as “an intangible, unwritten/and non-legally binding social contract whereby the community gives the industry the right to conduct its business.” In the U.S., the public is currently concerned about and attentive to horse racing, specifically catastrophic breakdowns, racing of 2-year-olds, aftercare of retired racehorses, race-day medication, doping and whip use. This broad public concern is beginning to extend to many other equine sports (beyond racing) as social media shines a light on negative practices that are prevalent throughout the industry.
Because veterinarians benefit monetarily from some of these issues, this can result in lost credibility with the public around equine veterinary medicine and veterinary professionals. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of equine veterinarians to fill available jobs in all sectors of the industry. In 2021, the AVMA reported that there were 18.5 jobs for veterinarians per veterinarian jobseeker. Salaries, work hours and emergency service requirements are more attractive in the companion animal sector than the equine sector to many young graduates.
The equine industry, inside and outside of racing, has faced a labor crisis for some time now. In addition to the equine veterinarian shortage, farm managers everywhere will tell you it's also a struggle to find dependable employees or interns who want to groom and muck stalls, especially in all weather conditions for the wages they're able to offer. For many years, equine businesses relied on guest worker visa programs to supply labor to their businesses, but in recent years, many have found it's increasingly difficult to get the number of visas they need, and that it's increasingly expensive to bring H-2A and H-2B visa holders over to meet the need.
Hay & Grain Costs:
According to the December 2022 hay stock reports, the 71.9 million tons of hay on hand in America was the smallest amount since the USDA began tracking forage supplies in 1973. Texas hay supplies were 37% below the December 2021 report and other Plains states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska were all at least 30% below their stocks last year. Hay stocks in southeastern states were also down except for North Carolina. Those short hay supplies and demand have now pushed hay bale prices toward record high prices. The cost of grain and just about everything else related to horse care has also increased.
The horse industry has long been built on the public's acceptance of the general idea that it's okay to require horses to "earn their keep". For the vast majority of domesticated horses today this means they are expected to earn their keep by serving as riding horses (whether for hobby or in a lesson program or for competition), as working horses (carriage industry, cattle industry, mounted police, etc.), as racing horses (thoroughbreds, standardbreds, quarter horses), as show/competition horses (all breeds), as breeding horses or (the latest addition to the industry) as therapy horses. Unfortunately, the costs of keeping and caring for horses - especially as the awareness of what "ethical horse keeping" looks like is evolving -- is rising much faster than the industry's ability to finance it. We're nearing a tipping point where the vast majority of horse owners and equine businesses will soon be unable to financially support their love affair with the horse. What happens to the horses at that point?
1. More and more owners are choosing to euthanize horses they can no longer afford to care for (or who can no longer earn their keep physically) rather than risking the possibility that their beloved horse might end up in the slaughter pipeline.
2. Equine rescue organizations and horse sanctuaries are overwhelmed with more horses in need than they can possibly help. See this article from 2008 on the growing Unwanted Horse Dilemma and this one from 2010 on the state of equine rescue organizations.
Stay Tuned. There's More coming soon!