“Go to Theodore Roosevelt for the wild horses. Sure, there are bison, elk, mule deer, coyotes, burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, badgers galore, prairie dogs, and a unique sub-species of turkey that you will likely photograph while there, but the wild horses are the real draw in my opinion. ” – Jared Llyod, wildlife photographer.
Wild Spirit of the West
Nothing says wild, quite like a band of horses running across the plateau chasing the wind, manes, and tails flowing behind them. They’re the epitome of wildness.
Wild versus Feral
The National Park Service (NPS) manages wild horses as an invasive species, feral horses, or horses that have escaped domestication. Every few years, they are rounded up and sold at auction to control their numbers. But are they really an invasive species, or are they a native, reintroduced population?
History of Horses in America
Bear with me through a short bit of science. The modern horse, Equus caballus, evolved in North America two million years ago (based on fossil records) and spread to Europe, Asia, and Africa via the Bering Land Bridge. Subsequently, the horse vanished from North America at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago. DNA from those horses preserved by Alaskan permafrost reveals that they are genetically identical to our modern-day horses that were reintroduced by the Spaniards in the 1500s. The fact that they’d been domesticated before their recolonization of the American West is irrelevant to whether they are a native or feral species. And seemingly irrelevant to the horses, too, as evidenced by how quickly and easily the revert to wild.
Food for thought from The Surprising History of America’s Wild Horses by Jay “Consider this parallel. To all intents and purposes, the Mongolian wild horse (E. przewalskii, or E. caballus przewalskii) disappeared from its habitat in Mongolia and northern China a hundred years ago. It survived only in zoos and reserves. That is not domestication in the classic sense, but it is captivity, with keepers providing food and veterinarians providing health care. Then surplus animals were released during the 1990s and now repopulate a portion of their native range in Mongolia and China. Are they a reintroduced native species or not? And how does their claim to endemism differ from that of E. caballus in North America, except for the length and degree of captivity?”
To me, these embodiments of the wild west are a native, reintroduced species. They belong here. They deserve their spot on our landscape.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Before arriving at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I’d rustled up some tips about where to find the horses and where the herds tend to hang out. When traveling to a new place with only a few days to explore, it’s best to know something about the place to shorten the learning curve. It turns out they’re fairly ubiquitous. I stumbled upon horses every time I went out!
Deep in the park on the first morning, I saw my first wild horses. As I crested a ridge, I saw them grazing on the sloping plateau before me, a band of about ten that included several foals. I was far enough away that they completely ignored me. A foal nudged its mother’s belly to nurse and then plopped down into the short grass to rest. Another foal appeared from a small ravine, nuzzled its mother’s face, nursed a short time, and I was ready when she plopped down after finishing the drink.
I hiked around, giving them a wide berth so that I could see down into the ravine. A stallion stood watch over his family while the mares and foals grazed and rested without care.
They Own the Road
The next day, a band of horses was walking along the park road in my direction. (Sometimes you don’t need any inside information to find wild animals!). Pulling over to watch, I got out and squatted down along the curb to be less threatening and photograph them as they passed by.
A dominant female usually leads herd movements with the dominant stallion heading up the rear. About 30 yards away from me, one of the lead mares stopped and squared up on me.
The rest of the herd continued on in single-file. She stood and stared. I was too close to the path they wanted to take. I retreated to the truck. She stayed in that spot grazing while the herd moved past and then rejoined the parade.
In all, twelve horses and a cavorting late-season foal passed by. They were moving purposefully through their home range. Once they moved off the road, it wasn’t long before they disappeared behind the hills.
A More Intimate Encounter
Midday, I perched along the rise of an eroded bend in the Paddock Creek, out of the wind, off the beaten path, enjoying the quiet, surrounded only by nature, when a lone stallion appeared. Old enough to be cast out of his maternal herd and too young to have his own harem, he roams alone. He grazes and naps and grazes and naps. He seems perfectly content this day. Maybe next spring, he’ll have some mares of his own.
Outside the Park
On the third morning, on the way to the park, five mares and a foal were walking single-file along the side of a gravel road (roads make travel easier for many animals). We drove ahead of them, and I got out with my camera. They immediately changed course, heading directly towards me. I wasn’t worried, but I can recognize a bad situation when I see it. Being surrounded by unfamiliar, potentially wild animals is no place to be. I got back in the truck. In a moment, the group was upon us. First, they approached the driver’s window as if they’d been hand-fed before. Having no success there, they crowded around the front and began licking the hood. At this point, I was in awe and enjoying the antics of this small group. And then the teeth came out. Licking is one thing, but biting is a whole nother story. (It’s not a rental. It’s my husband’s truck. He was not amused).
We slowly backed up, leaving the disappointing horses looking longingly after us. I suspect that these are free-ranging domestic horses on Federal Land. What a fun start to the day!
The Most Photogenic
Later inside the park, I came upon a small herd spread out on a hill. They were more wary than any of the other groups I’d encounter. As I watched them, two pickup trucks, each pulling a horse trailer, stopped on the hill behind me. Four people got out with their horses, mounted up, and headed in the opposite direction to go for a ride. Wild horses are wary of people but are particularly afraid of horseback riders. It makes sense. Can you imagine seeing a few people with strange contraptions on them toting an animal that you don’t trust on their backs? I’d head for the hills, too. Four of the horses gathered up in a tight group, watching intently over the hill, ears perked, muscles tense, eyes alert.
A black stallion stood between them and the riders staring as they parked, unloaded and mounted. He postured a bit in that “don’t mess with me” way that most animals use in one way or another to avoid physical confrontation. When the group of riders left, the herd ran off. Not far, just enough to give them comfortable space and see that they weren’t being pursued. With that, the wild horses slipped over the hill to the south, and the horseback riders vanished over a rise to the north.
The Most Popular
On my last morning, I saw Teton’s band. This is the group I’d heard about and is probably the most photographed. Their range includes an expansive prairie dog town right along the main park road. Thirteen horses and a large herd of bison grazed the far side of the plateau. I walked across the prairie dog town to a chorus of barks (warning!) and yips (all clear!) parallel to the herds and watched for a while. The horses pawed at mounds of earth created by the prairie dog’s burrowing to uncover some coveted morsel. From mound to mound, they moved.
Some grazed on the short grasses while others stood and rested. There are beautiful charcoal and black dappled horses in this band. The stallion, Teton, stands out by the size of his neck. Stallion’s necks grow thick for fighting and defending their harems. He stood watch the entire time I did, too. The herd of bison was meandering my way as they grazed on a course that would separate me from the road. When a rutting bison who I’d been watching woo his girl stared intently in my direction, I knew it was time to go.
I’m hooked on these wild horses. There are many places where they run free in the west, mostly on Bureau of Land Management public lands. I’ve bookmarked the map. The travel list never gets shorter.
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