They might not have the renown of the mustangs of the American West — they do, after all, have a sports car named for them — or the fanfare of the Chincoteague ponies — they inspired a series of beloved children’s books — but the wild horses in Eminence, a river town in southeast Missouri, still are something special.
Jim Smith, who owns Cross Country Trail Riding and is a charter member of the Missouri Wild Horse League, said there are five bands of wild horses that roam the area.
Some might quibble over the “wild” designation. Because their ancestors were domesticated animals — according to local lore, they are descended from horses set loose by their cash-strapped farmers during the Great Depression — “feral” is a more accurate term.
But even so, they live just like the wildlife native to the area.
“They’re wild-wild,” Smith said.
For longtime residents of the area, the horses are part of everyday life.
“My granny lived to be a little past 100. All my years of growing up, she told me stories,” Smith said. “They ran their stock outside, and the wild horse herd would come by and pick up their horse. Sometimes it would be a month or two before they got it back,” Smith said.
John Mark Brewer, secretary of the Eminence Chamber of Commerce, said the horses are a favorite part of the scenery for visitors and locals alike. He likens area residents’ backroading to find the horses to city dwellers’ taking a Sunday drive to look at “the nice neighborhoods.”
As evidence of their farm-horse ancestry, these wild horses are compact and sturdy, and many bear the coloring of an appaloosa stallion that escaped and joined the herd decades ago.
“A lot of them will be born black as a crow, maybe with a blaze face or a white foot, but then as they get a little older, they’ll go to graying out, and they’ll turn plum white,” Smith said.
Though small — the most recent census data put Eminence right at 600 people — the town’s location on the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers makes it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Brewer said on weekends there might be between 10,000 and 20,000 visitors who come to float the rivers, hit the trails and camp along the many creeks and gravel bars near the rivers. And for many, the sight of the horses is a special bonus.
“They’re a majestic symbol of freedom people search out because it gives them the feeling or the notion of that freedom. It’s one thing to see a horse in a field, fed and watered all day. It’s another to see a domesticated animal in the wild,” Brewer said.
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