Horses We Can’t Forget on Memorial Day

by Jocelyn Pierce as published on

“Throughout the United States’s military history, the horse played an indispensable role. “

Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives while serving in the military. Perhaps the most largely unrecognized, and sometimes altogether forgotten veterans are the horses that served alongside man.

Since the domestication of the horse, humans and horses have shared a partnership that has been integral to the thriving of civilizations. Horses were essential in agriculture, transportation, and warfare, not to mention companionship in some of history’s darkest hours and in the face of humankind’s brutality.

Throughout the United States’s military history, the horse played an indispensable role. In wartime, the horse was used to transport cavalry troops, supplies, and artillery weapons as well as for charges, scouting, raiding, and communication. While serving man and country, the horse faced many hardships including disease, starvation, exhaustion, and injuries. Ultimately, many suffered and died in service.

Below are five noble horses that deserve recognition for their heroism and are a representation of all equines that served in the United States Military.

Black Jack (1947-1976)

Black Jack was the “riderless” horse in more than one thousand full honor military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The riderless horse, or caparisoned horse, is led behind the caisson of any Army or Marine Corps commissioned officer holding the rank of Colonel or above. The riderless horse wears an empty saddle with the rider’s boots reversed in the stirrups, symbolizing the deceased will never ride again.

Black Jack Riderless Horse JFK Funeral Black Jack, a black Morgan-Quarter Horse cross is only one of three horses to be buried with full military honors (the other two, Comanche and Reckless, are mentioned below). Black Jack was named to honor General of the Armies, John J. (Black Jack) Pershing who is the only person to be promoted in his own lifetime to the highest rank held in the United States Army.

Black Jack not only took part in the funerals of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and five star General Douglas MacArthur, but more than one thousand others at Arlington National Cemetery during his 24 years of service with the Old Guard. Black Jack passed away on February 6, 1976, and is buried on the parade ground of Fort Myer’s Summerall Field.

Comanche (1862?-1891)

Comanche was a 15 hand bay mustang that was captured in a wild horse roundup and sold to the U.S. Army Cavalry in 1868. Along with Black Jack, Comanche was only one of three horses to be given a funeral with full military honors.

The horse became a favorite of Captain Myles Walter Keogh of the 7th Cavalry who purchased him to use as his personal mount in battle.

Comanche was known to be fearless and powerful. In 1868, while fighting the Comanche in Kansas, the horse was wounded in the hindquarters by an arrow, but continued to let Keogh fight from his back. Keough decided to name the horse “Comanche” because of the bravery he exhibited during the battle. Comanche was wounded many more times, always showing the same toughness.

Comanche Survivor of Battle of Little BighornComanche was the only confirmed survivor of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, in which Lt Col. George Armstrong Custer led his troops to a massacre. It is, however, likely that more horses survived the battle but were captured by American Indians. Two days after the Custer defeat, Comanche was found severely wounded and very weak.

Comanche was celebrated as the only living representative of the battle and became a symbol of heroism. Colonel Samuel Sturgis writes of Comanche, “Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words, of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers of the hopeless conflict and the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.”

The horse spent an entire year recuperating at Fort Lincoln in North Dakota. In 1879 he was brought to Fort Meade where he stayed until he was transferred to Fort Riley in 1887. Comanche was retired, with specific orders the he never been ridden or put to any kind of work, but was still used in ceremonies and parades and was indulged and treated as a pet.

Comanche died of colic in 1891 and was believed to be 29 years old at the time. Comanche’s remains were preserved and are on display at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.

Little Sorrel (1851-1886)

Little Sorrel was the mount of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Originally a purchase for his wife, the General began using Little Sorrel because his horse, Big Sorrel, was easily frightened and unreliable on the battlefield. Stonewall Jackson admired Little Sorrel for his toughness, smooth gait, and intelligence.

Little Sorrel Stonewall Jackson Civil War Little Sorrel carried Jackson on many battlefields, including the 1862 campaign through the Shenandoah when Jackson marched his cavalry 646 miles in 48 days, engaging Union armies and winning several small battles along the way. The pair also saw some of the most famous and bloodiest conflicts of the American Civil War including First and Second Manassas, Front Royal, Port Republic, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson was mounted on Little Sorrel when he was mistakenly wounded by his men. He died a few days later. After Jackson’s death, Little Sorrel briefly lived with Jackson’s widow before moving to the Virginia Military Institute. The horse was shown at county fairs and was present at many Confederate soldiers’ reunions before he was retired to the Confederate Soldier’s Home in 1885. The following year he passed away at the age of 36. Shortly after, his remains were given to a taxidermist, who mounted his hide on a plaster model. He is presently on display at the Virginia Military Institute’s Museum in Lexington, Virginia.

Old Baldy (1852-1882)

Old Baldy was the horse of Union Major General George G. Meade and fought in major Battles such as the Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.

Baldy was taken by Union soldiers at the first battle of Bull Run where the bright bay horse was found standing wounded on the battlefield. He recovered from his injuries and months later General Meade bought the horse and named him Baldy, for the white markings on his face. The general became so attached to Baldy that he rode him in all of his battles in 1862 and through the spring of 1863.

Old Baldy General Meade Civil War Baldy held am extraordinary war record with Meade astride. Taking part in nine main battles of the war, Baldy suffered major wounds in many. At Antietam, Baldy was wounded in the neck and left on the field as dead. Remarkably, Baldy was later discovered grazing on the battleground. The horse recovered and was soon fit for duty.

Baldy and Meade charged at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and for two days, he was present at Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, he received his most severe wound from a bullet lodged between the ribs. Because of Meade’s great affection for the horse, Baldy stayed with the army until the following spring.

Meade decided to retire Baldy and after the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox, Meade was reunited with the warhorse who had fully recovered. Meade spent a lot of time with his companion through the years and continued to ride him in memorial parades. When Meade died in 1872, bullet-scarred Baldy was the riderless horse at the funeral.

Ten years later Baldy was euthanized on December 16, 1882, at the age of 30, when he became too weak to stand. Today, Baldy’s head is mounted on a plaque and is on display at the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia.

Reckless (1948?-1968)

Sergeant Reckless is perhaps the best example of an equine “hero.” The 14 hand fiery chestnut mare served bravely as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War. Reckless, then called “Ah-Chim-Hai,” or “Flame of the Morning” was purchased at a Seoul racetrack in 1952 by Lieutenant Eric Pedersen, the commanding officer of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Antitank Company, Fifth Marine Regiment. Pederson bought the horse for $250 from a Korean boy who needed the money to buy an artificial leg for his sister who lost it from a land mine. The Mongolian’s mare name was changed to Reckless, after the name the Marines gave to the recoilless rifle they used.

Reckless with Sergeant Latham Korean War The little mare with the blaze had a big personality and was well loved and revered by her fellow Marines. She was known to stick her head in their tents for treats, occasionally sleep in the tents with the men, and eat scrambled eggs and drink beer alongside them. If she noticed she was different from her fellow soldiers, she definitely didn’t show it.

Lieutenant General Randolph McC. Pate noted the camaraderie between the horse and men. “I first saw this little lady. . .when the [First Marine] Division was in reserve for a brief period,” he wrote. “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”

Reckless American Marine Corps Korean War The courageous mare had the duty of carrying antitank ammunition to the front lines. During the Battle of Outpost Vegas in March of 1953, Reckless is credited with carrying 9,000 pounds of 75mm recoilless rifle ammunition from the ammunition supply point to the front lines in 51 trips over 35 miles in a single day. She carried the ammunition up and down rugged terrain and hills, most of the time without a handler and through the battle zone with gun and cannon fire blazing around her. The smart and industrious mare was trained to avoid trip wires and to drop to the ground if caught under fire in the open. She was cut by shrapnel at least twice, once over her left eye and once on her flank, but neither injury slowed her down.

After the war, Reckless was brought back to the United States. Because of her bravery, the Marine Corps honored her with the rank of Staff Sergeant and nine other awards including two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

“In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as she did,” recalled Gen. Pate.

Staff Sergeant Reckless War Hero Reckless lived in retirement at the Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, in California. She died there on May 13, 1968, at 20 years old and was buried with full military honors. A bronze statue of her now stands at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.

This Memorial Day, we should remember to honor and recognize the valiant horses that served alongside the brave men and women that we celebrate, for without them the history of the United States’s would be quite different.

Learn about how horses are still helping military veterans today by clicking here. 

About the Author: Jocelyn Pierce is an avid equestrian and lover of travel and photography. Her passion for adventure has led her on numerous excursions throughout North America and Europe. When she’s not riding and competing her homebred mare, she enjoys hiking, camping, and snapping photographs.

Proposed Federal Budget Could Spell Annihilation for America’s Wild Horses and Burros

“The potential for our worse possible nightmare to become a reality is knocking on our barn door, as I type, and we need to stop it and stop it NOW!

Below is a video plea from our good friend, Ginger Kathrens and both myself and Wild Horse Freedom Federation stand shoulder to shoulder with Ginger and The Cloud Foundation in urging you to take action in an effort to block the possibility of our wild equines being slaughtered.

When I snapped this photo on my iPhone I had the shutter sound activated and I was promptly reminded by Ginger to deactivate it as you can see it stimulated Ohanzee’s curiosity, big time.  Thanks for the insight, Ginger.

Ginger’s video is especially poignant for me as her equine guest is Ohanzee, the son of Cloud. I was fortunate enough to be with Ginger when we first came upon Cloud and his newborn son on a beautiful May day in 2014. We spent several days watching, videoing and photographing the youngster while in the evenings we struggled to come up with a name for him.

After much research and a few sips of adult beverages we arrived at the perfect selection which was Ohanzee, a Sioux name meaning ‘Shadow’ which was just what he looked like.

Ohanzee become my totem and further sealed my conviction to fight for those who cannot speak for themselves so for him to be featured with Ginger further lights my fire to do what is right, just and whatever is necessary to ensure the future safety, health and well-being of our federally protected wild horses and burros.

Please call the White House and voice your concerns, although I do not believe this to be a premeditated assault on our wild equines it can and will turn into a death sentence for the horses and burros if we don’t stop the bean counters from pulling the trigger…Now!

Please act, this is your opportunity to make a difference.  Thank you, my Friends.” ~ R.T.

“The remainder of the funding decrease will be achieved by reducing gathers, reducing birth control treatments, and other activities deemed inconsistent with prudent management of the program. The long-term goal is to realign program costs and animal populations to more manageable levels, enabling BLM to reorient the WHB program back to these traditional management strategies.”

The BLM contends that the horses on the range exceed the ridiculously low national AML of 26,700 by over 40,000 animals. There are over 40,000 animals in long and short term holding. 80,000 could be killed if we, the American people do not speak up!

There has never been such a grave a threat to the existence of our wild horses as right now!

Use the links provided in the video to call the WHITE HOUSE, your U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, and your 2 SENATORS. We must flood and overload the phone lines with calls. This will take only 4 phone calls—probably 1 minute each.

Never has it been more important for you to speak up on behalf of the future of our wild horses and burros!


1. Leave your name (spell it), and the town where you live

2. Give 2 or 3 short sentences on your explicit concerns for the preservation and protection of our wild horses and burros.

3. Give your name again and express thanks for the opportunity to give comments.

4. You will probably get a Voicemail—but that’s ok. These elected officials must understand how important this is to you, and phone calls are all logged. If 50,000 of The Cloud Foundation followers will call, that adds up to 200,000 phone calls to Washington DC!

Thank you! Now let’s all get to work and make those phone calls for our wild horses and burros.

Links to Documents:

Boise BLM wild horse adoptions on hold due to equine distemper


Members of the public interested in adopting a wild horse or burro should contact the BLM Boise District Office at (208) 384-3300 to provide their contact information.

by KBOI Staff

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) – The Bureau of Land Management has temporarily suspended wild horse and burro adoptions at the Boise BLM Wild Horse Corrals due to strangles, or equine distemper, in several horses.

Strangles is an upper respiratory tract infection in horses and although usually not fatal, is highly contagious.

While the symptomatic horses are quarantined and being treated by a veterinarian, the BLM has decided to close the corrals to adoptions and public visitors as a precaution until further notice.

Read the rest of this article here.



BLM offers rare tour of Bruneau, Idaho, off-range corrals on June 8th


Public tour of Bruneau off-range corrals offered in June

by Natalie Hurst

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) – The BLM in Idaho will offer a public tour of the Bruneau off-range corrals on Thursday, June 8.

Two public tours will be offered — the first will begin at 10 am and the second will begin at 1 pm.

Each tour will last about two hours and can accommodate up to 20 people.

Spaces will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

The public can sign up to attend and receive driving directions to the facility by calling BLM at (208) 329-4534.

Please RSVP for one of the two tours by June 5.

Details about the tour:

• Tours start promptly at the scheduled time, so be at the facility a few minutes early or the wagon may leave and we cannot come back to pick you up

• Bring comfortable shoes and clothes. Hats and sunscreen recommended

• Bring your own water

• Cameras and video cameras welcome

• Visitors will not be able to walk around the facility unaccompanied. They must travel with the group in the wagon at all times

The Bruneau off-range corrals are located at 28536 Jacks Creek Road, and are privately owned and operated.

About a 75-minute drive southeast of Boise, the facility provides care for over 1600 wild horses.

The facility encompasses 80 acres containing 39 large holding pens, each pen measuring 70,000 square feet that will safely hold approximately 100 horses.

Read the rest of this article here.

BLM’s Requested Budget Cuts of $10 Million From Wild Horse & Burro Program Could Spell ‘Slaughter’ For Our Wild Equines

Story by as published on Horse Nation

Language in the Bureau of Land Management fiscal year 2018 budget justification, released Tuesday, specifically requests “the ability to conduct sales without limitations.”

photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

The new 2018 budget proposal calls for a 9.2% reduction in spending for the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management or BLM — this is the federal agency charged with overseeing and protecting the nation’s wild horse and burro population.

Traditionally, the BLM has managed the nation’s wild horse and burro population by setting management levels for herd management areas, and then conducting roundups to remove what it deems to be excess wild horses from areas when necessary. Gathered horses are available to the public for adoption, with unadopted animals living in long-term holding. Tens of thousands of horses have accumulated in long-term holding at the expense of the taxpayer.

The Bureau of Land Management has come under criticism for this method of so-called population control, with advocacy groups suggesting everything from birth control vaccination administered by dart (the PZP vaccine) to allowing nature to take its course and stopping gathers and any population control altogether. While advocates may not agree about the best course of action to take to manage wild horse numbers — or if management is even necessary — most agree that the BLM has not done the wild horse any favors with its current plan.

The BLM’s 2018 budget justification, which can be viewed by clicking here, calls for a $10 million reduction in spending in the Wild Horse and Burro (WHB) Program, describing the current situation as follows:

The consistent growth in annual costs for the program is unsustainable and constrains the Bureau’s ability to effectively address competing uses of public lands, as the number of animals on the range and BLM holding facilities grows.

The majority of the WHB Program’s budget has gone towards maintaining the tens of thousands of horses in holding facilities while numbers of horses on the range still continues to rise according to estimates, demonstrating clearly that the model of gathering horses and removing them from the range is not a sustainable long-term solution. To reduce this spending, the BLM suggests the following:

As such, the budget proposes to give BLM the tools it needs to manage this program in a more cost-effective manner, including the ability to conduct sales without limitations.

A BLM press release went even further, stating explicitly that this budget would allow for the humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of “excess animals.”

The budget justification addresses advocate-supported methods of population control such as the PZP vaccine as well:

The remainder of the funding decrease will be achieved by reducing gathers, reducing birth control treatments, and other activities deemed inconsistent with prudent management of the program.

One can only imagine how the BLM seeks to both reduce the need for gathers and reduce the number of wild horses on the range.

How can you affect change?

If you are opposed to this budget plan for fiscal year 2018 for its dramatic proposed changes to the Wild Horse and Burro Program, we urge you to contact your representatives in Congress and explain to them why. There are numerous online petitions in circulation, but the most effective and meaningful way to affect real change is to speak with your lawmakers and make your opinion known. If you need assistance finding your representation in Congress, you can find your representatives here and your senators here.

Elaine Nash (Dir. of Fleet of Angels) and Palomino Armstrong (Chilly Pepper – Miracle Mustang) talk about rescue of over 500 ISPMB horses on Wild Horse & Burro Radio (Wed., 5/24/17)


Wild_Horse_Burro_Radio_LogoJoin us on Wild Horse Wednesdays®, May 24, 2017

7:00 pm PST … 8:00 pm MST … 9:00 pm CST … 10:00 pm EST

 Listen to the archived show (HERE!)

You can also listen to the show on your phone by calling (917) 388-4520.

You can call in with questions during the 2nd half hour, by dialing (917) 388-4520, then pressing 1.

This show will be archived so you can listen to it anytime.

Black stallion

Our guests tonight will be ELAINE NASH, Founder and Director of Fleet of Angels, a not-for-profit organization with thousands of on-call members across the US and Canada who offer crisis management and transportation assistance during equine-related emergencies, as well as other services.  Fleet of Angels oversees the coordination of hundreds of successful equine-related emergency missions each year, with each mission involving from one horse to many.  From rescuing over 200 wild burros from a disastrous plan by BLM to send them to Guatemala to be beasts of burden (and probably food), to their current mission of caring for and placing over 900 horses seized by the state of South Dakota from a failed sanctuary, Fleet of Angels often plays a vital role in providing solutions in equine crises of all types.  And,

PALOMINO ARMSTRONG, who (along with her husband, Matt) is the angel who runs the CHILLY PEPPER – MIRACLE MUSTANG, specializing in CRITICALLY ILL, NEO-NATAL, SICK AND/OR INJURED FOALS.

Palomino and Elaine will tell us about the logistics of the rescue of the ISPMB horses and about the many wild horses that still need to be adopted.

To learn more about how you can adopt or help: Wild Horse & Burro Sanctuary Alliance.

This show will be hosted by Debbie Coffey, V.P. and Dir. of Wild Burro Affairs for Wild Horse Freedom Federation.

To contact us:, or call 320-281-0585


The Devil is in the Details as BLM again removes thirsty wild horses due to “emergency” in the Antelope Valley HMA in Nevada

Antelope Valley grazing allotments (2008)

Before you read BLM’s version of this “emergency” below, be sure to read Cindy MacDonald’s 2008 article “The Devil’s in the Details” on American Herds Blogspot.  We have to wonder how many acres of public lands that the “private land owner” (mentioned by the BLM below) uses to graze their own private livestock, since it seems the entire HMA is used for livestock grazing.  The BLM seems to be giving the public the same ongoing bullshit (literally). –  Debbie

“traditionally the wild horses spend the summers in Antelope then migrate to Antelope Valley for the winter ~ except the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) strung up a new fence up on Hwy 93 effectively trapping the horses and in one area, completely cut them off from any water at all.

Speaking to BLMs Kyle Hansen in the Ely Field Office, Mr. Hansen explained range conditions were so bad due to drought that it “looked like an atom bomb went off” and provided photos as evidence of the dust bowl conditions the wild horses would be forced to try and survive in over the winter in if they were not immediately removed.

He also stated compounding the problem was a local rancher who had allowed wild horses to drink water from his property for years but finally “had enough”,  fenced the area and now the horses that remained would probably die of thirst.” – Cindy MacDonald

Source:  BLM

2017 Antelope Valley Emergency Wild Horse Gather

Progress as of Monday, May 22, 2017

Purpose of Gather:

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Elko District, Wells Field Office, in coordination with the BLM Ely District will begin a wild horse water bait trap gather to remove wild horses on private lands near the Boone Spring Area. The gather is taking place due to a request from a private land owner to remove the excess wild horses.

Details of Gather:

BLM plans to humanely gather approximately 60 wild horses through the use of a water bait trap.

Public Observation: 

Because of the nature of the water gather method, wild horses are reluctant to approach the trap site when there is too much activity. In addition, the gather operations are being conducted on private land. Therefore, only essential gather operation personnel will be allowed at the gather site during operations.

Adoption Information: 

The wild horses removed from the range will be transported to the Indian Lakes Off-Range Corral in Fallon, NV to be prepared for the BLM’s Adoption Program. Learn more about how to adopt a wild horse or burro from the BLM.


This gather will attempt to remove excess wild horses from private land near the Boone Spring area of the Antelope Valley Herd Management Area. The private land owner has requested removal of the horses. The Antelope Valley HMA has an Appropriate Management Level (AML) of 155-259 adult wild horses. As of March 1, 2016, the BLM estimated the population at 1,013 wild horses (not including foals born this year). The BLM Wells Field Office has determined that even though there has been above average amounts of precipitation this winter and spring, there are still no known water sources in the area for wild horses to obtain water later this spring and summer. Learn more about the Antelope Valley HMA.


Wild horse trained as therapy horse in running for international award


Steve Drippon displays affection to Rooster; loving a special horse. Jerry Slagle / for the Post Register

SALMON — A horse named Rooster is an equine without equal if you ask the volunteers and staff at Whitewater Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Association.

The Salmon-based association offers horseback experiences to riders of all ages whose challenges can include everything from a physical disability to a psychological trauma.

In the decades since the accredited nonprofit was founded, dozens of horses have been either selected or donated for the purpose of providing equine therapy but few have gained the profile and elicited the adoration of Rooster.

Whitewater workers say Rooster has all the mannerisms of a courtly gentleman even though he once was a wild horse from the Challis area before adoption through a U.S. Bureau of Land Management program.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of good horses but Rooster has a special place in my heart,” said Joyce Scott, Whitewater’s executive director. “He’s an elegant and powerful horse who personifies peace and calmness. Everyone who rides him falls a little bit in love with him.”

In a first for Whitewater, Rooster has been nominated in the regional round of a contest for therapy horse of the year with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

Read the rest of this article HERE.

Kentucky lawyer leases land to protect horses, plans sanctuary in coal country

Tuesday's Horse

JACKSON, Ky. (Source Article) —  Curtis Bostic is an attorney, a politician and — for a few weeks in 2016 — an accused horse thief.

On a cold December day in the rugged hilltops of Breathitt County, Bostic was trying to rescue some horses he said had been abandoned and were malnourished. But he was arrested by a sheriff’s deputy, who said the horses belonged to two men who follow the local custom of setting them free in the winter to wander the wilderness of the county’s abandoned coal fields.

The charges were later dismissed after the sheriff’s department said it didn’t have probable cause to make the arrest. But during the night Bostic spent in jail, he came up with an idea: A few weeks later, he leased the land where he had been arrested. He sent a letter to the two men who had pressed charges against him. Now…

View original post 295 more words

Something Old, something New

From Rewilding Europe

“At the rate that the BLM is decimating our last remaining free roaming herds of wild horses and burros we may find ourselves taking notes on how the Europeans are bring wild equines back to their rightful ranges.” ~ R.T.

Looking to boost the benefical impact of free-roaming wild horses in the Coa Valley, Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN) starts the Zebro Project.

Raising the grazing

Free living Sorraia horses in Faia Brava nature reserve, Western Iberia rewilding area, Portugal. Juan Carlos Múñoz / Rewilding Europe

Rewilding Europe wants Europe’s native herbivores to return in significant, naturally balanced numbers to the lands where they once belonged. With domesticated livestock numbers on the decline in many European countries due to land abandonment, such herbivores can play a vital grazing role, opening up landscapes and enhancing biodiversity.

To this effect, Rewilding Europe now supports natural grazing in 16 different pilot areas across nine countries. In Faia Brava, one of our largest natural grazing pilots located in northern Portugal’s Middle Côa Valley, wild Garrano horses are the herbivores now reshaping the landscape in a way that benefits a wide range of local flora and fauna.

Thanks to the efforts of Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN), our partner in the Western Iberia rewilding area, another site in the Middle Côa Valley will soon benefit from wild equine grazing too. The Portuguese NGO has this year started the so-called Zebro Project, carefully selecting and cross-breeding Sorraia horses to maximise their wild characteristics. These animals will eventually be released as a herd at a site close to (but separate from) Faia Brava.

“Our eventual aim is to recreate wild, free-roaming horses that will replace those that have been lost from the Iberian ecosystem,” explains Pedro Prata, the Western Iberia rewilding area team leader and ATN’s executive coordinator.

“We want rustic equine and cattle breeds to take back their ancestral grazing role in the Middle Côa Valley in a natural and sustained way,” continues the Portuguese. “These herbivores can reduce weed density, create clearings, promote seed dispersal and favour populations of wild scavengers and predators.”

An equine experiment

The rewilding of horses began back in 2005, when ATN introduced five Garrano horses into Faia Brava. Further introductions since then have seen the number of free-roaming horses in the reserve rise to an estimated 60 to 70 animals. These are now part of Rewilding Europe’s European Wildlife Bank.

Like the Garrano, the Sorraia is an ancient horse breed that was once found wild across the Iberian Peninsula, but whose populations decreased dramatically under pressure from hunting and the rise of domestic livestock and mechanised agriculture. The Sorraia has a particularly interesting history, having once been called the “zebro” or “zebra” in Portuguese, due to its striped markings.

Hardy native animals that lived off uncultivated lands and salt marshes in Iberian river valleys, zebros were occasionally captured by farmers for agricultural work. A small population of Sorraia horses, thought to be direct descendants of the zebro, was discovered in the 1920s. It is from this stock that the lineage has been preserved, although the breed remains rare.

In its attempt to recreate the zebro, or a genetic approximation of this ancient wild equine, the challenge is to identify the right horses for breeding.

“It is difficult to find modern-day horses with the genotype, phenotype and behaviour of ancient breeds,” explains Pedro Prata. “We are looking  for animals with more rusticity, which are strong enough to survive in adverse conditions, resist pathogens and diseases, and generally adapt to wild conditions. These are now quite scarce.”

Since the beginning of 2017, ATN has acquired several stallions and mares displaying the Sorraia phenotype. The plan is to acquire further animals this year, using part of the ATN membership fee for acquisition, transport and habitat management, and to launch a new line of merchandising to celebrate the project.

While the European wild horse is officially extinct, its genome is not lost and still exists across several types of old horse – from Exmoor ponies in the United Kingdom to the Hucul ponies of Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains. These primitive animals still boast many of the characteristics and genetics of their ancestors, making them particularly suitable for rewilding and the grazing of wild habitats.

Rewilding Europe’s brochure on rewilding horses can be viewed here.