Think Our Wild Horses Are Safe?

By Andrew Cohen from the pages of The Atlantic

Wild Horse Annie is Spinning in her Grave

photo by Terry Fitch

Forty years ago this Saturday, on December 17, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon was moved to quote Henry David Thoreau. “We need the tonic of wildness,” the president announced in a statement released from Biscayne Bay, Florida, on the day he signed into law the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the first federal law designed to protect and manage our wild horses. Nixon wrote that the new law was “an effort to guarantee [the] future” of the horses. and he credited grassroots public support for the political impetus behind the measure. The White House also offered this:

Wild horses and burros merit man’s protection historically–for they are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the Western Indians and the pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wildness seems all too scarce. More than that, they merit it as a matter of ecological right–as anyone knows who has ever stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free.

Here is what the late, great Velma Johnston, the redoubtable “Wild Horse Annie,” said to Congress before the passage of the legislation she worked so tirelessly to push upon federal lawmakers:

[The Act] climaxed ten years of struggle against the powerful forces aligned against any effort to curtail the slaughter — forces comprised of the domestic livestock industry, the target animal industry, and pet food manufacturers, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management — custodian of the public lands – which looked upon the commercial harvesting of the animals as an expedient means of range clearance to make more forage potential available to the vested interest groups….

Decades of bloody and indiscriminate annihilation of wild horses and burros, under the agency’s direction in order to make more grazing land available for domestic livestock, was [a] black chapter in the history of man’s abuse of animals until an act of Congress in 1959 outlawed that expedient means of ‘management and control.’ It is unlikely the public would support any move to restore a practice that would again, inevitably, lead to over-zealous programs through its very expediency.”

Forty years later, Nixon is gone and “Annie” is probably spinning in her grave. Since 1971, the Wild Horses Act has been 1) dramatically undercut by the 2004 Burns Amendment, which re-authorized the sale of captured horses for slaughter, 2) persistently undermined by the Bureau of Land Management, and 3) challenged at nearly every turn by the ranching and cattle industries, which persist in seeking to rid the horses from public and private land even as their members line up on the dole for subsidized grazing fees.

Powerful political and economic forces, arrayed at virtually every level of government, have overwhelmed the organizations which advocate on behalf of the nation’s wild horses. As interpreted and applied, then, the Act no longer protects the horses the way it was supposed to. And the federal agency statutorily entrusted to guard over the horses no longer merits the trust, if it ever did. Lobbyist-riddled statutory language and weak regulatory oversight is an invitation to disaster, is it not? We need to pay attention. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

The 1971 statute gave the Bureau of Land Management vast authority to “manage” the herds. But the BLM was not then — and is not now — a true friend of the horses. Instead, as is so often the case, the regulators are aligned with, if not beholden to, to the industry they purport to regulate. The Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is from a ranching family. So is Wyoming governor Matt Mead and so is Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming’s lone representative in the House. The patent indifference to the plight of the horses is, indeed, a bipartisan affair.

In these circumstances, and with this personnel, what chance do the horses have? Not much. Not unless a grassroots political push, the sort of movement that Wild Horse Annie once led, crashes the special-interest party at play here. I have come late in life to this cause, and I have written about it over and over and over and over again this year, because I believe that the way our wild horses have been treated lately by government and business often mirrors the way in which millions of ordinary people have been treated lately by government and business.

Forty years ago, Velma Johnston understood from her decades of battle that the Wild Horses Act would mark the beginning and not the end of the story. She knew that that the law would be only as strong as the men and women who would enforce it and that it would be buffeted by strong political winds. Those winds have come– from both Republicans and Democrats– and now the big question is whether the same popular passion and resolve that rescued our horses 40 years ago can be mustered up again on their behalf.

Click (HERE) to read the article in it’s entirety and to comment


  1. Is Mr. Cohen beyond Awe-inspiring…or what!?!???

    Read this little tidbit from the LATimes:,0,7263077.story

    And the the equine killers turn around and say….”WHAHHHH!!!! Wild equines don’t have predators….”

    Well, Ms Kathrens documentary’s disprove that and who or what is the biggest predator of wild equines…….MAN! To this day, nothing or no one has a bigger record of death than arrogant, greed, evil MAN!


      • :)///well, you have a good reason. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t dumb or operator impaired. (p.s. I know how to get to Mr. Cohen’s posts…was taking the short trip and it didn’t work)


      • And my lap cat is sitting on my lap while I’m on the computer too. She keeps watching how I type things on here, so I am wondering when she will start entering her own stories. LOL.


  2. And, from what I read (I think at Horseback comments or was it Knapp)…SS is literally in meetings with USDA to open the hellholes for equines….and, the comment said USDA will be there if they (the killers) meet the regulation requirements, Anyone know anymore?


  3. Essentially, NOTHING is safe in the US. And as Mr Cohen says, the wild equine issue is comparable to just about everything that is wrong with our country and AFFECTS all humans.


  4. Here is part of the most recent comment in Andrew’s Cohen’s article…any takers? Whoever gets there first:

    “First, they have almost no natural predators, and they double their population every 7 years until they reach the limits of their available range, after which they become malnourished. Second, because the available range tends to consists of small canyons and other places the ranchers aren’t using, the herds tend to be small, so these herds become inbred. A mustang, in other words, is not a breed of horse, it’s an inbred horse, and the traits we associate with mustangs–the roman nose, the barrel chest, the short legs–result from inbreeding. Third, wild horses in general are not a breed, nor are they descended from horses brought by
    Conquistadors. For the most part they are feral horses who escaped from farms or ranches, or were turned loose–or the descendents of such horses. The population of wild horses is naturally replenished by new escaped or abandoned horses over time, and that population is not genetically different from previous populations of wild horses.

    So the horses tend to overpopulate their habitat and suffer as a result…….


  5. Great Article and right on the spot. I did send my comments as did others too. Now we just need some action by our do nothing Congress and our weakened President. Don’t get me wrong, I worked all of his campaigns and I thought I knew the man. It has been said that the office of the President of the United States changes the person and I guess I am seeing that. Its a shame when we controled both the House and the Senate, they did nothing on this, But we must forge on because I know we have bipartisan support for our horses both wild and domestic. Perhaps its about time to bring a pony and a small horse to the White House and let the family see what our horses are really like.


  6. Gail, better yet…..
    Wild Horse Annie (Velma Johnson) and Pearl Twyne, who had retired from a position with the Department of Agriculture, were the only two women on the Pryor Mountain Advisory Committee Board. They had attended a garden party that was given the evening before one of the meetings. At the party one of the men, who was also on the Board, showed up with some plastic bags which displayed the Department of Interior insignia and the motto “You mustn’t be a litterbug”. He passed them around and joked that his new townhouse needed landscaping and would appreciate everyone bringing a bag of manure to the next meeting. Velma and Pearl took him at his word. They filled two bags and took them into the meeting.


  7. Louie, I hope it was extremely fresh. Too bad they didn’t fill up his pickup truck if he had one to the brim. However, all of us that pick and clean the stalls don’t really have a problem with the ordor. I guess we must be used to it. The average non horse person seems to cringe as they approach the barn, others of us take that sweet smell of those horses right in. Perhaps we should send some of those bags to some of our sweet Ol’ Congressional members and see how they like bs.


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