by Kevin Cook as it appears in Colorado’s Reporter Herald.com
“…wild horses touch something inside us”
They evoke a different emotion, the wild horses do.
When we experience something magnificent, we feel awe. When we experience something troubling, we feel sadness. When we experience something terrible, we feel anger. When we experience something precious, we feel love.
All these emotions we feel; all these emotions we understand.
But wild horses touch something inside us, something uncommon, something special, something uniquely connected to them. Something for which we have no name, which bears no surprise considering we struggle with everything about the animals, even identity and name.
They are, in all analysis of tooth and bone, of sinew and muscle, of blood and chromosomes, of form and behavior, the same species as the horse that provides trail rides for tourists and backcountry access for hunters. The same horse that once pulled wagons across territorial plains and plows across farm fields. The same horse that once carried Spaniards and Mongols into war and conquest.
Nevertheless, adding the descriptor “wild” makes them seem like something more.
Some people use “mustang,” a name that conjures a charming if not outright romantic image of a free spirit in the wilderness of the Old West. Somehow, the name completes the set of American icons: God, Mom, the Flag, Apple Pie and Mustangs. And Spurs.
Regardless of name, the animal remains biotically and ecologically the same.
Horses comprise one of three families in the mammalian order called “Perissodactyla,” meaning “uneven fingers” but more meaningfully interpreted as “odd-toed mammals.” The other two families are rhinoceroses and tapirs, all of which bear their weight on and walk on three toes; horses, of course, bear weight on and walk on one toe.
Species count is contentious. Everyone agrees on five living rhinoceroses and four living tapirs, but sources differ on the horse family.
If the quagga is discounted for recently becoming extinct and if the Przewalski’s horse is discounted as a subspecies of the horse, then the family includes just eight species. But Przewalski’s horse has an extra chromosome plus several morphological features that taken together should segregate it as a distinct species.
The entire order, then, has but 18 living species as compared to something close to 220 species in the order Artiodactyla, which includes the camel, cattle, deer, giraffe, pig and pronghorn families.
Such information paints the background for the portrait of the wild horse as we see it.
The drive west from De Beque — 23 miles of rocky and rutted road but pleasant scenery — detaches mind and body from the conventions and routines of daily living. So when you see them, you realize … they’re just horses. But they wear no shoes or halters. No one feeds them or trims their manes and tails. They are no one’s pets or livestock; and through laws and provisions of public policy, they are not regarded as wildlife.
They are, after all, horses. Wild horses. And when we experience them, they evoke a special feeling, a sentiment. Something for which we have no name. Something splendid, something wonderful, something thrilling. Go see the wild horses, and then you will know.
Kevin J. Cook is a freelance writer and naturalist based in Loveland, CO. His Wildlife Window column appears in the Reporter-Herald every Thursday.
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