Wild Horses and Burros

Their Role in the American Southwest


Horses and burros, with common evolutionary origins in North America, submitted to domestication five millennia ago. Across five continents, they became instruments of exploration, conquest, migration, colonization, agriculture, prospecting, adventure and sport.  They have forged a unique bond with the human species.  They set the standard for the human quality of common sense in the ranch lands of our western states, where it was called “horse” sense. 

Horses that I grew up with included a couple of paints and a “grullo” (a bluish-colored horse).  A brown-and-white paint we called “Ole’ Pet” threw me, a five-year old at the time, into a barbed-wire fence, leaving me with long jagged scars across my right shoulder.  A big black-and-white paint, a gentle old love called “Beauty,” became a close companion on daily rides in the Texas Rolling Plains.  The “grullo,” called “Screwball,” taught me how to cut yearling calves out of a herd and drive them into a pen so my grandfather and his cowhands could “mark” (castrate) and brand them. 

Burros that I knew anything about appeared mostly on the silver screen on Saturday afternoons at the local movie houses, where I could see a 1940’s-era Western and have a popcorn and a coke for a total of $0.25.  Other burros, by the time I came along, served primarily as novel pets, some of them with a mischievous inclination to kick and bite the dickens out of little kids like me.  They could not be trusted so far as I could see.   

Evolutionary History

“The first horses appeared in the early Eocene of North America, 50 to 56 million years ago,” according to Paul D. Haemig, writing for the Ecology.Info Internet site.  “They were miniature broncos the size of housecats and small dogs, and were diversified into many genera.  These early horses did not have the hoofs of modern horses.  Instead, they had 3 toes on their front feet, and 4 toes on their back feet.”

Spanish missionaries and Indians

The horse had never been seen by the Indians before the coming of the Spanish.

In response to climatic and botanical changes through time, the ancestors of our modern horses and burros waxed and waned in species diversity, size, range and diets.  By the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch – the Ice Ages, which lasted from 1.8 million years to about 10,000 years ago – immediate predecessors to our current species had emerged, now characterized by a more streamlined shape, more powerful muscles and a single toe, or hoof.  They extended their range, over the Ice Age land bridge between Alaska and Siberia, into the other continents.  

Ironically, in North America – the land of its origin – the horse and its close relatives, like other large Ice Age animals, fell inexplicably into the black hole of extinction at the end of the Pleistocene.  However, modern species, including horse populations, zebras and asses continued to range over the grasslands of the Old World. 

Reintroduction to the Americas

The horse made a return to the Americas in the late 15th century, now bearing Spanish conquistadors, who came on epic missions of exploration and conquest.  The first horses arrived during Columbus’ second voyage, in 1493.  Others followed on subsequent Spanish sailing vessels.  They came bound and suspended in special slings, which held them essentially immobile, below decks, for entire, months-long crossings of the Atlantic, according to the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, Internet site, the Wild Bunch.  Frequently the animals died, with many of the carcasses cast overboard in the “horse latitudes,” the subtropical latitudes in the Atlantic Ocean, north and south of the equator. 

In campaigns against the Native Americans, a fiery stallion became the conquistador’s status symbol and his military edge.  “In battle some of their war stallions bit and kicked ‘the barbarous Indians,’” said J. Frank Dobie in his classic book, The Mustangs.  Following his defeat of the Aztecs in Mexico, Fernando Cortez said, “Next to God, we owe our victory to our horses.”  In the Spanish explorations and colonization of the Southwest, the horse, an animal not seen in the Americas for 10,000 years, may have terrified and intimidated the Indians as much as the bearded men encased in metal suits and armed with harquebuses.  

Coming in large numbers – more than 1,000 horses traveled with Coronado’s expedition alone, for example – some of the animals inevitably escaped into the wilderness, perhaps answering a primal call to return to the lands of their origins.  They would prosper, finding “vast American ranges corresponding in climate and soil to the arid lands of Spain, northern Africa and Arabia…” said Dobie.  “And these ranges were as virgin in fertility to them as to the first European farmers...”  They “found new predators in America, but not potent enough to retard extraordinary multiplication.” 

In the centuries following Spanish colonization, more horses, of different species, came into the Great Plains and the Southwest, issuing from the expansive young nation to the east.  They bore restless, white-faced souls to new adventure.  They carried soldiers to glory, and sometimes, disaster, in bloody military campaigns.  They drew the wagons of emigrants and merchants.  They pulled the plows that broke virgin soils.  They provided escape for outlaws.  They defined the cowboy, for many, the quintessential emblem of America.  Meanwhile, the horse’s brethren, the humble burro, became icons of the Hispanic paisanos, or rural people, and to the Argonauts, or gold prospectors. 

The horses of both the Spanish and Anglo settlers gave unintended mobility, freedom and range to the Plains and Desert Indian peoples, who turned horse theft and raiding into an art form.  The horse became the currency of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the Southwest, a vehicle for daring and victory on the battlefield, a measure of the status of a chief and his band, an offering to a family for a maiden’s hand, a symbol of the spirituality of a warrior.  The horse changed ancient cultures in fundamental ways, loosening their bonds, expanding worldviews, increasing material wealth and setting new value systems.

Anglo horses and burros escaped (or were released voluntarily) into the wilderness, joining their feral Spanish kin.  They mixed their bloods.  True to their instincts, the wild horses formed herds, with a lead stallion protecting his band and a lead mare informing the band behavior.  The wild horse became known to Spanish-speaking peoples, as a “mesteño,” or “unclaimed one,” and to the English-speaking peoples, as a “mustang,” a corruption of the Spanish word.  By the 19th century, more than two million wild horses and burros ranged across the western states, according to BLM’s Wild Bunch Internet site.  They would become supremely adapted to the wild lands. 

Compact and powerful, with large lung capacity, the mustang has “stronger legs, higher bone density and harder hooves than do domestic horses.”  He has acutely sensitive hearing and vision.  “Their eyes,” said the BLM, “can move independently and are placed in such a manner to allow them a 320 degree field of view, even while grazing head-down.”  They have served as seed stock for the development of the pure-breds, including the Quarter Horse, the Appaloosa and Palomino.  In the wild, the horse typically lives for 20 years.  

Originally from Africa, the modern wild burro, hardy and surefooted, brings extraordinary hardiness to our hard desert landscape.  He feeds not only on the desert grasses but also the shrubs and even coarse-stemmed Mormon tea, or ephedra.  The burro “can tolerate a water loss of as much as 30 percent of [its] body weight,” said the BLM, “and replenish it after only five minutes of drinking.”  (By contrast, a human may not survive a water loss of more than 10 percent of his body weight.)  In the wild, the burro typically lives for more than 30 years.  Some survived long after their Argonaut masters perished in the Southwest desert basins and mountain ranges. 

Turning of the Tide

Similar to the great buffalo herds’ near extermination, the wild horse and burrow herds began a downward spiral in the second half of the 19th century.  They fell to the rifles of stockmen who saw them as competitors for valuable cattle forage.  They got cut off from their traditional ranges by fences and roads.  Rounded up by cowboys and cavalrymen, they became involuntary draft and saddle stock for ranches and the military.  Hunted by “mustangers,” who gathered them, often ruthlessly and brutally, for the slaughterhouses, America’s wild horses became a valued source of meat for European tables and domestic pet foot products.  By the mid 1950’s, more than 99 percent of our wild horses had disappeared.  Burros, with less market value, had fared somewhat better. 

Thanks to a quiet but determined middle-aged secretary named Velma B. Johnson, derisively called “Wild Horse Annie,” who managed to ignite a national campaign, the animals finally gained protection when Congress passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.  It effectively charged the BLM and the U. S. Forest Service with protecting and managing “wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of the public lands…”

Wild Burros in Oatman

Wild burros roam the streets in Oatman, Arizona.

The Challenge

Today most wild horses and burros – a total of 40,000 to 50,000 – hold residence in 10 Western states, on more than 65,000 square miles of public lands administered by the BLM.  More than half occupy ranges in Nevada.  The animals “have thrived under federal protection,” said the BLM in Wild Bunch, but “the responsibility of land managers to protect the herds and the rangeland has become all the more challenging as issues of science and society intertwine.” 

Largely unencumbered by predators, wild horse and burro populations, foraging from semidesert shrublands and grasslands to mountain flanks, can increase from 15 to 20 percent a year.  Unchecked, they could, within a few years, overwhelm the “carrying capacity” of a range, inflicting severe damage on the native plant and wildlife communities, degrading the quality of water sources, and opening the way for invasive weeds.  Oversized herds could then face starvation, a threat magnified by dwindling rangelands, periodic drought, harsh weather or wildfires. 

“Perhaps the greatest challenge for land managers,” said the BLM, “is determining how many wild horses and burros the land can support without degrading rangelands.”  Moreover, said the BLM, “Land managers base allocation decisions not only on science but also on public demands for land uses.”

BLM Management Programs

The BLM has developed several programs for controlling herd sizes.  As one possibility, researchers hope to develop a safe vaccine that could inhibit fertility in a mare for several years, although the approach will require considerable time to perfect.  In another possibility, federal managers have worked with private landowners and others to establish sanctuaries for older and infirm animals, although that avenue has so far garnered only limited public support.  In its most successful effort, the BLM has offered excess wild horses and burros to the public for adoption, a program that has led to the placement of more than 175,000 animals since the 1970s. 

Horses in Nevada

In Nevada, with more than half of the wild horse population, the BLM typically gathers up overly populous herds between March and June.

The Adoption Program

In Nevada, with more than half of the wild population, the BLM typically gathers up overly populous herds between March and June—the non-foaling season for the horses.  The agency calls on contract helicopters to drive the animals into temporary corrals, where they are sorted by age and sex.  The BLM then moves the younger animals to “preparation centers,” where they are examined, inoculated and freeze-marked, preparing them for adoption.  It releases the older more experienced animals back to familiar open range, where they will face less competition for forage and water.  Other BLM offices, in other states, follow comparable procedures.

Wild horse in the Mojave

Wild horse in the Mojave Desert

Once ready, the BLM moves the younger wild horses and burros to adoption sites across the country.  The agency requires that prospective adopters meet qualifications intended to assure humane treatment of the animals, and agency personnel provide training for new and inexperienced owners and monitors the progress of each animal for a year before issuing title.  “Through employee training, expanded research on wild horse and burro biological needs and social dynamics, and the involvement of partner organizations, BLM is working to ensure that the animals are well treated during all phases of handling,” said the agency in Wild Bunch. 

The Rewards

Should you choose to adopt a wild horse or burro – toughened products of a hard and arid land and legacies of a pioneering spirit – you can touch the history of the West, experiencing some of the rewards.  As BLM wild horse and burro specialist Mindy Odom told Laurie Castaneda for an article for The Weekend Pinnacle Online, “These are horses and burros that are totally wild.  The only handling they have had is when they were branded and vaccinated.  But wild horses are very trainable.  They are very sure-footed and are great for riding.  They don’t need shoes because their feet are so hard.  They are very hardy and healthy - they couldn’t survive out there if they weren’t.”

With patience, gentleness and love, you could train your horse for endurance or pleasure riding, barrell racing, jumping, carriage draft or competitive performances.  You might train your burro as a pet, a child’s mount or a pack animal.  Adopting a wild horse or burro, you can join a large community of like-minded two-legged friends.  Most importantly, you will likely forge a compelling bond with a new, four-legged companion in a mutually rewarding relationship. 

Jay W. Sharp

Wild Burros
Wild burros of Oatman Arizona
Horseback Riding Trails Anza-Borrego Desert SP



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