A Broad Box Labeled "Beautiful Things"
May 19, 2015 11:57 AM   Subscribe

For tens of thousands of years, wild horses have inspired humans - to nurture, to create, to slaughter - culminating in the past century of America’s legal and psychological battles over the horses we can’t own.
My favorite lullaby has always been “All the Pretty Little Horses.” Hush-a-bye don’t you cry, go to sleep my little baby. When you wake you shall have all the pretty little horses. Blacks and bays, dapples and grays, all the pretty little horses. It is sung slow, sad and mournful, from the perspective of a mother to her child. The origin of the song is not entirely known, but is likely an old slave song. One of the commonly repeated verses goes, Way down yonder, In the meadow, there's a poor lil lambie. The bees and the butterflies, peckin' out its eyes, the poor lil lambie cried, "Mammy!" I have an a capella version sung by the duo Anne and Elizabeth in a minor key. The harmonies are nothing if not beautiful. More than that, horses are what, in dreams, make the hurt go away.
posted by erratic meatsack (23 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have been trying in vain for literal years to remember where I read the story about the girl in a full-body polio cast that made her face crooked, and how it somehow led to a lifelong pony-liberation mission. Thanks, Metafilter!!
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:12 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

A story I worked on last year has probably the most up-to-date info on wild horses in the west.
Managing Nevada’s wild horses and burros a question of math?
posted by nedpwolf at 1:43 PM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hardcheese...I believe that's a book by Marguerite Henry called Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West.
posted by Calzephyr at 1:58 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My first feeling when looking at a picture of wild horses running across a range or a beach is one of admiration and awe. My second feeling is a comment on my first: embarrassment. The image of the wild horse is as saccharine as it is beautiful.

Ahhh, stop poking me in my soul, Nell Boeschenstein. In elementary school, I was one of those girls who loved horses. I was equally enthralled by books with beautiful illustrations so the Marguerite Henry books illustrated by Wesley Dennis were some of my most cherished possessions. This book, you guys? I feel all terribly nostalgic and happy and sad just look at the cover after 30+ years.

I remember the girl in the polio cast and the detail about the knitting needle, although I didn't remember it was from a Henry book until i read the article!
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:05 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

(the book title and description are in the article. Hence the "thanks, Metafilter!")

I remember the girl in the polio cast and the detail about the knitting needle, although I didn't remember it was from a Henry book until i read the article!

Apart from the cast and the crooked face the only thing I remembered was the following snippet of dialogue: "Bronch-itis? I thought for sure it'd be Mustang-itis!"

posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:12 PM on May 19, 2015

I'm 100% in agreement with this: "Since turning 18 and passing that point by which girls should have replaced their horses with boyfriends, I have often wished there were more horse books for adults that weren’t awful. "

Also when I pass by Young Adult books about horses I suddenly feel very conscious of being a woman. Not embarrassed that I too had a crazy horse-obsessed stage in my life, exactly, but conscious that this is something most likely only fellow women have gone through. It's a bizarre feeling.
posted by erratic meatsack at 2:27 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Horse obsession does not have to go away or be something to be embarrassed about. I never had it myself, horses seemed big and scary to me, but my best friend did, and so did her daughter, now in her 40s, who has made a career out of caring for horses by shaving their hooves so they do not need horseshoes. She and her husband work very hard and have a thriving business in southern CA doing this. She also owns three horses and boards them at a wonderful ranch with other great horse people, male and female. I visited there recently, and although I am not a horse person, it was magical.
posted by mermayd at 3:25 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I understand the romance, but it has always seemed misguided to me. All the wild horses in the New World are feral, descended from horses brought to the New World mainly by the Spanish and then freed or escaped.

The basic breeding stock from which they are all descended is very small, and as a result they are heavily inbred. The ones in California and Nevada are basically invasive weeds on four legs, and they cause a lot of trouble ecologically, particularly for species which truly are native, like antelope, because they compete for forage.

"So capture some of them and sell them to private owners." No can do; they're not very desireable animals, it turns out. You can try to sell them, but there aren't very many willing buyers. In order to keep their numbers under control, used to be they captured them and took them to slaughterhouses, to make dog food, but when that became widely known laws were passed, so that doesn't happen any longer.

Like any other invasive animal, the best solution would be extermination -- but, well, horses you know. It ain't gonna happen. Every 12 year old girl in the country would cry herself to sleep.

Horses evolved in North America, and populations of them moved to Asia via the Bering land bridge during the last ice age -- and then all the horses in the New World died out. (It's part of the same large-fauna die-out about ten thousand years ago that also took out all the mastadons, and a lot of other species. There's considerable debate among biologists about how this happened, but one of the main candidates is hunting by newly-arrived humans who came here via the same Bering land bridge.)

So there weren't any horses in the New World for thousands of years, until the Spaniards showed up to conquer Mexico.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:15 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

My goodness, Squeak, I knew exactly which book you were talking about before clicking the link even though I hadn't even thought about it in years! I wonder where my copy is?
posted by bettafish at 5:35 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Horses are the best.

If there was a heaven, what kind of a heaven would it be without horses, their ears up, eyes bright, running toward you knowing that you've got carrots, or apples, or sugar cubes, or all of those, and oats, too. They're just big dogs, in lots of ways, they respond to love same as a dog will, and give it back. They think they belong in the house -- Freckles, the horse we had when I was a kid, he'd break out of his little penned in area and come to the back door, it's midnight and someone's knocking at the back door: It's Freckles, knocking with his head. No kidding.

Pretty much the worst thing about horses is their ghastly farts, but since I lost my sense of smell that's not a problem. When you're a kid, you can throw horse turds at one another, dried ones, it's like year-round snowball fights in a way, though you don't want to throw any that are too fresh at your sister, or at my sister anyways -- voice of experience.

Horses are magic, they're time machines, you get on a horses back and you're a child again, especially once they get into a canter, damn sure in a gallop -- the wind in your face, and your hair, the pounding of their hooves, esp if the dirt is just right, not too wet nor too dry, and the creaking leather of the saddle -- it's magic, it really is. It's truly heaven, no doubt about it.

And it's like riding a bike, you don't forget the rhythms of it. I've been on two widow-makers, as a grown man, after not riding consistently in years, I got onto those widow-makers not knowing when I got on them that they were widow-makers, though I sure found out fast; one didn't get me off at all, try as she might -- and she damn sure did try, she had a big bag of tricks -- the other stutter-stepped Left! Right! Left! and I'm on the ground before I even knew anything was happening, and I'm furious, I chased her ass down and kicked her hard as I could and swung onto her and rode the living piss out of her -- it was great! She tried everything, tried to get us into trees, fence posts, anything. What a bitch she was! a spiny Arabian, really pretty, just spoiled rotten, and needing attention, which I gave her.

But there's few of those, just that I ran into two of them; I wrote about it cuz of being like riding a bike, you don't forget, you keep your seat even with years in between riding. I'd not put those widow-makers in any heaven I know of, though I'd not put them in hell, either; they're just wanting attention is all.

How anyone can think that loving horses is something to be ashamed of somehow, and must be grown out of -- that's just silly. Horses are the best.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:58 PM on May 19, 2015 [11 favorites]

Obligatory: Horses In My Dreams -- P.J. Harvey
posted by dancestoblue at 6:03 PM on May 19, 2015

So there weren't any horses in the New World for thousands of years, until the Spaniards showed up to conquer Mexico.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:15 PM on May 19

And the natives, once they got their hands on horses, they became the plains Indians, instead of having to fool a buffalo into jumping into a pit or getting a lucky long shot with an arrow now they have horses, and for about 250 years they prospered. Spectacular horse people, lived closer to them, with them, than anyone ever had.

One tribe of no consequence at all had been continually pushed way north, into the mountains, held in no esteem, trod upon by the other tribes. Until they got horses. And mastered horses, and mastered life with horses. After which the Comanche came out of those mountains, and was feared as no other, and they ranged from those northern mountains down into Mexico, the wildest and the freest of the wild and free plains tribes.

I'm not certain if they were the last to surrender to the reservations, maybe the Apache, I think the Apache wandered west, and was finally driven down in Arizona.

I'm no scholar on this, likely I'll be corrected here by someone with the True Facts of the matter. What I do know is that the horse gave the plains tribes advantages which the eastern tribes never had, and it gave them the buffalo, and that whole way of life.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:24 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

In order to keep their numbers under control, used to be they captured them and took them to slaughterhouses, to make dog food, but when that became widely known laws were passed, so that doesn't happen any longer.

It still happens, but now they get stuffed into rail cars and shipped to Mexico or Canada first.
posted by Tenuki at 6:30 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why don't they catch-neuter-release, like with cats? If they're a smallish inbred population, the problem will eventually solve itself, since unlike cats, their numbers aren't increasing from human factors like abandonment.
posted by zinful at 6:35 PM on May 19, 2015

Zinful, the problem is that if you catch/neuter/release they're still eating the native fodder and competing against antelope and other native species, and they could live for decades before they finally die. We don't just need to control future numbers; we need to reduce the number that are out there right now.

We have the same problem with deer and elk, but we control those via hunting. But I don't think anyone wants to hunt horses, so that solution is off the table.

Besides which, neutering stallions (which is relatively easy) wouldn't help any. If you got 90% it wouldn't have any effect. You'd have to neuter the mares, and that's a lot more difficult.

Tenuki, I didn't know about that. But it doesn't surprise me. BLM has to get rid of the animals some way, after all. And this is better than shoot-and-bury.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:35 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Actually, abandonment is an issue with horses. People get horses, hit hard times and can't sell or even give them away.
Surgery isn't the only option as far as 'neuter and release' long - term hormonal birth control has been used some places. I guess that still leave the eating of native forage. Same goes for cattle, but no one is going to clear out cattle or even raise grazing fees...
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think controlling their numbers only with catch/neuter/release would be difficult. Wikipedia says that mares can begin breeding at age 4, can produce a foal every year, and can live for 25 years or longer.

So you could potentially be looking at a reproduction rate of up to 20 offspring per female. In order to maintain a stable population you'd need to sterilize more than 90% of the females, and that doesn't seem practical.

If you don't get that many, then their numbers are going to keep rising until they start starving or until their numbers are reduced some other way i.e. by direct human action.

The entire ecology for large fauna in CONUS has long since been disrupted by human eradication of large predators. That's why human intervention is now essential to keep the population of large herbivores under control.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:28 PM on May 19, 2015

The entire ecology for large fauna in CONUS has long since been disrupted by human eradication of large predators. That's why human intervention is now essential to keep the population of large herbivores under control.

Have wolves been reintroduced to any areas with wild horses? Around here the elk herds have responded dramatically to a very tiny wolf population -- there is only one pack in the area but the elk have shifted their browse patterns in response -- so if horses had the same response it might help alleviate some of the grazing problems. And the elk are similarly an introduced species in this area, managed to keep the herds large because of how much demand there is for hunting tags. Ecologically it would be great to either eliminate them or at least push the population numbers way down, but that is no more likely to get public approval than would a proposal to start eliminating horses.

I've never been a horse person at all and don't find them particularly interesting animals, but it is striking how strong people's affection for them is. They aren't cheap to keep, but almost every ranchette around here has a couple of horses overgrazing a too-small pasture. Just having them there to look at is important to people who might never even ride them. That same affection gets applied to the wild herds, and very much limits the management options.

The essay in the FPP was interesting, but I was surprised that the author hadn't ever gone to see actual wild horses, since it is something she has clearly thought about intensely for so long.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:49 AM on May 20, 2015

More obligatory, to piggyback on dancestoblue's post:
Judy and the Dream of Horses

The smell of horses, preferably inhaled from hot whiskery snuffles on your face, is indeed heaven.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:38 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sterilizing the females is probably more effective than castrating the males, since it only takes one male to impregnate a bunch of females (and the net result is even less genetic diversity in the remaining population).

I am not sure I find the whole native-species / invasive-species argument particularly compelling, though. It is a sort of essentialist, back-to-nature argument which feels "truthy" on its surface but seems ahistorical at best.

Horses have been part of the plains landscape for hundreds of years. Then there was a long period where they weren't here, because humans killed them all off, and prior to that a period when they were (in some form, probably not identical to modern horses, but close enough). There is a lot of arbitrariness and Euro-centricity in picking the date Europeans first showed up as the epoch from which we will decide what is "native" and what is not. Why not, since we now have the ability, look further back to beyond the anthropocene?

It seems odd, and troubling somehow, that people are willing to ignore all the massive ways in which humans shape our landscape, but then concentrate with suspiciously deadly precision on the few ways in which we do that might be "solved" by exterminating something. When the solution to something non-native is unpleasant, or might actually interfere with comfortable civilization, it is never discussed. I'm quite confident that the grazing land lost to beef cattle is orders of magnitude than that lost to wild horses, but there is no serious discussion of reducing the cattle population. Of course not. But horses—hey, horses we can just kill. Let no problem stand unsolved where the solution involves killing.

Here's an idea: given that we have a landscape which is in virtually no way similar to a hypothetical North America that didn't contain humans, which contains terraforming on a vast scale, whole ecologies wiped out and replaced with those considered preferable, and which has been continuously molded not just by Europeans but by Americans for eons, maybe we need to abandon the concept of a primordial "native" condition that we can somehow return to, and instead be honest with ourselves when it comes to fauna as we are when it comes to other aspects of environmental modification: what do we consider preferable? There is no reason why the desired steady-state of the American west can't be one that involves wild horses.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:13 AM on May 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

"I have often wished there were more horse books for adults that weren’t awful."

There are some great equestrian memoirs. Here are three. I could go on, but I picked these as they are reflective about gender and horses (Forrest in particular) which has come up in the thread. I was conscious as a male learning to ride (still learning, in fact) that I was very much in a minority, which is a pretty recent development in the history of humans' relationship with equines. Depends on the discipline and the location, of course.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 9:34 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have driven many of Nevada's backroads, it is always a lift to come upon wild horses, especially in some wind and weather with mood, and there they stand, a quiet three or four in some huge empty place to run. I love the sight of them. Those horses down at Four Corners are pretty skinny at times.
posted by Oyéah at 5:00 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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