About Wild Horses
Find out about wild horses in America … where they come from and where they’re going. Every year, hundreds of young people all across America write Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, with questions about wild horses. From this page, you can read the most commonly-asked questions — and answers — about wild horses, their origins and how they live in America today.
The animal that we know today as the horse appeared first on the North American continent about 55 million years ago with its four-toed ancestor, Eohippus, meaning “dawn horse.” This small animal was about the size of a fox and made its home in swamplands, feeding off plant life.
Eohippus slowly evolved into Mesohippus, the size of an average collie. Mesohippus had three toes and eventually became an inhabitant of the prairie. Its shape changed as its habitat changed: it grew taller, its teeth and middle toe grew longer and eventually became a hoof. The evolution continued until Equus caballus — the horse as we know it today — was formed.
The horse was probably first domesticated about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in the region of the Black Sea of Asia. Once man learned to tame them, horses served a variety of purposes. For centuries man traveled no faster than a horse could run. Horses carried the conquering armies of entire civilizations across the old world. (The entire Mongol Empire of Ghengis and Kubla Khan was made possible only by the horse.) In Europe the horse was soon hitched to the plow to expand society’s agricultural capabilities.
As the horse evolved, it first appeared on the grass lands of the North American continent. But for reasons that scientists still don’t understand, horses began wandering off North America about 10 million years ago. They began their journey across the Bering Straits (west of Alaska) into Asia, and continued across the Iranian Plateau of the Middle East and as far as Europe and northern Africa. By about 10 thousand years ago, no more horses remained on the North American continent.
The reintroduction of the horses into the Americas began in 1519 when Cortez came from Spain. As more and more settlers from Spain and other European countries came, they brought horses with them and returned these animals to their native land after a 10,000-year journey around the world.
The word mustang comes from the Spanish word, mustengo, which means, “ownerless beast.” The American mustangs originally came from the Spanish stock of horses that were brought to the Americas beginning in the 16th Century. Over time, other kinds of horses banded with wild Spanish horses, including quarter horses, draught horses and others.
Today, when most people use the word “mustangs,” they are probably referring to all wild horses in North America. However, there are specific kinds of mustangs, and they have their own unique breeds.
At Return to Freedom, we have a number of horses that have been proven to be direct descendants of the Spanish stock that came to this country over 400 years ago. You can read more about them in our Conservation section, rare breeds.
Horses are herd animals. That means that they live as a group, helping one another survive the elements and threats that they encounter.
Here at Return to Freedom, we allow wild horses to live as they would if they were running free. Through the years, we have watched our horses carefully and offer insights into how wild horses behave. We invite you to read more.
Yes! The picture of horses running free across open lands is one of our country’s most romantic images. And wild horses still roam in America today.
Horses are able to live in the wild because that is how nature intended them to live. Many people think that horses were bred in captivity, much like dogs and cats. But in fact, horses breed and exist naturally as wild animals, like wolves or tigers do.
Wild horses in North America live on islands off the Atlantic coast as well as in some U.S. states. Small populations of horses live on Sable Island (off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada), Assateague Island (off the coast of Maryland and Virginia), Shakleford Island (off the coast of North Carolina) and Cumberland Islands (off the coast of Georgia).
Wild horses also roam on 11 western states that include Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and New Mexico.
For the most part, wild horses in the United States live on public lands. Those are lands that are owned by U.S. citizens and paid for by Americans’ tax dollars. Most public lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nobody really knows for sure. This is because horses are not counted in all the areas where they roam.
But, the BLM does publish estimates of the number of wild horses and burros that roam on public lands that it manages. As of February of 2007, the BLM estimated that there were 28,500 wild horses and burros on lands that they managed. It is likely that there are fewer than 25,000 horses and fewer than 5000 burros left on 34 million acres of public land managed by the BLM. That’s one horse for every 1360 acres!
Velma Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, with the help of children all across the country was instrumental in establishing the first laws to protect wild horses in America. We invite you to read more.
There are. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This law was the first of its kind to protect wild horses and burros. The law stated that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and that they “enrich the lives of the American people.”
In that year the American government set aside 80 million acres as wild horse territory where herds could run free. Unfortunately, over the years, the amount of land set aside for wild horses has been reduced, so that today less than 40 million acres remain. And many of those acres do not offer the kinds of grazing lands that horses need.
Wild horses that live on public lands must share the resources of grazing lands and water with farmers’ livestock, including cattle and sheep, as well as other wild animals. As increasing numbers of animals compete for the limited resources of America’ public lands, there are few people to speak up for the wild horses to assure that their interests — and their homes — are protected.
As a result, the number of wild horses roaming free in America continues to decline. Just a few years ago, there were approximately 48,000 wild horses in America. According to the BLM, in 2002 only about 34,500 remained. By the year 2005, the government has stated that it wants to reduce the population further to about 26,900 horses.
As more and more wild horses are removed from public lands, it is very important that these horses find suitable homes and are preserved and protected. Although there are adoption programs for wild horses, there are no safeguards that insure that people who adopt wild horses will take care of them properly. In fact, some people even adopt horses and then sell them to slaughter houses.
At Return to Freedom, we feel that wild horses need to be protected. And we feel it is just as important that bonded herds be able to stay together when they are moved off public lands.
Imagine how you would feel if you were separated from your family and others that you love. Well, the same is true for wild horses. For this reason, when we take wild horses from public lands, we make sure that entire herds are relocated as a group. When we take one horse — we take the entire family. And, we may be the only sanctuary in the country that does this.
What can you do to help?
Lots of times, young people in school feel there is little they can do to help causes that they believe in. But you know what? Wild Horse Annie proved how much young people could do to help wild horses. And, there are things you can do that would really help Return to Freedom.
Currently we have more than 350 horses at our Sanctuary. And we have to make sure they are all fed and cared for. Also, in order to save even more horses, we need more land.
Please consider how you, your class or youth group can sponsor a horse that lives here. Your help could mean so much!