Resources & Links
Find out about wild horses in America… where they come from and where they’re going.
About Wild Horses
Every year, hundreds of young people all across America write to us 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 horses that came to this country over 400 years ago. You can read more about them in our Conserving Rare Breeds section.
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 free-roaming horses mainly inhabit high desert ranges in the west and southwest and areas in the Western Rockies. Depending on who governs the land they range on, determines how they are managed.
The only government agency given the responsibility to ‘manage’ wild horses is the Bureau of land Management ( BLM). The BLM manages 254 acres of our Public Lands. Today Wild Horses are allowed to live on 26 million acres of our public lands where they share the land, food and water with 50 times as many livestock (cattle).
Public lands are owned by U.S. citizens and paid for by Americans’ tax dollars. Our public lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with assistance from the U.S. Forest Service.
Wild horses on Public lands roam on 11 western states that include Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico. Seventy percent of our wild horses on public lands live in Nevada.
Nevada also has approximately 2,000 free-ranging horses on state lands near Virginia City. We refer to these horses as the “ Virginia Range Horses”. These horses inspired the crusade of Velma Johnston, or better known as “Wild Horse Annie”.
Wild horses in North America also live on islands off the Atlantic coast. 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 Banks on Shakleford Island (off the coast of North Carolina), and Cumberland Islands (off the coast of Georgia). These lands are managed either by the State or National Park Service. The horses are here because people like you care about them and want them to remain.
Wild horses also live on tribal lands and are governed by the tribes.
Nobody really knows for sure. This is because horses are not counted in all the areas where they roam nor are census done on a regular basis.
The BLM does publish estimates of the number of wild horses and burros that roam on the public lands that they manage. As of February 28, 2014, the BLM estimates 33,780 horses and 6,825 burro are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states. (Click here to read BLM Quick Facts)
Velma Johnston was outraged at the harassment and killing of wild horses. So she began a campaign that involved mostly school children. Young people from all across America sent letters to newspapers and legislators, attracting enormous attention that made the public aware of the issue. And, as public attention grew, Velma Johnston became known as ‘Wild Horse Annie.’
Wild Horse Annie, with the help of these school children, succeeded in getting some of the first laws passed to protect wild horses.
Young people can make a difference! There are many ways that you and your friends, classmates, groups or communities can help America’s last wild horses. You can:
On behalf of all the animals at Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary, we thank you.
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.
Sanctuaries provide a home for captured wild horses and also serve as a powerful tool to educate the public about wild horses and horses in general.
Horses are social mammals and they live in naturally selected herds with a sophisticated social structure. They raise their young, the herd helps to shape the character of the young foals and the stallion also contributes to the development of the foals in ways we may never fully understand.
Roundups destroy these tightly bonded family bands, forever. Captured horses are traumatized and often scarred for life. Most do not get adopted, and often those that do suffer abusive management and end up at auctions and slaughter. Some find themselves with well meaning people but for one reason or another it doesn’t work out.
So, once home on the range living as nature intended, these wild horses are left confused, herdless and homeless. Sanctuaries can help fill that niche.
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, park or state lands, Return to Freedom works hard to relocate family bands together.
At Return to Freedom, we feel that wild horses need to be protected in their natural habitats on the range. With roundups continuing, we feel the least we can do is demand that bonded herds be able to stay together when they are moved off public lands. So the sanctuary can provide refuge for displaced wild horses, management solutions and educational programs that support national advocacy to improve policies to protect wild horses on the range and help keep wild horses wild and free.
To help you learn more about America’s wild horses and the people that care for them, we have put together the following links to other web sites. You can read more about:
Equine History and Education
- About the Mustang
- More about mustangs
- National Geographic
- PBS Wild Horses: An American Romance — also see the video; click here
- PBS Nature and Horses
- Unbroken Spirit
Where wild horses live now
- Sable Island in Canada
The National Seashores of:
Public lands in: Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and California
Spirit and Return to Freedom
- About Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
- My California Trip: Scholastic Magazine 1
- Spirit Movie Tells the Story of a Return to Freedom: Scholastic Magazine 2
- American Humane Association
Watch the trailer below: