Wild Horse Country

David Philipps / W. W. Norton & Company / 368 pages

Wild horses and settlers of the American west had a lot in common. They were tough, independent, and resourceful, with a deep need for freedom and open spaces. As more people migrated west, however, wild horses became victims of human progress. It’s this story of wild horses that David Philipps adroitly describes in Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang.

Philipps effectively weaves together history, anthropology, legend, biology, politics, and ecology into a thoroughly entertaining book that traces the evolution of horses in North America, their subsequent disappearance and return, and the rise of a horse culture among some Native American nations. The author reveals the consequences of changing American attitudes about a wild horse population that may have exceeded 2 million by the late 1800s. Once people began to perceive them as competition for livestock, however, they were increasingly treated as vermin and slaughtered, and their numbers plummeted.

Wild Horse Country is filled with interesting facts and anecdotes. The determined efforts of Frank Litts in the 1920s to destroy the Rockford, Illinois, slaughterhouse of Philip Chappel—where he processed horse meat to make Ken-L-Ration brand dog food—illustrate the conflict over our relationship with wild horses and their management. The life of Velma Johnston (a.k.a. Wild Horse Annie) is explored, from her childhood affliction with polio, to the fateful day in 1950 when she trailed a truck that was dripping blood from its cargo of wild horses destined for slaughter, to her years of advocacy culminating in the 1971 passage of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

As wild horse numbers rebounded under the Act, their management became increasingly controversial and remains so to this day. The book describes the implications of the law for the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency now responsible for managing most wild horses, and for people like Joe Fallini, a Nevada rancher.

Philipps shows the cruelty inherent in the BLM’s removal from the wild of hundreds of thousands of horses since 1971. He explains how, as wild horse adoptions declined, tens of thousands of these captured horses remain in government-subsidized long-term holding pastures. As their numbers swelled, the cost of their care increased, consuming an ever growing proportion of the BLM’s budget. While conceding the difficulties the BLM faces, the author condemns the agency for its role in a number of wild horse slaughter scandals.

The book ends on a discussion of more rational solutions for wild horse management. The work of Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick and colleagues in developing the Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine is explored, as well as the vaccine’s successful use in several citizen-led campaigns to humanely manage wild horse populations, and the BLM’s resistance to broader use of PZP. The book also examines the research by Dr. John W. Turner on the efficacy of letting mountain lions keep some wild horse populations in check at Montgomery Pass on the California-Nevada border.

Wild Horse Country is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to understand the considerable cruelty and mismanagement wild horses have endured and continue to endure.

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