Horses first originated on the North American continent more than 55 million years ago. Over millions of years, they roamed the grasslands, slowly extending their range to most continents on earth. Around 8,000 B.C. they disappeared from the North American continent completely, succumbing to climate change and human predators. The horse was reintroduced to North America via Spanish explorers who came to the New World in the 16th century.
Modern American wild horses—also called mustangs—are descendants of these Spanish forbearers as well as horses who wandered from wagon trains, farms and ranches. Roaming free over the public ranges of the western United States, they were respected by ranchers for their strength and speed, and played an integral role of the building of our nation. However, the 1920s saw tractors begin to replace horses on American farms, and since they were no longer a necessary resource, wild horses began to be considered a nuisance.
The Decline of America's Wild Horse and Burro
In the 1930s, the U.S. Government authorized the removal of wild horses from the public range and they began to be killed in large numbers. Today, these beautiful and majestic animals have dwindled from an estimated two million at the beginning of the twentieth century to 30,000-40,000 on the range, with a similar number in long-term government holding facilities.The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, was authorized by the 1971 Wild Horses and Free-Roaming Burros Act to manage free-roaming wild horses on public rangelands. The BLM periodically removes large numbers of these horses (called "gathers") and makes them available for adoption or sale. Adoption demand has not keep pace with such drastic removals, requiring the BLM to pay for more and more private, long-term holding facilities. Today, this policy has resulted in one-half or more of our wild horse population languishing in holding pens, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year.
How We Help
Wild horses are now at the center of a raging debate. Many horse and animal advocates actively oppose BLM policies and procedures in the management of wild horses and burros, citing inhumane methods of gathering and management, and the danger of eradicating one of America’s cultural icons. Governmental agencies and some environmental groups allege these horses are non-native to United States, and are destroying fragile ecosystems and the habitat of native species, and therefore need to be controlled. There are conflicts over land use with the cattle industry. The specter of mass euthanasia also hangs over these horses, as the BLM's budget shortfalls threaten the agency's ability to care for the horses it is housing in long-term facitilities.
The ASPCA recognizes that wild horses and burros occupy a special place in our country’s history, and deserve to be protected. As such, we work with several equine advocacy and protection groups, as well as with legislators nationwide, to produce viable and long-term solutions that will not only preserve our most beloved species, but ensure they are treated with compassion. We support the work of numerous wild horse and burro sanctuaries through grants totalling nearly a half-million dollars over the past three years. This funding helps oversee proper care for the equines, as well as provides wild horse immunocontraception in sanctuaries and on tribal lands.