America’s mustangs are the descendants of wild horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 16th century. Others come from stock that was released or escaped from miners, ranchers, homesteaders and others who settled the West. More than two million wild horses and burros are reported to have roamed the west by the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, competition intensified between wild horses and cattle, sheep, fences, farms, and ranches for the remaining open range. Wild horse population plummeted as tens of thousands of animals were rounded up for use as draft animals, saddle stock, military mounts, food or to reduce competition with domestic livestock for limited forage, water and space.
Velma B. Johnston “Wild Horse Annie” (1912-1977) was a tireless pioneer in establishing legislation for the protection of wild horses and burros across the United States. Her efforts were instrumental in getting the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act.
The “Pencil War”
By the mid-20th century, domestic markets for pet and chicken feed and European markets for horse meat emerged, further reducing the number of wild horses and burros remaining in the West. Public concern escalated in response to the brutal methods used by mustangers to capture and transport wild horses for sale to rendering plants. Horrified by the mustangers’ gruesome practices, Velma Johnston spearheaded a “Pencil War”, a letter writing campaign that generated more letters to congress than any single issue besides the Vietnam War! Thousands of letters were written by school children concerned for the horses welfare.
Congress passes the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act
As populations on western rangelands declined to fewer than 20,000 animals, the Congress of the United States deliberated over the animals’ future and passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act in 1971. The Act placed America’s mustangs and burros under federal jurisdiction, and charged the Department of the interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) with preserving and protecting wild horses and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
The Balancing Act
Along with protection and preserving comes the responsibility to keep the land in balance. The BLM is required to maintain animal levels that achieve a “thriving natural ecological balance.” When populations of wild horses and burros along with wildlife and livestock exceed the capacity of their habitat, land health begins to deteriorate. Native vegetation is damaged, encouraging the growth of invasive weeds and reducing the amount of food and water available to support the animals. When the BLM determines that the mustang population exceeds habitat capacity, the excess animals are removed from the range and prepared for adoption to qualified adopters.
Read each angle to determine the freezemark number.
The BLM uses freeze marking to identify captured wild horses and burros. Freeze marking is a permanent, unalterable, and painless way to identify each horse as an individual. It is applied on the left side of the neck. It follows the International Alpha Angle System, which uses a series of angles and alpha symbols that cannot be altered. The mark contains the Registering Organization (U.S. Government), year of birth, and registration number.
The technique is simple and completely painless to the animal. The left side of the neck is shaved and washed with alcohol, and the mark is applied with an iron that is chilled in liquid nitrogen. The hair at the site of the mark will grow back white and show the identification number.
In addition to the freeze mark on the left side of the neck, sanctuary wild horses are marked on the left croup with four-inch high Arabic numerals that correspond with the last four digits of the freeze mark on the neck.
Although every effort is made to apply freeze marks that are legible, occasionally freeze marks do get blurred. This happens when the animal moves as the iron is applied, resulting in all or some of the identification number becoming illegible. The following graph illustrates how to read a freeze mark. If a mark is difficult to read, we recommend shaving the left side of the neck. You must know the freeze mark of your horse or burro before making an inquiry to a BLM office about the animal.
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM identified herd areas as places used as habitat by a herd of wild horses at the time the Act was passed. To carry out its duties under the 1971 law, the BLM periodically evaluates each herd area to determine if it has adequate food, water, cover, and space to sustain healthy and diverse wild horse and burro populations over the long-term.
The areas that meet these criteria are then designated as Herd Management Areas (HMAs), where horses or burros can be viably managed as a component of the public lands. The BLM does its work under the Act using HMAs as the main geographic unit.
Download, play and learn. The wild American Mustang has much to offer children of all ages. From the simplicity of family structure to the responsibility of caring for the world around us, Mustangs can be a topic of great interest and educational value.
Congress recognized the need to protect the Nation’s natural, historical, and cultural resources while providing opportunities for recreation. Special acts withdrew millions of acres of public lands from settlement for National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, National Trails, and National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Some of the best known congressional withdrawals include Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Death Valley National Monument.
A mustang is the free-roaming horse of the North American west that first descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. Mustangs are often referred to as wild horses, but there is debate over terminology. Because they are descended from once-domesticated horses, they can be classified as feral horses.
In 1971, the United States Congress recognized that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” In the 21st century, mustang herds vary in the degree to which they can be traced to original Iberian horses. Some contain a greater genetic mixture of ranch stock and more recent breed releases, while others are relatively unchanged from the original Iberian stock, most strongly represented in the most isolated populations. As Americans it is our responsibility to help maintain, manage and protect our national rangeland to ensure that there is balance and stability in the use of our national resources to support the livelihood of mustangs.