A Quick History of Wild Horses in America

A Quick History of Wild Horses in America

Horses have always been synonymous with the American Wild West, and since the invention of the camera, wild horse photography has been a compelling tool to advocate for wild horses and for some a lucrative business. However, there’s so much more to wild horses than being the romance for a lens. Here’s a quick history of wild horses in America.

The Origin of American Horses

Horses have an interesting history in North America. Millions of years ago, horses evolved on the North American continent. There are conflicting theories about whether horses became extinct from the North American continent between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Many Native nations’ oral traditions state that they have always had horses in their culture, whereas Western academia’s history reflects a Eurocentric and colonial paradigm stating that horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s.1

Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, there is no denying the role horses have played in all cultures here in the United States—historically and even today.

Horses in a Developing Nation

Horses would remain the backbone of America as the country developed and settlers continued to spread West. This mass exodus to the West brought an abundance of horses that continue to populate the West to this day. These wild horses can thrive in the western landscape, just as their ancestors once had.

Wild Horses Today

Eventually, the automobile would replace horses as the main method of transportation. Where does that leave the history of wild horses in America today? You can find herds of wild, free roaming horses primarily in our 10 western states, but their numbers are drastically reduced, much like the American bison.

The current populations of wild, free roaming horses are descended from the horses of Native nations, army remount programs, early settlers, miners, and ranchers.

Because of grassroots movements like Wild Horse Annie’s pencil war in the 1950’s, alongside children who wrote letters to newspapers and elected officials, the Wild, Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was passed.2 Congress found and declared that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.

This act protects wild horses and burros from organizations and individuals that had been rounding them up to slaughter them for profit. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), tasked with managing the 1971 Act, hasn’t been without their issues, however, and wild horses are still very much at risk to this day.

With your help, coupled with the ongoing use of my lens, our combined voices will raise awareness and ensure horses have a voice in their persistent fight for wild spaces. With your help, we will also showcase how they shine in an adoptive setting as part of the Adopt-A-Horse program. We will continue to seek viable solutions in the management of our public lands so wild horses can thrive on the very land their ancestors came from—for America is as much their home as it is ours.


1 Collins, Y. (2017), The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth

2 Kania, A.J. (2012), Wild Horse Annie, Velma Johnston and her fight to save the mustangs