One of the most breathtaking symbols of the Old West were the herds of wild horses that used to roam the prairies, free and unrestrained.
It’s a symbol that is sadly disappearing for a variety of reasons and that’s why I recently took a trip with a friend to Cody, Wyo. I wanted to see those wild horses running free — now — before it’s too late.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seems to be managing the land for the cattle ranchers these days, not the wild horses. Never mind that these horses have lived on this land for hundreds of years. Every year, the BLM in cooperation with the wishes of cattlemen, declare the horses a menace and demand that more and more are rounded up.
And since those wild horses graze on grass that the ranchers want for their cattle . . . well, you get the picture.
Ranchers graze cattle, sheep and other livestock on the more than 21,000 allotments on 155 million acres of BLM lands. They pay $1.35 per month for each cow and calf on both BLM and Forest Service lands, a fee far below the approximate $15 that is charged to graze on private or state lands. And the grazing fees haven’t been raised since the 1970s.
Even though they should be protected by federal law, most of the herds have been eradicated, and those that remain are limited to no more than 100 horses per herd. Many wild horse advocates who spend their time out in the field surveying the herds feel that’s an arbitrary number the BLM has come up with to ensure that these horses won’t eat too much of that precious grass – on federal grazing lands – that cattlemen think are only meant for cattle.
It’s not just Wyoming horses that are suffering. At one time, bands of stunning Mustangs could be seen all across the West, but sadly, their numbers have been decimated all in the name of the cattle industry.
You can see rounded-up horses off Highway 80 in Rock Springs, Wyo., if you’re so inclined. Approximately 700 wild horses are housed there. There’s a viewing kiosk overlooking the facility. It remains open year-round. You can even take a tour if you like.
Personally, I found it a depressing view, knowing those penned-in horses were recently running free and wild on the plains. In addition to losing their freedom via round-ups, which often kill even the most healthy of horses, and is especially dangerous for foals, the care at the various holding pens across the country is basically nonexistent.
Often thrown into overcrowded pens with no shelter and limited food and water, injuries are left untreated and illness is ignored. To add insult to injury, familial bands, which are incredibly important to these wild herds, are separated and cordoned off into differing pens.
Knowing the history of these magnificent animals and their treatment at the hands of the BLM, I found it difficult to view them in their stark confinement.
You can see pictures of the horses on Facebook by clicking here.
Replacing horses with cattle
Although, at one time, the federal laws protecting these horses did just that. The 2004 Burns Amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act essentially eviscerated more than 30 years of protective measures for wild horses, allowing the Bureau of Land Management to not only round up the animals, but also sell older and unadoptable horses at livestock auctions. There, they will most likely be purchased by horse traders who specifically intend to ship them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.
It’s interesting to note that currently there are more wild horses in BLM holding pens than there are out roaming free on the range. While the horses pay the ultimate price for the BLM’s handiwork, the American citizens pay as well both in the tragic loss of a true American icon and the astronomical taxes paid to keep these horses jailed.
Wild horse advocates in the field conducting herd surveys argue that the BLM inflates the number of animals left on public lands as well manipulating the statistics released to the public for everything from projected birth rates to how many animals the land can sustain.
One thing is certain, it has been documented that as quickly as wild horses are removed, cattle are moved in to take their place.
One of the few remaining wild horse herds can be found just outside of Cody. And I was determined to see this untamed marvel up close before it is lost forever.
Pick a good campground
There are several nice RV parks in and around Cody, but I chose to stay at North Shore Bay Campground at Buffalo Bill State Park.
This campground offered a beautiful view of the lake and the surroundings were peaceful. All told, North Shore Bay has 37 sites, 29 pull-through sites, three back-in, and five designated as tent only. Seven of the sites can be reserved in advance, however, the remainder are available on a first come, first serve basis only.
So, travelers must either prepare ahead of time with a reservation or hope for the best upon arrival. It’s located approximately 9 miles west of Cody on US Highway 14-16-20 (North Fork Highway).
There is also North Fork Campground, 14 miles west of Cody on Northfork Highway, with 62 sites available.
You can find more information at www.stateparks.com/buffalo_bill_state_park_in_wyoming.html.
Our space at North Shore Bay was huge and right on the shore of the reservoir. It included a picnic table, a nice fire ring, a level gravel site, and wonderful breezes. We were thrilled with the location and the amenities, not to mention the size. With a large site, we had room to spread out and get comfortable.
Before heading out to spend the day looking for the wild horses, we stopped in, appropriately, at the Wild Horse Café and Gift Shop. The food was unbelievable, especially the apple pie grilled cheese with sweet potato fries. The gift shop has a wide selection of new and collectible items, as well as used western clothing and boots. I found a wonderful pair of gently-worn women’s cowboy boots for a steal!
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/wildhorsecageandgift.
After our breakfast and shopping, we headed east out of Cody on Highway 14-16-20 to mile marker 72, about 18 miles, in search of the wild horses that roam nearby.
Be forewarned, a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a vehicle that is high enough off the ground to be able to drive along two-track roads without scraping the bottom on the center line is a good idea! You will find it difficult to search for the wild ones in a standard sedan.
Of course, you can take a guided tour, but not being one to want to keep other’s timetables, I preferred going out on my own. You can get more information about the tours by clicking here.
When we arrived at mile marker 72, we saw a gate to the left and learned that horses are often in this area and visitors can enter if they choose. However, we decided to continue on to near mile marker 74 where there was a kiosk and a Whistle Creek road sign on the left.
We entered at this juncture and continued on about six more miles to pipeline marker 75, where we were greeted with a gorgeous panoramic view of the Badlands that was well worth the few extra miles of driving!
For more information about this area, click here.
Beware of phantom “horses”
On our quest for a peek at the wild horses, we slowly became aware of some unique visual phenomena: Horse-shaped shrubs, equine shadows and rock herds. Throughout the day, we found ourselves straining to find the wild ones and I can’t count the times we took off driving towards a “horse” that turned out to be an inanimate object.
Oh, and I will just stop here for a moment to say that a GPS will come in handy in case you get turned around so you can safely find the main road out! Trust me on this one.
We found the herd and spent the day watching them. As lovely as the scenery was, as majestic as those horses were, I felt a keen sense of sadness because I knew that in photographing these icons of the Old West, I was documenting a way of life that I’d probably never see again. A scene many will never have the chance to see at all.
If you’d like to see these horses roaming free, you should get out to see them now, while you still can. They’re disappearing by the hundreds and there really aren’t that many of them left.
Observe from a distance
If you go in search of these glorious Mustangs and are lucky enough to find them, please don’t approach the horses, attempt to feed them or touch them. For their own protection, it is imperative that the wild horses remain wild and not become dependent on being fed by humans or become too trusting of those two-legged creatures.
Not to mention that as wild animals, they are often unpredictable and in protecting their family (horses have strong familial bonds), people approaching them might get injured by a nervous stallion or mare with a foal perceiving them as a threat.
In the long run, it would be the horse that would pay the ultimate price for the human’s transgressions. So just observe their grandeur and beauty from afar without trespassing into their space.
As my friend and I gazed at those horses – yes, we finally found them – I felt that empty sadness once again, knowing that this true American icon will soon be history.
And the Old West will never be the same.
For more information, click on the websites below: