Geography of Wild Horses in the United States

| |

Wild horse populations are found around the world, from the Mongolian steppes to Africa, Europe, North America and beyond. The domestication of wild horses has occurred in different parts of the world at various times, leading to the use of horses for transportation, in agriculture, and as trade items prized for their hardiness and grace.

In North America, the species that evolved into what we understand to be a modern horse came from the Tennessee Valley and was known as Eohippus.

These early horse ancestors spread throughout North America and South America before disappearing and reappearing in Africa, where the species Equus was identified. From there, Equus spread to Asia and Europe before being brought once again to American shores by European explorers and others seeking the vast resources of the Americas.

A diagram showing the evolution of the modern horse starting with eohippus.
Evolution of the modern horse. Image: © Aldona / stock.adobe.com.

Herds of wild horses (Equus caballus) can still be found in locations that seem inhospitable to many other species. Not only do wild horses face challenges related to the environments they live in, but increasing pressures from humans, infrastructure development, and climate change threaten to isolate these unique animals and can lead to their extinction.

Some wild horse species have gone extinct, like the Przewalski’s horse, while others have been selectively bred for use as racehorses, pack animals, and as pets.

Wild horses have been the inspiration for music, films, and myths of the early pioneers that explored the American West. Wild horses aren’t only the stuff of fiction, but are a real charismatic species that inspire some and infuriate others.

A group of different colored wild horse grazing in the grass.
A herd of wild (feral) horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Wild horses (which are actually feral) in the United States live in saltwater marshes, on sandbars along the East Coast, and in the drought-prone American West where they compete with ranch animals for land, legal protection, water, and food.

The geography of wild horses across the United States is as diverse as this species’ history and holds the interest of government agencies, horse enthusiasts, and others who wish to see the preservation and, in some cases, the demise of these impressive animals.

Where are wild horses found in the United States?

Wild horses roam across the entire United States but are commonly associated with the American West. The legends of wild mustangs have been immortalized in film, books, and in the oral histories of Native Americans and European immigrants who utilized horses in their everyday lives.

Herds of wild horses can be found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Each of these herds are incredibly unique, with their own genetic backgrounds, histories, and survival techniques honed from years of living in deep relationship with their surrounding environment.

A herd of wild horses grazing on a grass hill.
Wild horses in North Dakota. Photo: NPS, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, public domain.

These horses not only have to contend with human development that often cuts off their access to food and water resources, but with climate changes that threaten their already tough habitat. Horses have evolved in ways that allow them to live in difficult environments including deserts, salt marshes, canyons and prairies, and in the mountains. Horses, donkeys, and mules are prized as pack animals for their hardiness and surefootedness in tough terrain.

How many wild horses are there in the Western United States?

According to the BLM, there are an estimated 82,000 wild horses and burros located in the Western United States, with herds of 300-500 in the rest of the country. Of that amount, 64,600 are wild horses.

More than half of the feral horses in the Western United States are in Nevada.

Wild horses live on approximately 28 million non-continuous acres of public lands and in government-run facilities.

Table: Number of feral horses and burros by state

StateHorsesBurrosTotal
AZ4049,0929,496
CA6,7243,41610,140
CO1,87301,873
ID5550555
MT1950195
NV41,8534,71746,570
NM2720272
OR4,485474,532
UT3,5095084,017
WY4,73404,734
TOTAL64,60417,78082,384
Source: BLM, Herd Area and Herd Management Area Statistics, March 2022.

Many herds, particularly in the West, are confined to Herd Management Areas (HMAs) that are managed by government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

There are 177 HMAs across 10 Western states where horses are found. These areas are also managed for use by ranchers for grazing livestock, for public recreation, for hunting, and other uses that diminish the space and resources many wild horse herds need to thrive. 

A map with areas categorized in shades of orange showing areas in the Western United States where wild horses are managed by the BLM.  The background layers are gray scale with the ocean in blue.
Map showing the BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Herd Area and Herd Management Area. Map: Caitlin Dempsey with data from BLM.

West Coast horse herds

Wild mustangs roam across 10 Western States in bands ranging from a few to hundreds of horses. These horses are commonly referenced in stories of cowboys who sought (and seek) to tame the wild spirit of the West, a habit that is cinematic at best and destructive and problematic at worst.

Three bay wild horses grazing among desert shrub.  Houses can be seen in the background against the blue sky.
Wild horses in the Virginia City Highlands, Nevada. Photo: David Smith, USGS, public domain.

The relationships humans have built with horses throughout the hundreds of years they have been domesticated ring throughout popular culture, such as movies like Hidalgo, Black Beauty, Seabiscuit, National Velvet, and others. 

Wild horses are managed on public lands which are also used by ranchers for grazing cattle and other livestock. The public lands are also accessible to people for recreating, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.

A bay and a gray horse on hind legs fighting in a grassland.
Two feral horses fighting in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, 2015. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Managing these competing groups is challenging; the humans seeking to utilize this land have the ability to advocate for themselves and their own interests, while the wild horses and other non-human animals do not. The result of this conflict often ends in increased legislation and protections for human activities like ranching, infrastructure expansion, mining, and other projects, with animals left to compete for food and water in smaller and smaller spaces.

Another struggle for the West’s wild horses is that they do not offer any financial benefit to the government. When left alone to roam the lands they evolved to thrive in, they do not earn money and therefore are viewed as a nuisance species.

Some agencies and individuals treat horses as something that should be destroyed in order to use the territory they reside in for money-making ventures like ranching, farming, or for expanding human activities in one way or another.

There remain wild horses in the West because of the work individuals and organizations do to protect these species. Horse sanctuaries and rescues are abundant across the country and are run by passionate people who care about the fate of America’s wild horses.

Saving these animals from auctions or, all too often, the slaughterhouse comprises the life work of many caring people. 

East Coast horse herds

Perhaps the most well known herds of horses on the East Coast include the Chincoteague/Assateague Island horses of Maryland/Virginia and North Carolina’s Outer Banks horses.

These populations live in an environment that would discourage many others; they have to contend with wild Atlantic storms, brackish water, a limited amount of quality food, wind and extreme heat, swarms of biting mosquitoes, and more.

Wild horses in the water at Assateague Island. Photo: Assateague Island National Seashore, NPS, public domain.
Wild horses in the water at Assateague Island. Photo: Assateague Island National Seashore, NPS, public domain.

The oral histories of these herds say that they are the descendents from domesticated horses brought over by Spanish explorers in the 1520s, which may be true based on historical events.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks in North Carolina

The horses of the Outer Banks in North Carolina are the state horse and are known as Colonial Spanish Mustangs. Three horse populations of this area are located on Corolla Island, Shackleford Banks, and Ocracoke Island. Each of these herds include about 100 stallions, mares, and foals.

Two bay horses in a showdown with each other against a grassy background.
Two wild horses engage in displays of asserting dominance. The horse on the left has asserted dominance against the horse on the right. Shackleford Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Each of these locations are popular destinations for locals and tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the wild horses in their element. These trips are popular with horse enthusiasts, photographers, bird watchers, and other nature enthusiasts. Visiting Shackleford Banks requires a 3-hour boat ride to access, which makes it a coveted destination. 

Organizations seeking to preserve these bands of feral horses include the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses. The horses on Ocracoke Island are considered to be semi-domesticated, as they are fenced in to prevent them from crossing a nearby highway. 

Chincoteague/Assateague Island horses

On Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, wild horses made popular by the novel Misty of Chincoteague live in bands of 2-12 horses.

The horses on the Maryland side of the border are Assateague ponies, and the horses managed by Virginia are the Chincoteague ponies.

Every year in July, a practice called Pony Penning has the horses from Assateague rounded up and brought to the Chincoteague Island side in order to have the herds’ foals auctioned off. The money raised by auctioning off these horses goes to preserving the herds. 

What is a wild horse?

A wild horse is an animal of the species Equus that evolved from the early horse ancestor Eohippus. In the United States, Eohippus was the earliest known horse ancestor to evolve before returning as Equus.

While Eohippus was considered a truly wild horse, the wild horses we know in the US today are feral horses. 

Species that are wild are species that have never been domesticated by humans. Feral species are species that were once domesticated that now roam freely. Thus, the wild horses of the United States are considered feral because they are the descendents of horses that were domesticated in the past.

Where did feral horses in the United States come from?

Although the stories of how horses returned to the United States differ, some populations exist because they were brought over by Spanish explorers. Horses were brought over as pack animals to carry food, materials, and the resources that were exploited by these explorers.

Some horses were turned loose by their owners, some escaped, and still others survived shipwrecks that deposited them on American shores.

Wild horse or feral?

Although these horses are descended from domesticated horses, the populations of feral horses that roam the United States are physiologically and genetically different from domesticated horses.

A female horse with a newborn foal and a yearling foal standing in a grassy area. The mare is gray, the yearling is brown with a white forelock, and the newborn foal is a light brown color.
A feral mare with a yearling foal and a newborn foal. Until they are two or three years old, young horses will remain with their natal herd. Photo: NPS, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, public domain.

Feral, or wild, horses are adapted to difficult environments, can be genetically resistant to many diseases that impact domesticated stocks, and contain more genetic diversity than modern domesticated horses do.

Studies on the genetics of feral and wild horses have found that these herds can contain genetic remnants of genes shared with ancient species that were long thought to have died out completely.

The status of wild horses in the United States

Wild horses (and burros) were given federal protection by the US government in 1971. Their protected status doesn’t mean they are immune to a variety of threats- they are still rounded up and sold at auction, taken to slaughterhouses, and driven off the lands they have thrived on for hundreds of years.

The fact that the government has found a way to profit off of the country’s wild horses is a benefit and a detraction; there are reasons why government agencies would want to keep the wild horses around, but unfortunately one of those reasons is that they now have worth in the eyes of these agencies as a resource to be exploited.

Wild horses are under fire from government agencies, ranchers, landowners, and others who unfairly view them as an invasive species. Numerous government policies have supported the rounding up of wild horse herds for adoption or for killing historically and in the present day. 

Two brown and light tan wild horse look at the camera.  A third horse is off in the background in a grassy area.
Feral horse in Cumberland Island National Seashore. Photo: NPS, public domain.

The affect of climate change on wild horse habitat

Climate change is also causing conflict for America’s wild horses. Storm seasons on the Atlantic are eroding the beaches and sandbars that the bands of wild horses on that coast call home. Sea level rise threatens the plants they eat and the scarce freshwater resources they have available to them.

Across the country, record-breaking Western droughts and heatwaves are also reducing the amount of food and water wild horses are able to access alongside cattle, other animals, agriculture, and humans. 

Preserving the wild horse herds

Individuals and organizations have stepped up to meet the needs of wild horses in the United States. Wild horses are a highly charismatic species and capture the attention of people across the country who are dedicated to their preservation.

Not everyone sees the wild horses of the United States as something to get rid of, but rather as something to celebrate. Those who have adopted a wild horse often find themselves with an animal like no other, and many adopt more than one wild horse.

The upper body and head of a mustang at a horse stall with the BLM branding visible.
A gentled mustang at a Northern California horse stable. Visible on the neck is the BLM freeezebranding which starts with a large “U”. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Some people guide visitors through the lands where the horses roam, showcasing the importance of caring for our public lands and all the beings that reside there.

Still more people invest their time and money into preserving the wild horse herds that live in the United States through wild horse sanctuaries and rescue facilities. These organizations are faced with the difficult task of saving animals that many, including some government entities, want to destroy. 

Organizations that are working to preserve the land and legacy of wild horses in the United States include Return to Freedom, the FREES Network, Sky Dog Ranch, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary, and many others.

These groups not only work to provide safe places for horses to roam freely, but participate in lobbying, fundraising, and advocacy for wild horse herds across the nation. Their work and the work of many others has saved individual wild horses from destruction and keeps this issue in front of people and lawmakers with the power to change the systems that currently place so many wild horses in danger.

The SAFE Act

One such legislative effort is the SAFE (Save America’s Forgotten Equines) Act. Versions of this act have been passed through the House in 2005, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and most recently in 2021.

This vital piece of legislation calls for the ban of the domestic slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States and would prevent the transportation of live horses to other countries for the purpose of their consumption.

This bill has bipartisan support, although the political climate in the years beyond 2020 has made it difficult for this bill to get the attention it deserves on the House floor. 

Horse meat isn’t illegal in the United States, and the consumption of horse meat has historically risen during times of food insecurity. Although the consumption of horse meat in the United States doesn’t seem commonplace, the last factory that produced horse meat for human consumption only closed in 2007.

As horse meat isn’t illegal, some shady meat packing practices include putting horse meat into packages of other meats, like beef, in order to cut costs. 

Supporters of the Act cite the fact that horses are not bred to be eaten. Domestic horses are treated with a variety of chemicals, medications, and other substances that are not safe for human consumption. These substances have been linked to adverse health effects in humans after consuming horse meat.

Critics of the Act point to the fact that there is no current adequate infrastructure in place to manage the horses that would be saved from slaughter, nor has there been any financial assistance from the government or other agencies to support the continued protection of these horses. 

The inspiration and struggle of America’s wild horses

America’s wild horses are beautiful, misunderstood, and passionately fought for and over by various entities. For every government agency that seeks to manage the herds through culling or auctions there are countless individuals who provide sanctuary for these incredible animals at their own expense. In the coming years the SAFE Act, climate change, and other factors will continue to impact wild horse herds across the United States.

There is hope that the wild horses of the United States and the places they live will continue to be protected, legally and otherwise, to be enjoyed by many generations to come. 

Resources:

Rifkin, Jesse. “SAFE (Save America’s Forgotten Equines) Act would ban horse slaughter and horse meat.” GovTrack Insider. govtrackinsider.com/safe-save-americas-forgotten-equines-act-would-ban-horse-slaughter-and-horse-meat-9db90b427507

Animal Welfare Institute. “Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act. Animal Welfare Institute. awionline.org/content/safeguard-american-food-exports-safe-act

American Wild Horse Campaign. “FAQ.” American Wild Horse Campaign. americanwildhorsecampaign.org/faq

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation. “Home.” Return to Freedom. returntofreedom.org/

Daly, Natasha. “86,000 wild mustangs that roam the west are at the center of a raging controversy.” National Geographic. www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/86000-wild-mustangs-that-roam-the-west-are-at-the-center-of-raging-controversy

Frye, Jason. “See wild horses roam free on the North Carolina coast.” Visit NC. www.visitnc.com/story/MVCU/see-wild-horses-roam-free-on-the-north-carolina-coast

Moretti, Lauren. “History of America’s wild horses.” American Wild Horse Campaign.americanwildhorsecampaign.org/history-americas-wild-horses

National Park Service. “Assateague’s wild horses.” National Park Service. www.nps.gov/asis/learn/nature/horses.htm

Related

Share: