History

The Wild Horse Desert of Texas: What Happened to 1 Million Wild Horses?

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In the early 1800s, entire sections of Texas on old maps were labeled “wild horse desert.” That’s because these parcels of land were actually home to wild horses in numbers estimated to be close to 1 million. They roamed in herds where now there are none to speak of. Their origin is believed to be a mixture of some horses that were left behind from Spanish expeditions in the 17th century as well as others that drifted across the northern Mexican border. Their numbers were reportedly so great that guards were hired by early explorers to keep an eye on their pack mules and horses, ensuring they wouldn’t run off with the herds.

The Wild Horse Desert of Texas: What Happened to 1 Million Wild Horses?

Photo: Wikimedia

Earlier ranch hands and cowboys captured and tamed these mustangs, building makeshift corrals, and selling the animals to other cowboys, ranchers, and soldiers. The latter included such names as Ulysses S. Grant. Toward the end of the 1850s, hunting had brought the wild mustangs close to extinction, and the parcel of land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was disputed territory recognized officially as the Wild Horse Desert. Neither the Mexican government nor the Republic of Texas had clear control of it until the Mexican-American War, during which it was filled with those characters who were considered unsavory, deterring settlement in the area. Now the entire area is towns and ranches, sectioned-off and fenced off.

The Wild Horse Desert of Texas: What Happened to 1 Million Wild Horses?

Photo: Pixabay

Dave Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Reporter, recently explored the history of the Wild Horse Desert, along with the myths and the future of the Texas mustang in his book entitled “Wild Horse Country.” The number of horses that were gathered up and sold, put to work, or even turned into food is staggering. And, what once was turned into such a hot commodity is now considered protected in the state of Texas, as in other parts of America. “Right now we spend millions and millions of dollars to try and protect these horses, and we end up storing tens of thousands of them in government storage pastures,” Philipps explained to texasstandard.org. “I was intrigued. Why do we spend so much and keep so many in captivity when the whole idea of the wild horse is that it’s supposed to be free and independent?” According to Philipps, these protected horses are treated similar to endangered species. When the herd reproduces, a set number of horses are placed in the care of ranchers by the government. “I think the mustang is the most American animal out there,” he said in a recording by the Texas Standard. “The mustang is an immigrant. It is noble, but not because it had any noble lineage. It is noble because it is independent, it is sort of a symbol of us as Americans.”

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