American Wild Horses: Commodities or Sacred Beings?


Wild Horses on Warm Springs Reservation (OR) [Credit: The Bulletin]
Wild Horses on the Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon (Credit: The Bulletin)

Allie Kuppenbender

This project focuses on my interest in the intersection of Indigenous horse culture and resistance/resilience, especially as it relates to wild horse populations on Indigenous land. In the face of a dire lack of resources to maintain tribal horse populations and with slaughter still an option, many are looking to the past—to the horse cultures that dominated the American West—as a means to reestablish horse cultures today by giving a purpose to these otherwise unwanted and thus potentially endangered wild horses.

Positioning Umatilla Reservation in Comparison to OR/WA [Credit: Google Maps]
Positioning Umatilla Reservation in Comparison to OR/WA [Credit: Google Maps]

In what follows, I will be looking primarily at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, located just east of Pendleton, in the northeastern section of Oregon. This Confederation is a union of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. Like many reservations east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, it is faced with overpopulation of wild horses on  tribal lands. I will be looking at how they have thought about and are responding to this question, as well as how other tribes in the region and beyond have used horse culture in ways to foster and build community.

Overall, I wish to convey that, when faced with a shortage of resources to deal with overpopulated rangelands, it can seem like a good idea both to reduce population size and turn a profit off of those horses through slaughter. However alternatives exist that allow tribes to control population sizes while respecting and honoring horses as sacred beings. This page will outline some alternatives that the Umatilla and others have put into practice to honor their histories, cultures, and relations.

[Credit: Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott, Minden Pictures]

The Question of Slaughter

Boarders of Umatilla Reservation (OR) [Credit: Google Maps]
Boarders of Umatilla Reservation (OR) [Credit: Google Maps]

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation offer a look into how Indigenous people deal with overpopulated rangelands when the choice of slaughter is still on the table. Because indigenous nations have sovereign status, they also have the ability to either build a slaughter facility within their territories or ship excess horses to foreign slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.

This is not the case with most Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-controlled wild horse populations as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, signed into law in 2011, makes it illegal to do so. This act amended a previous Horse Protection Act (2007) that was not passed by both houses of Congress. Basically, it “prohibit[s] the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption” (United States, 2011).

However, because of the cessation of U.S. slaughter programs in 2007 (finalized in 2011), “high transportation costs have undermined the economics of tribal wild horse management” (Banse). According to Yakama Nation biologist James Stephenson: “Before cessation of horse slaughter in the United States, members of the Yakama Nation could sell horses at a price of approximately $150 to $400 per animal. Now, if you can find a buyer, such horses are often sold for prices of $5 to $20 per head” (Banse).

Clearly, this is not a unique problem to the Umatilla. From the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, also in northeastern Oregon, to the Yakama and Colville in Washington state, to the Shoshone-Bannock in eastern Idaho, all are faced with overpopulation and overgrazing on their lands (Banse). In fact, wild horses are a problem for many tribes across the United States. Diné (Navajo) elder and head of Navajo Trails in Piñon, Arizona, Paul Tohlakai, is substantially troubled that domestic horse slaughter may recommence. “Because such slaughter is not a Diné tradition,…it is an issue ‘very sensitive to us, being of the original horse cultures’” Not surprisingly, he is distrustful of “commercial ventures that view horses mainly as a commodity.” Of such ventures, Tohlakai says, “For a lot of us, this direct value system is confusing. For them [business interests], time is money. Native time is sacred” (Hughes).

The Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition, a body representing the five aforementioned tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, has taken a different approach to the question of slaughter. They “feel that turning these horses into food might be a solution…[, even suggesting] that opening slaughter plants on reservations could provide economic benefits for certain tribes” (Hughes). Slaughter has come into the discussion here more so than elsewhere due to the land “being hurt because a population explosion of free-roaming horses is trampling their rangeland forage, which is needed to feed livestock and retain soil” (Hughes). The Coalition outlined potential solutions to overpopulated tribal rangelands. Options offered by their reports include “sale or adoption of excess horses, birth control by injectable vaccine, surgical sterilization (castration of stallions), [and] humane processing in a purpose-built facility” (Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition).

Wild horses on Umatilla Reservation [Credit: Maggie Rothauge]
Wild horses on Umatilla Reservation [Credit: Maggie Rothauge]

The Coalition proposed the main route to be taken should be the one that would most quickly and dramatically reduce the horse population. In other words: slaughter.

Building a slaughterhouse on their territory would get around the economic hit otherwise taken due to transportation costs. They do purport that “captured feral horses [w]ould be processed humanly, following Native American protocols as well as FSIS rules.” But what exactly might those Indigenous “protocols” look like since these five tribes, from what I could find, historically have not slaughtered horses for meat but rather regarded them as sacred?

And while I do understand the dire need to balance the ecological system with a finite budget to do so, the response of slaughter as the best option to reduce wild horse populations vastly underestimates community-based responses that would enrich their traditional horse culture while simultaneously finding places for excess horse populations.


When thinking about alternatives, it makes sense that the first consideration brought up is that of the fertility of the horses. University of Missouri biology professor Lori Eggert, who took part in the National Academy of Sciences report recommending greater use of birth control injections to in efforts to regulate overpopulation by the BLM, said “extensive and consistent contraception can stabilize a horse population on a range. [However] it is not over the short-term going to take these horses down population-wise. It will simply slow the growth. There may have to continue to be some gathers and removals from the range until these populations come down” (Banse). Essentially, while waiting for birth control to take effect and horse populations to level out, there would still be excess horses to deal with.

Further, injections last only around 12 months, “making…recapture and reinjection…an annual struggle and far too expensive over the long haul,” according to the Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition’s report (Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition).

Because of these impracticalities, the Coalition instead focused on castration of stallions as a viable alternative, stating: “Castration could make a meaningful contribution to lowering the number of horses in the population, over time” (Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition). Jason Smith, range manager of Warm Springs, also focuses on a castration program rather than injected contraceptives. Viewing the annual injection schedules as “impractical” in efforts to control overpopulation and overgrazing, Smith castrates 100-150 wild stallions per year (Banse).

 Horses rounded up by BLM Helicopter [Credit: Horses for Life Foundation]
Horses rounded up by BLM Helicopter (Credit: Horses for Life Foundation)

But there are fundamental questions that have yet to be answered when discussing birth control, be it injected contraceptives or castration. These include: What will be the long-term repercussions if an entire generation does not breed? On the flip side, if some mares are allowed foals and some are not, how will it be decided which horses will be able to bear foals and which will not? Which stallions will be castrated and which will not? How many horses will be able to reproduce? What will become the equilibrium point of these populations? And how will cattle and other livestock grazing needs going forward impact future decisions about population numbers? These questions remain to be addressed let alone answered. And unlike the injections, castration is permanent, making it impossible to reverse once action has been taken.

In many ways, what to do about birth control and overpopulation in general comes down to differences in perspective. “People from animal advocacy groups describe wild horses as intelligent, magnificent creatures, symbols of the West and the embodiment of freedom on the open range. On the reservation, rodeo champion Smith said the horse is a ‘really respected animal,’ but fits another category. ‘Warm Springs has always considered the horse as their livestock…. It is just like cattle is, livestock. We love our horses. They are our tool. They are our work force’ ” (Banse).

The problem with viewing horses as livestock akin to cattle is that, by providing them with that same “livestock” status, it simplifies how people think about livestock, land, and the commodification of both.

Scott Beckstead, Director of the Oregon chapter of the Humane Society, believes that the BLM focuses too much on the cattle that share the range with wild horses: “To say that there are too many horses when you’ve got 40,000 wild horses versus at least 9 million livestock. The numbers just don’t lie” (Patton). By commodifying both cattle and horses, it becomes easy for people to begin to value one over the other based upon final profit outcomes. By doing so, cattle yield far greater profit margins and thus are given priority over wild horse populations. But for cultures that view horses as sacred beings, relatives to human beings even, there can and should be alternatives that give the horses a purpose while allowing tribal members to reconnect with their horse culture.

The National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley (NV) [Credit: US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management]
The National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley (NV) [Credit: US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management]

In this context, the problem becomes what to do with the excess horses. According to Laura Leigh, advocate for wild horses, “right now the BLM has more wild horses in holding than exist in the wild, so when you think of a wild horse, think of one in a cage” (Patton). So what to do then with all those horses?


 Looking Elsewhere

Sanctuaries and Non-Profits

Many nonprofits and organizations, both on and off reservation, have been trying to answer that very question. These groups seek to find alternatives to unnecessary round-ups and holding pens filled with formly-wild horses. For the BLM, the current means of getting rid of all of those captured horses is adoption but the problem there is that only around 30% actually end up getting adopted (Patton). 

What becomes of the other 70% – those who are never adopted? “Imagine a crowded, bone-bare feed lot packed with captured mustangs, some too weak to stand. Listless, dejected, some have lost the will to live. Spirits broken, unwanted, either too old, too ugly, or too independent to qualify for the adoption program” (Hyde). Which is why some folks have thought providing a safe, open place may be the answer for these otherwise “unadoptable” horses.

Some of these places include Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (Hot Springs, SD), Wild Horse Sanctuary (Shingletown, CA), and Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary & Preservation (Lompoc, CA) to name a few. Essentially these places take in wild horses and burros that are too old, too “wild,” lame or injured, or simply unlikable and thus were not adopted out by the BLM. Many of these places are dedicated to hands-on education and allow the public to take tours or otherwise experience their horses at some capacity.

[Credit: Return to Freedom: Wild Horse Sanctuary & Preservation]
Wild horse herd on Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, CA [Credit: Return to Freedom: Wild Horse Sanctuary & Preservation]

Another example of a sanctuary working to reconnect to Indigenous horse culture is Sacred Way Sanctuary in Florence, Alabama. Sacred Way Sanctuary is an “educational and research facility dedicated to the preservation of the Native American Horse and other animals [bison and Diné sheep] that were held sacred to the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas” (Sacred Way Sanctuary). They are devoted to maintaining Native horse bloodlines, which is believed to have been a part of Indigenous culture prior to colonial contact. According to Sacred Way:

As those who originally colonized the Americas were taught that ‘all things civilized’ came from Europe, the origin of the horse – the most valuable animal to mankind at the time – was presumed to fit into that paradigm…. [However] oral history of many Native American Tribes claims otherwise. Today, with archeological, zoological, and early colonial records (which were previously unavailable and/or disregarded because they did not fit into the Euro-Centric paradigm), the evidence [points elsewhere]…. The Indigenous Horse of the Americas survived the Ice-Age and many of the Native Peoples already had a relationship with these animals before the Europeans arrived in the Americas in the late 1400s” (Sacred Way Sanctuary). 

Clearly horses represent a vital component to the lifeblood of so many Indigenous cultures. And while accepting wild horses into a sanctuary that is focused instead on protecting and preserving the bloodlines of truly native horses is probably counterproductive, understanding this connection is essential to revitalizing horse culture across Native America. Understanding and decolonizing how people think about horses as Sacred Way is doing may be crucial to honoring wild horse populations elsewhere.

Teen & Oregon Mustang 2017 Participants Manaia &Pax [Credit: Teens & Oregon Mustangs]
Teen & Oregon Mustang 2017 Participants Manaia & Pax [Credit: Teens & Oregon Mustangs]

Based in Burns County, Oregon near the BLM’s Oregon Wild Horse Corral Facility, Teens & Oregon Mustangs offers another kind of  alternative, focusing instead on how to get all horses adopted out. Pairing teens with captured mustangs in a “gentling” program, teens spend their summer working with their horse in order for it to be adoptable. The program culminates in an auction at the end of the summer, with the now gentled horses going to homes. To date, they’ve had a 100% success rate of finding homes for these horses. Additionally, while they are finding homes for the otherwise unwanted horses, they are also providing structured, productive time for teenagers that could otherwise potentially get themselves into trouble (Teens & Oregon Mustangs).

Erica Fitzgerald, founder of Teens & Oregon Mustangs, created this program because she felt compelled to find a way to save these horses and their legacy. BLM holding space in Oregon (and most, if not all, states with wild horse populations) is at capacity and, while they want to be able to allow them to run free, at their current population sizes there are not enough resources for them and other wild plants and animals (Patton).

The Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition, based in Prineville, Oregon, offers another alternative. Along with seeking to care for and maintain horse populations in a humane and effective way, the Central Oregon Wild Horse Coalition “hosts annual adoptions and training clinics which contribute to successful relationships between wild horse and adopter and relieve taxpayers’ financial burdens; provides rescue/capture services and provide interim care while permanent homes are sought; develops networks for re-homing, training, and overall success; and educates the public in proper care of wild and domestic equines, to help alleviate abuse and neglect situations,” among other roles including lobbying and advocacy on behalf of wild horses (Hunt).

This organization has also looked into potentially pairing wild horses with inmates in a program similar to a Nevada Department of Corrections program that seeks to saddle-train horses while rehabilitating inmates (Banse).

Further, founder Gayle Hunt says of wild horses: “Early equines evolved, to a great extent, on the northern reaches of this continent, and migrated across the land bridge to eventually become the very animals that built this nation.  Wild horses thrive here because this is their native habitat.  We should not discount their symbiotic contributions to a healthy ecosystem, and we should explore ways to capitalize on this to help restore the American West…. A balance must be struck, and soon, between trends that would eliminate viable populations to the point of genetic collapse, and the counterpoint to this, an absolute cessation of all gather and management practices that maintain herds in healthy numbers” (Hunt).

In this context, wild horses are returning to their native home and must be incorporated into rather than rounded up and pushed out of our western ecosystems. This value system of wild horses extends beyond the commodification of horses as livestock in an effort to honor and respect wild horses as a vital component to the American West.

Niimiipu (Nez Perce) Horse Culture

The Niimiipu have a close relationship to the Umatilla, both of whom speak Sahaptin, “a language that binds them together with many people of the Northwest Plateau, including the…Yakama, Cayuse, Palous, and Walla Walla” (LaDuke 2005, 213). All of these people have had a historic connection to horses as a way of life. These horses provided the necessary element for long-distance travel and trade.

For example, “Cayuse teamed with Nez Perce, and to a lesser extent, Umatilla and Walla Walla people, crossed the Rocky Mountains and formed intertribal parties with some Salish groups to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. At times they wintered on the Plains, participating in the customs and practices of Plains life” (Umatilla, Walla Walla, & Cayuse Tribes). Through partnerships and extended trips like these, goods and ideas were exchanged among these horse cultures.

Today, the Niimiipu are working toward a return to that horse culture, using a breeding program, based in Lapwai, Idaho, to strengthen both Nez Perce horse bloodlines and horse culture. Using an Akhal-Teke stallion from Turkmenistan in Central Asia, believed by some the most ancient domesticated horse breed still around, and four types of mares—Arabian/Appaloosa, Thoroughbred/Appaloosa, Quarterhorse/Appaloosa and Appaloosa/ Appaloosa—the program forges new bloodlines for both the Nez Perce Appaloosa horse and horses as a whole (LaDuke 2005, 220-221).

Appaloosa-Akhal-Teke horse, product of the Lapwai Breeding Program [Credit: Erika Larson]
Appaloosa-Akhal-Teke horses, product of the Lapwai Breeding Program [Credit: Erika Larson]

Ruby Shebala, a Navajo married to a Nez Perce woman, says of the program: “We want a breed of horse that people will remember us for…. We are known internationally and historically horsemen and horse breeders. Now that we are in the modern day and age, this is one way we can contribute to this modern horse industry, while helping ourselves and keeping our ancestors’ horse-breeding traditions alive” (LaDuke 2005, 221).

The Nez Perce Young Horseman’s Program then uses the horses from this breeding program as a way for students to learn about “history, culture, and horsemanship” (LaDuke 2005, 221). This offers a hands-on way for young people looking to explore their ancestral connection to the horse. Perhaps these steps forward by the Niimiipu can be emulated by the Umatilla?

The Triple Crown of Pipeline Rides

Perhaps a new way to look at and think about horses harkens to a rather old way of thinking about travel and culture. Members of Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) tribes, as well as others, have teamed up in efforts to raise awareness of impending pipelines that crisscross the Canadian and American heartland (LaDuke 2013[2]). These pipelines—the Dakota Access Pipeline, Keystone XL, Enbridge Pipelines, Alberta Clipper—all threaten indigenous peoples in fundamental ways (See Standing Rock, Enbridge Oil PipelinesKeystone XL Pipeline). These rides comes from a long tradition of horse rides as remembrances, with a prominent example being the annual Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee every December (Hughes).

Ride against the Dakota Access Pipeline [Credit: KXNET-TV]
Ride against the Dakota Access Pipeline (ND) [Credit: KXNET-TV]

The pipeline rides, using horses as means of transportation, offer fundamental examples of resistance to fossil fuel extraction and contamination. According to riders, “what’s at stake is a lot of water and a lot of risk. In the Dakotas it is a land without a single pipeline across it and one large aquifer, the Ogallala.” Human beings can buy bottled water, but “buffalo and horses cannot.” In this context, riders are not “protesters but rather protectors” (LaDuke 2013b).

Imagine how wild horses may play into an alternative to fossil fuels. Using gentling programs incorporating whomever wishes to be involved (youth, elders, returning citizens and those currently incarcerated, veterans, etc.), excess horses could be shared throughout the nation in efforts to protect indigenous land and treaty rights from extractive and toxic industries all the while reintroducing horse cultures. On an historic note, this would be the ultimate example of a modern-day return to the travel and trade horses facilitated in the past.

After all, as previously mentioned: “Cayuse teamed with Nez Perce, and to a lesser extent, Umatilla and Walla Walla people, crossed the Rocky Mountains and formed intertribal parties with some Salish groups to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. At times they wintered on the Plains, participating in the customs and practices of Plains life” (Umatilla, Walla Walla, & Cayuse Tribes). This past example of cooperation and sharing of cultures offers a model for ways to deal with wild horse populations today while maintaining respect, honor, and tradition.

Map of American Mid/North-West [credit: NASA, University of Montana, University of Idaho]
Map of American Mid/North-West examining the interconnectivity of tribal horse trade (Credit: NASA, University of Montana, University of Idaho)


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