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Exploring the 'Wild' Politics of Free-Roaming Horse Management

By Sarah Hojsak


October 12, 2022

Things are getting wild in the West. Free-roaming horse populations have existed in western states for centuries, but the conflict surrounding them is entirely human. And like most issues dividing us, there are two sides to every story.

Federal law bans killing wild horses but limits the number of horses allowed on public lands. The United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is determined to control the population size, citing complaints from cattle ranchers of ecological destruction and resource competition for livestock.

On the other side of the issue are fierce advocates for wild horses. This group, predominantly women, seeks to preserve the cultural legacy of wild horses, but often finds itself ignored or even attacked by the male-dominated group of rangeland managers.

This conflict sparked the interest of Jen Britton, director for communications and special projects in the Office of University and Community Partnerships, and Christian Hunold, PhD, professor of politics. With environmental science major Abigail Del Grosso and environmental studies major Cassidy Ellis, they are studying the different understandings of wild horses among these groups through a feminist science studies lens. The project, which draws on prior research of Britton’s and Hunold’s, was one of 10 co-ops funded by the Dean’s Excellence Fund in the College of Arts and Sciences this year.

The history of wild horses in the American West runs deep. They originated as domestic horses imported by European colonizers, and Native Americans later integrated them into their lifestyle.

“As horses fell out of favor as a method of transportation or labor, they increasingly were turned loose or escaped, and these free-roaming populations of horses emerged in the in the American West,” Hunold explained. “They've been there for centuries in some places.” 

Until the 1960s, wild horses were routinely slaughtered. An organized opposition movement formed, and the killing of wild horses on public land was outlawed with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

This legislation limited where wild horses could freely roam, effectively drawing lines around the areas where herds lived. But, as Hunold explained, “if the horses are confined to a limited area, there has to be some method of population control.” 

Currently, the BLM conducts what they call “wild horse gathers,” and what opponents refer to as roundups and removals—taxpayer-funded initiatives where the horses are corralled and shipped to government holding facilities, where they remain for the rest of their lives. Even though the outright killing of horses is prohibited, the roundups and removals can become violent, and horses often die by injury or exhaustion. 

“For the government, they're a problem to be solved—ideally by getting rid of them entirely,” Hunold explained. “There are some horse management areas where the government is on record saying, ‘We want to get rid of all the horses,’ even though they’re legally protected in these areas.”

The advocates take a more empathetic view, seeing the animals as social creatures, relating to them as individuals and respecting their population dynamics and family ties. Some individual horses, such as Picasso of Sand Wash Basin, have even become social media stars. 

But their protests have not succeeded in swaying those in power. The women in this group are often pigeonholed into the “crazy horse woman” stereotype and seen as emotional and irrational. Worse, they have experienced threats and harassment from BLM officials, which Hunold and Ellis argue effectively devalues their own individuality in a similar way to the horses’.

“One of the big things we started looking at was how the women and the horses shared similar experiences in the way they are [belittled] by the government and ignored,” Ellis explained.

Britton, Del Grosso, Hunold and Ellis decided to look at this conflict as a type of anthropological ‘site,’ analyzing the making of knowledge claims and the role that affect and rationality play among the opposing groups. Their project is organized around the questions of “What counts as valid knowledge about wild horses?”, “Who gets heard?”, and “What stories are valued or discounted?”

“The old boys’ club of BLM, government officials, ranchers and local politicians who usually support the traditional Western ranching economy see the predominantly women advocates as outsiders, as illegitimate, as troublemakers,” said Hunold. “That was interesting to us, how the horses and the women advocates find themselves being placed in the same category.”

In the fields of wildlife biology and ecology, calling something feral typically implies that it doesn’t belong. That's how the government views the wild horses, and according to Hunold, "We see these same kinds of rhetorical strategies being deployed against activists in these spaces."

"The government sees the women advocates as a type of feral because they’re expressing their emotion about how they feel about the horses,” Ellis explained. “They’re trying to get the word out about how horses are being mistreated, and then not only is the government continuing to mistreat the horses, they’re also mistreating the advocates, calling them names and harassing them."

The advocates face a challenge of how to respond to being called emotional, crazy and irrational. One option is a data-driven approach. "Just present statistics and facts,'" Hunold explained. "Fight back with data."

The other response is to lean into the more 'affective' ways of understanding the horses. "They do have friends, they do have feelings, they have sentient lives and they have life histories that are tied to a particular ecology," Hunold said. “Even though there's all this violence and detention and carting horses off in these spaces, there’s also at the same time spaces where these more affective and caring kinds of relationships can emerge, too."

Britton, Del Grosso, Hunold and Ellis are currently working on a paper on their findings, which they hope to present at a conference next spring. They’ve also given two presentations on campus, including one at CoAS Research Day. While they haven’t been able to travel to the West to see the subjects of their study firsthand, they did take a trip to Assateague Island in Maryland to observe the island’s population of wild ponies. 

In the science community, there is a lack of interest in the study of free-roaming species such as wild horses, and it’s often difficult for the scientists who do study them to secure funding. For the Drexel researchers, this has been somewhat frustrating, as there is not ample research data to draw from, but it has also given them the opportunity to shape their project from the ground up. They collected hundreds of documents related to wild horse roundups and conducted a qualitative content analysis, identifying common themes.

The co-ops funded by the Dean’s Excellence Fund benefit both faculty and students, providing faculty resources to further their research and giving students hands-on experience that positions them to succeed. For Ellis, the co-op has been an opportunity to improve her writing skills, learn research techniques and explore her interests in environmental sociology and feminist studies. 

“This co-op stood out because I could use my environmental studies major, but also take a deeper dive into how sociology and feminist science studies plays into it,” Ellis said. “A lot of people don’t realize how relevant feminist science studies can be in different aspects of life.”


Photos of wild ponies on Assateague Island courtesy of Cassidy Ellis.