Paula Morin,
Honest Horses: Wild Horses in the Great Basin
(University of Nevada Press, 2006)

More than a century has passed since the official closing of the American frontier, and yet our culture continues to harbor romanticized notions of the West. Included in that image is the idea that wild horses, like the deer and the antelope, still have free run of the range. But do they? And should they?

In Honest Horses, oral historian and photographer Paula Morin has assembled 62 narratives from the individuals who are most familiar with the Great Basin area, home to the greatest number of our country's wild horses. This geographical region covers parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California, with its largest portion sitting within Nevada's borders. In each of those states, the wild horse issue is a complex one, complete with firm stands being taken by environmentalists, animal lovers, scientists, ranchers, wranglers, politicians and government workers. We hear many of their voices and their viewpoints in this compendium.

While an aboriginal horse ancestor did indeed live at one time on the North American continent, its residency was so long ago that its indigenous habitat is no longer present. Today, the wild horse is considered a non-native species, albeit a much larger one than the purple loosestrife of the East or the zebra mussels of the Great Lakes. And as alien invaders often do, wild horses reproduce in such numbers that they wreak havoc on any ecosystem. Aside from the occasional mountain lion or coyote band attack, the horse has no natural predator. The Great Basin simultaneously offers an especially harsh and fragile habitat, with periodic dry seasons and soil that needs time to recover from any kind of disturbance. Anyone can predict the kinds of problems that will arise when too many large mammals are confined to such a delicate area.

But the bond between humans and horses is a close and historic one. Almost as soon as horses ran wild, people tried to catch them. For generations, Native Americans and cowboys alike regularly rounded up horses and either used them or disposed of them as they saw fit. Inhumane methods were sometimes used, and as those became publicized, the need arose for someone to do something about the situation. Enter the Bureau of Land Management and the Wild & Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971. Once a government agency became involved, the issue got even more complex. The "gathers" the BLM conducts aren't as frequent or large enough to get horse numbers down to an AML, or appropriate management level. And once the animals are collected, they can be dispersed in one of three ways: offered for adoption, relegated to a sanctuary or taken to the slaughterhouse. Each one of those destinations has potential problems and emotions surrounding it.

Horse history, captivating stories and personal experiences abound as the interviewees speak. A variety of opinions are aired here. But the majority of the individuals agree on at least three points: (a) letting nature take its course isn't a practical or humane solution when hundreds of animals die slow and gruesome deaths; (b) folks outside the Great Basin region don't understand all the complexities of the issue and shouldn't be the primary decision-makers involved; and (c) yes, it's still nice to have the wild horses out on the land, running free.

Honest Horses is valuable reading for all of us here in the United States, especially since other books about wild horses, especially those for children, never mention the questions and problems they present. (A map would have been helpful for those of us who aren't familiar with the Great Basin area.) For those of us who live "away," it's easy for us to pass judgment or to think of a possible solution. After reading this book it should be obvious that all the stakeholders must sit down and work out the problem to the best of their abilities.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

7 July 2007

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