In the United States, there are around one hundred thousand wild horses. Utah alone has over a dozen herds of varying sizes, but the Onaqui herd in Skull Valley is probably the most well-known.
I went to see the Onaqui horses with Becky Winstead who has degrees in Equine Science and adult agricultural education and has been working with horses most of her life. She taught classes at Utah State University in their equestrian program. She has visited the Onaqui horses off and on for over a decade to study their behavior.
“I believe the Onaqui come from the Pony Express line,” Winstead said. “So if you go up further north, you’ve got more drafty, bigger horses and those are leftover from the stagecoaches. If you go down further south, you’ve got the fancy mustangs that people want because they’re the Spanish conquistador horses that were released. So, every area’s horses—they’re not one set kind.” CREDIT LYNNE MCNEILL
The Onaqui are popular for a handful of reasons. One being that they are relatively close to the Wasatch front. Two, It’s one of the driest stretches in North-American. Because it’s so arid, most of the horses will show up twice a day to drink from one of the few watering holes. The most popular of these watering holes is a set of troughs right off a gravel road. And, three, the horses are genetically diverse, meaning that they have lots of different coats including paints, buckskins and pure white horses.
The herd has many fans who have named several of the horses. There’s Van Gogh, named because he only has one ear. Giraffe, Shadow and Cremello. But the most talked about horse is a white stallion that goes by two names.
“Gandalf or the Old Man is what they call him,” Winstead said. “And he, I thought was old when I saw him ten years ago. I was able to actually look back on one of my old pictures and get a rough estimate of his age by looking at his teeth—because he was yawning—and he’s probably close to the 20-year mark, which is almost unheard of in wild horses. They don’t live that long. So he’s kind of a neat one.”
We spent two days with the herd and thought we had missed Gandalf, but on the last day, on our way out, we found him standing alone on a hill overlooking the herd.
“I think that’s him! Oh my God! He’s so magical. He’s so iconic,” Winstead said when we found him. “He belongs hanging in everyone’s living room in a black and white sepia-tone print.
In late 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act passed. Among other things, this tasked the Bureau of Land Management, often shortened to BLM, with caring for the mustangs.
Before the act passed, the horses and burros were treated similar to how coyotes are treated now. People regularly shot mustangs that encroached on their land or interfered with their livestock. The BLM attempts to manage the herd by doing semi-regular helicopter round-ups, then transferring some of the horses to federal holding facilities where the horse will live out their lives. Horse slaughter is currently illegal in the United States. Some mustang activists say rounding up horses—especially with helicopters—is inhumane. The BLM and other mustang advocates say that the land can only sustain so many horses and it’s inhumane to leave them out there with few natural predators to thin herds.
I asked Becky what her ideal solution to this complicated problem would be.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “So, they were administering birth control to the mares in the band and when they did it, they were freeze branded to mark which ones had been given the birth control. And they had been given that birth control the year before. And so when we came out, and the BLM asked us as long as we were out there can we check and see what the ratio is of horses with that brand foals versus no foals by their side? They all had foals at their side. It was not different than the ones that hadn’t been given the birth control. So, that option didn’t work. There’s no easy solution.”
The morning of July 2, dozens of activists showed up to protest the helicopter round-ups.
The supporters included the actor Kathryn Heigl and the filmmaker, Ashley Avis who recently directed Disney’s new Black Beauty.
“They’re rounding up these horses with these low-flying helicopters and stampeding them for miles,” Avis said. “The little newborn foals will literally run their hooves off. It’s just devastating and to claim that a few hundred horses are destroying the land is just completely false misinformation.”
Some activists said the BLM should administer birth control to the mares via darts, others think that the land can sustain many more horses and nothing needs to be done. Activists almost universally said that the BLM is favoring rancher’s cattle and sheep over the mustangs. Activists argue this is unconstitutional because it goes against the free-roaming horse and burro act.
Becky disagreed. She thinks the round-ups are the best solution to a bad situation.
“If there are too many horses, they won’t be able to get the weight,” Winstead said. “Also, the overcrowding isn’t just a question of feed and destroying the land, it’s a question of them destroying each other. So, you can go through these pictures and see some pretty horrific injuries on these horses. There’s a horse with a missing ear, that they don’t know how it came off, but I’m sure it was a fight with a stallion. The two stallions fighting each other. And the thing about the Onaqui, they are so crammed in that they interact with each other constantly.”
If the Onaqui are decedent from the pony express horses, then this is a problem that started over 140 years ago. And sometimes, old problems don’t have any good solutions.