The Mustang Mystique

Descended from animals brought by Spanish conquistadors centuries ago, wild horses roam the West. But are they running out of room?

Horses brought by Spanish explorers in the 16th century bore a dark stripe along the spine, a feature that marks some mustangs today. (Melissa Farlow)
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Mustang advocates find the idea of fenced-in wild horses distasteful in the extreme. The BLM “treat(s) the wild horses like livestock,” says Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, an organization first led by Wild Horse Annie. The horses, she says, should be treated “like wildlife.”

“Mother Nature can be very cruel,” says BLM spokesman Tom Gorey, and in areas crowded with horses the animals can starve to death. “The idea of just allowing nature to take its course—people don’t have the stomach for that,” he says. “We don’t have the stomach for it either.”

Farlow photographed several roundups, including one in the Jackson Mountains. She set up her remote-controlled cameras, then watched from a hillside as the horses pounded past, two helicopters buzzing above. A tame horse, known in the trade as a Judas horse, was released among the mustangs; they followed him into the corral and the gates were closed. “It’s a bit heartbreaking,” Farlow says. “Some of these horses are so beautiful that you want to say, ‘Turn around and run!’”

Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian’s staff writer, has written about lions, narwhals and monkeys called geladas. Melissa Farlow is a freelance photographer based in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.


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