Mustangs on the Move

Without free-roaming bands of wild horses, the American West just wouldn’t be the same

Mustangs have come to occupy a special place in the collective American psyche. They symbolize much that has been lost to progress — wide-open spaces, self-sufficiency and a sense of unabridged freedom. And they comprise a fascinating chapter in the story of the modern horse. For nearly three years, Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott followed and photographed wild horses in the West.

By patiently introducing themselves — being very careful of their body language when approaching the horses, and urinating on piles of stallion dung so that the horses became familiar with their scents — Momatiuk and Eastcott were able to observe the animals up close. The careful introductions also saved Momatiuk's life on at least one occasion. "I was in imminent danger of being trampled to death. He exploded out of the shadows and slid to a halt just inches away. He inhaled my scent, blew out noisily--and inexplicably, backed off.... He recognized my smell."

Horses introduced by Spanish colonists in the early 1500s formed the original nucleus of the herds roaming the West today. These mustangs provided Native Americans, the U.S. cavalry and cowboys with countless sturdy mounts. They were also slaughtered for pet food, and their numbers dropped from more than a million at the turn of the century to perhaps as few as 20,000. The 1971 federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act protects them, and there are now enough wild horses that the Bureau of Land Management has a large, if somewhat controversial, public adoption program.

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