Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away (From The Fact That They’re Invasive)
Horses are, without a doubt, a hugely significant part of human culture and history. Worldwide, they’ve played the role of food source, beast of burden, war steed, postal service, transport, and in modern times pet and sports star. Horses were and in many places still are are an omnipresent part of life. People have a lot of feelings about them.
We have a whole set of tropes and cultural meaning attached to our equine companions.The horse “represents a refusal to be tamed, an inherent beauty, and a superhuman strength; and anyone who proves themselves worthy of a horse’s trust takes on those traits by proxy.” This symbolism means horses turn up again and again in books and films (not just “Horse Girl” ones), as well as music and advertising. They’re often romanticised, idealised and deified.
But what about when horses cause problems, not just for humans, but for the environment and the species living there?
Firstly, the use of the term “wild horses” is a bit of a misnomer. There is only one true wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse. Once found across Asia, this species went extinct in the wild in the 1960s, but has been re-introduced due to the efforts of captive breeding programs.
The “wild horse” many people think of should more properly be referred to as a feral horse (I can hear their appeal drop through the floor already). Feral horses are horses that were domesticated, or had domesticated ancestors, but are now free roaming due to escape or deliberate release. There are feral horses all over the world, the most famous being the Mustangs of North America or the Brumby of Australia, but there are even horses that live in the Namib desert in Africa.
Some populations are classified as semi-feral, meaning they are managed to some extent by humans. These include Exmoor ponies in England and Camargue horses in France. These horses are owned, may be ridden, and have studbooks.
However, as with any invasive species, if the population is out of control problems manifest. Some feral horse populations are managed quite well. The horses of North Carolina are a major tourist attraction and cultural touchstone for the area. However, if left to their own devices, they would damage the delicate coastal dune ecosystem. To manage the population, mares are given contraceptives. This also works to help reduce conflict with the people of the area, as the human population grows and encounter the horses more frequently.
(There is also the issue of people getting far too close to them in pursuit of the perfect Instagram selfie, putting themselves and the horses at risk. This is being targeted by education and outreach through the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.)
This sounds like a perfect solution, but castrated animals don’t suddenly stop churning up the ground with their hooves or eating all around them. In Kosciuszko National Park, Australia, populations of Brumbies have skyrocketed, with an estimated population size of 14,380. Australia’s ecosystems have not evolved with large hooved mammals, so the huge population trampling delicate upland habitats causes ecosystem upheaval. This destroys native plants and wreaks havoc on burrowing species, many of whom are already threatened by feral cats and habitat destruction.
Similar problems arise in North America, where poor management of the horse population has led to overgrazing. Like other invasives, populations skyrocket in places where there are no predators to keep them in check, then crash spectacularly when there are no longer enough resources to go around.
This is when conflict between those who want to manage the horses and the public occurs. Most people like horses and get upset when overpopulation results in images of starving animals. But they also get upset when populations are culled, or rounded up to be sold, kept in holding pens, or slaughtered. Rehoming and rehabilitation alternatives sound nice and humane, and can receive a lot of attention.
(The director of Disney Plus’ Black Beauty adaptation is involved in this, which makes sense when you remember she bizarrely said the film was feminist because the horse is a mare this time.)
But the reality is that often there are too many horses and not enough homes, as well as the fact that feral animals don’t make great pets. Many of them end up euthanised due to not being wanted or poor health.
Like with many conservation issues, there are a lot of competing views making this a volatile situation. I can understand the argument that feral horses are significant parts of culture in many areas, and shouldn’t be completely eradicated, but so are native ecosystems and species, which are far more important in the greater scheme of things.
There is an argument that in places where truly wild horses once existed, feral horses perform the same ecosystem functions. This is a complicated argument in lots of ways, as when rewilding an area how far back can we go? Is the modern horse a suitable candidate in America, given the evolved there, went extinct, and then were reintroduced by Europeans? What about in places like Australia, where horses were never there until Europeans (it’s always Europeans) introduced them?
But if feral horses are to stay, we must be honest that this means they have to be controlled, often by methods like culling. We have to be empathetic yet firm when we educate the public about how culling is necessary, even though it may not be pretty. This is a conversation that needs to happen regarding other animals too, from gray squirrels in Italy to (believe it or not) Rhesus macaques in Florida, USA. We should also be stricter about referring to them as feral instead of wild, as wild implies they are in the same category as wildlife.
I was a horse mad kid, I kept horses from the age of ten up until 2017. They’ve had a huge impact on my life and who I am as a person (and on my bones, an accident leaving me with metal pins and a plate in my leg). I love horses!
But I love wild ecosystems too. It is because I love horses that if I lived in an area with this problem, I would rather see them culled then starve to death, or go through the stress of castration or of being rounded up only to be euthanised at the end.
It is sometimes hard to wrap one’s head around the different emotions that have to be in place with dealing with domesticated animals versus wildlife. It can seem unnecessarily harsh to kill animals that we’re used to keeping and loving as pets, be they horses or dogs or cats. But if we want to keep the ecosystems and species our lives depend on healthy, we must be responsible enough to manage the animals we have domesticated.
To maintain the wilderness so beloved when we think of “wild” horses, to make sure future generations can enjoy it and a healthy planet, we have to be willing to say goodbye to at least some of the horses that live there.
Danielle Crowley is an ecologist and science communicator currently working with BirdWatch Ireland’s Swift monitoring program. She will be starting the Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation MSc with the University of Exeter in September, and co-hosts the fish-based podcast Movie aFISHianados, which you can listen to at this link. Follow Dani on Twitter @Aqua_Dan1.