Freedom Isn't Free

I’ve been in this position as a wild horse intern, studying and observing the social, economic, and ecological affects of wild horses for a year now. My job is rewarding and fun and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, not everyday is easy, and being involved in such a polarizing issue can become frustrating. The most eye opening and difficult time I’ve had in the past year is witnessing misinformed opinions clash with reality. What do I mean by this?

Quite often, I hear, talk to, or read about peoples romanticized idea that free-roaming horses are majestic, “wild mustangs”, that run across the American west, thriving. This can be found on social media, in books, on the television, and in the news.

Horses gathered during the Fall 2018 season came in with low body scores. Many horses still left on the Devil's Garden Plateau went into the cold winter malnourished. Making survival difficult.

This really couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The people who have this idea, for the most part, have never been anywhere near where wild horses live. This is because free-roaming horses populate in some of the most remote locations over the Western United States rangelands. Cold winters that result in frozen ground with no nutritional feed leads to even more intense summers with hundred-degree weather with not a tree in sight. Good quality forage is hard to come by and water is sparse.

The idea that they’re thriving would be an inaccurate statement and not one that I would use to describe wild horses on our public rangelands. Parts of the Western United States have fallen victim to intense drought conditions for almost a decade. This has led to significant loss in water and forage for wildlife, wild horses, and cattle. In 2018, the Fish Creek herd, Navajo Nation land herd, Sand Wash Basin herd, Warm Springs herd, Little Book Cliffs herd, and among many other herds ran out of food and water and relied on human volunteers to supply them with these resources. In some instances, it was too late. For the Navajo Nation herd, nearly two hundred horses died from lack of water and forage. Their carcasses were found surrounding a dried-up watering hole. This is not freedom. That’s a struggling wild animal, skin and bones, relying on a human for survival.

Why are we okay with this?

Too many people blindly follow misinformed media and “not-for-profit” organizations that feed information that supports an agenda. Not enough people take the time to educate themselves or visit areas where these crises are occurring. There is an intense disconnect between what is fantasized on our rangelands versus what is actually happening.

I like to think quality over quantity. Our public land managers, whether that be for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or another public agency, want to see healthy wild horses on public lands. But in order to do that, that means we have to manage for that objective. Healthy horses. Is that not what we all want?

After the round-up of close to a thousand free-roaming horses in Modoc County, almost all of the ones that have been held at the Double Devil Wild Horse corrals have been adopted or sold to caring homes. Homes that supply fresh feed and water on a daily basis. Some of my favorite stories are from the trainers and owners that talk about how their horses have gained weight, how their coats are coming in healthy and shinier, and how they nicker and whinny when its feeding time. These horses were out running wild just a few months prior! This is a luxurious life for a horse! The days of going weeks without good forage, always being on guard for predators, and struggling for survival is behind them. They’ve earned the next chapter of life and now can enjoy warm barns, lush paddocks, nutritious hay, and lots of love from their owners.

Devil's Garden wild horses running on the plateau in early Spring of 2018. Healthy horses can exists when public agencies, scientists, and advocates work together with the common objective of maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Do I want to see wild horses running on our landscapes and enjoying freedom? Of course! But do I also understand that the life for a wild horse is incredibly harsh? Absolutely. Especially when overpopulated herds mixed with a decrease in forage and water availability resulting in suffering animals. We have the power to help them though.

In order to be able to have thriving, healthy wild horses on our rangelands, we HAVE to manage them.

If this means some have to be rounded up and placed in homes that WILL supply food, water, and love, and make a better life for these horses, then I am more than okay with that. Freedom isn’t free. Freedom is being wild, fighting for life every single day. It’s a hard pill to swallow for some, but if we want to continue seeing wild horses run free, we need to pay the price.

Additional Information:

For more information of the Devil's Garden Wild Horses and how to take one home:

Steps and information toward resource recovery:

More information regarding herds mentioned in this article:

  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon

© 2023 by The Mountain Man. Proudly created with