The Backbone of Modoc County

Out on the Garden, we walk in the deep depressions made by the sturdy hooves of the wild horses. Every heavy print recalls the horses that once plowed the fields and carried the hay. This image is a daily a reminder of the hard-working ranch communities that shape this region. They represent hard workers and horses bred for work. These ranch horses were not bred to run free, but rather to work the land alongside the ranchers and farmers. Many of the ranches in Modoc County today are multigenerational, some of the original ranches exceeding six or seven generations. With modern machinery, 26 horse teams are no longer fundamental to farm, meaning these horses now run on the Devil’s Garden; wild horses. The wild horses of Modoc County are not descendants of free horses of the West. The horses we see today are untamed descendants of the horses that once were the backbone of Modoc County. As beautiful as they may be, these horses, which were once an essential component of local ranch operations, have come to put a stressor on agricultural practices, the land, and the local economy.

Since the 1870s when Benner Ranch, the first ranch in Modoc County, was established, horses have been a necessity to livestock and farming operations. Beginning in the 19th century, horse powered machinery became very popular. From horse-drawn mowers and harvesters to horse teams used to feed cattle and transport supplies, horses continuously replaced much of the work once done by hand. In addition, from the 1880s to 1910 the horse breeding business became just as important as the cattle business. Horses and mules were raised and sold to be used in teams for plowing and harvesting. In 1936, thoroughbred stallions from the Army Remount Service were brought to Surprise Valley to raise artillery and cavalry horses and Modoc County had successful businesses selling coach and saddle horses to the army, especially in tough economic times. Pack horses also have a history in the county bringing lunches and water to fire crews in the field. Because ranching, farming, transportation, and everyday life were all dependent upon horses, horsepower was an essential asset to development in Modoc County between the 1800s and 1930s.

Domestic horses, escaped from local ranches, began breeding on the Garden. Known locally as “fuzz tails” these strays became a problem on the range and in 1889 one thousand horses were gathered and killed. The stray horse campaign and management of wild horses became an essential part of grazing projects and continued successfully through the 1920s. Today, due to legislation such as the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, horses on the Garden cannot be managed and removed as they once were.

The decline of horse use in agriculture does not have to be a sad story of the past. Instead, the paired history of ranchers and horses can offer us inspiration for solutions today. Perhaps putting more wild horses to use would be the most accurate demonstration of their role as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” (Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971). Although successful adoptions provide wild horses with a place to live, it is a scarce occurrence compared to the number of wild horses that are displaced. Selling horses to local ranches, with their title, would provide a source of hardy work stock for ranchers and farmers. Training wild horses to work or pack could provide additional economic opportunities to the local community. Devil’s Garden horses are strong, sure-footed, work horse stock that remind us of the local ranching history and provide possibilities for the future. The wild horse issue is not a simple one, to be solved by the cattlemen or government alone. Instead there are a variety of voices calling for a broad range of solutions. As interns we have experienced first-hand the complication of wild horse overpopulation, meeting and listening to stakeholders. Our hope is to bring a fair voice to the table, present what we have learned, and help create better solutions for the future.

Facts from this article can be found here:

Gooch, Sara. The Journal of the Modoc County Historical Society: Ranching and Farming Issue. 1993. 15: 1-215

Brown, William S. Chapter VI Range. 1945 History of the Modoc National Forest.

Bureau of Land Management. Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

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