Wild Horses – Research and Education

Gila Wild Horses grazing

Most wild equid species are threatened or at risk of extinction due to human interaction and loss of habitat around the world. http://www.princeton.edu/~equids/. In an effort to document the remaining culturally diverse herds of the world, a number of equid biologists and ecologists are working globally to identify functional and sustainable traits in wild equids. As part of this effort, we produced a photographic and musical educational dvd on some of the basic behaviors of wild horses.

NEW DVD Wild Horses: Understanding the Natural Lives of Horses 

After spending almost 40 years studying wild horses, it is with sadness I have to admit  there is very little if any natural wild horse herds in the world who have not been influenced by humans.  I was fortunate to start my research at the University of Wyoming in 1973 and obtain both behavioral and range data on horses and ecosystems in a number of Wyoming herds.

I hope documenting the brief history of my involvement and research will inspire others to continue working on behalf of wild equid protection and management.

Wild Horses Native to North America

Wild horses are native to North America and adapted to the ecosystems of the Western rangelands similar to bison, Although, it is thought the horse died thousands of years ago and was re-introduced by the Spanish into the modern world. archeological evidence raises questions as to whether the native horse ever died out in North America or was limited to small populations in the Northern climates. Chinese trading with North America Indians during post Pleistocene and Pre-Columbian times, along with archeological finds are opening the door of evidence.

Wild horses resing

Wild horses resting

Regardless, wild horses are adapted to the North American habitat and provide a beneficial ecological component to the overall system’s heath. With less than 30,000 wild horses and over 6 million other ungulates, horses represent an insignificant impact on the habitat. But because horses are not legally hunted, nor raised for food, their value has been demoted to nothing more than a “feral animal”. This status may apply to some horses in certain areas, but overall the horse is still the best adapted species for many of the western habitats.

Lack of scientific management of wild horses as an endemic species and the continual efforts to convince the public that horses need to be removed from their native range, has lead to widespread controversy for over 40 years. Blamed for range degradation and over population, wild horses have been the brunt of human manipulation. Had the population of horses been managed according to good behavioral models for wildlife management back in 1972, North America would still have functional, sustainable, and culturally diverse herds of wild horses.


Shamber in the BLM pens separated, tagged & branded

Shamber in the BLM pens separated, tagged & branded



Between 1973 – 1976, I conducted range and wildlife research on wild horses in Wyoming while receiving my undergraduate degree in Wildlife Biology and a minor in Range Management studying wild equids at the University of Wyoming.  My range research on diets of wild horses was used in the original National Academy of Sciences report to Congress and the BLM. However, it was not used accurately as the report stated a “significant overlap” of wild horse diets with cattle diets, when in fact the researched showed out of 14 habitats, only 5 had overlapping species eaten by both horses and cattle.

Reproductive Rates and Behavior

Between 1973- 1976, while at the University of Wyoming conducting range and wildlife studies on wild horses I was able to monitor approximately 8 different herds. When these herds were originally gathered using gate cuts by the BLM during this period, the average age of a “harem stallion” with mares was 18- 22 years old. The youngest stallion with mares was 13 yrs old.

Conducting interviews with ranchers in Wyoming and discussing wild horse management, led me to produce recommendations to the BLM for the management of wild horses. The local ranchers had been managing the herds for the most part in Wyoming with minimal impact on the culture and behavior of the various herds.  Young bachelor stallions were culled when they came down to the ranches trying to recruit mares. Hence, the herd dynamics allowed for a stable population with long term pair bonding between alpha males and females.

Reproductive rates in 1975 in the herds studies were estimated between 4-5 percent. By 1979-80 these same herds, after BLM gate cuts were implemented were estimated at 10 -12 percent. This increase in reproductive rates most likely was due to the fact that stable pairs of alpha females and males had been removed leaving many mares open for recruitment from bachelor stallions previously not allowed into the herd.

I continued to monitor wild horse herds throughout the Western United States in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, California and Arizona while working in the mining industry as a range and reclamation specialist for Utah International ( 1976-1979) and then as a consultant from 1979-1984.

Wild Horses, Heber, Arizona

Wild Horses, Heber, Arizona

Working with various BLM districts and state directors as well as with Fred Wyatt, the Manager of the BLM pens in Palomino Valley, Nevada, I was able to gather good data on various herds on the range before and after removal. The original flower essences studies to reduce injury and stress in wild horse horses was conducted in 1989 -1991 at Palomino Valley on almost 4000 horses. This study is available upon request.

MA at Palomino Valley, BLM

MA at Palomino Valley, BLM

Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board

Cy Jameson, Director of the BLM in 1990 asked me to be on the National Advisory Board because of my unbiased and scientific work with wild horse management. Unfortunately, the recommendations made to Congress as a result of this Advisory Board has had little effect on overall management of wild horses. We worked very hard to develop a strategic plan outlining what is still the vision/mission for the program. However, the only recommendation that was followed was that the BLM would implement a public affairs staff to grow the awareness of the public about the value of America’s wild horses.


Karen Sussman, ISPMB & MA at Wild Horse Summit

Karen Sussman, ISPMB & MA at Wild Horse Summit

Karen Sussman of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros served on the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in 1990-1992. We are now working on a research project with Princeton University to document the various functional behaviors of the herds at ISPMB in hopes of defining how equine culture is formed and learned.

Mike Penfold was the Assisted Director of the BLM under Cy Jameson demonstrated great leadership. He may be the main reason why we still have wild horses on the range today as he drove the recommendations of our Advisory Board to at least in part be implemented. Hence, “Public Affairs ” for the Wild Horse program was born. Mike believed in good communication and public involvement.

Mike Penfold and MA

Mike Penfold and MA


Wild Horse Groups

International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros
PO Box 55
Lantry, SD 57636
Email: ispmb@lakotanetwork.com (Karen Sussman)
Website: www.ispmb.org

International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB) is America’s oldest wild horse and burro advocacy group. ISPMB also has a mustang and burro registry (see Registries section, below.)

The ISPMB is active in the rescue and rehabilitation of BLM Mustangs and Burros through their Operation Wild Horse and Burro Rescue program. The rescue group stays in contact with the auction houses in the State of Arizona. Whenever a BLM Mustang or Burro is put up for auction, the group purchases the animal, brings them back to the ISPMB facility, rehabilitates the animal and finds and adoptive and/or permanent home. These animals are also used to rehabilitate young and old people alike through the ISPMB Volunteer program. They are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. They produce a quarterly newsletter through funds raised by donations. The donations are also used to feed the current herd and purchase auctioned animals.