I read in Outdoor Life that in Western states, wild horses and burros are dying due to lack of water and grass for grazing. The same happened often in the nineteenth century in Alta California during droughts. Some of the horses Spanish conquistadors brought to North America escaped into the wild, and with no natural predators and a fast reproduction rate, they multiplied. During dry years the free-roaming horses competed with the ranchos’ cattle that grazed in the hills. Sometimes rancheros organized round-ups to chase the horses farther into the mountains or even to kill them by forcing them to stampede over cliffs. It seems like a drastic, cruel way to control the number of such beautiful animals, especially when you remember how many horses were trained to work for people. They carried riders in saddles around ranches and bareback in circuses. They hauled wagons over prairies and carriages in cities. Knights and soldiers rode war horses into battle.
A zookeeper/writer friend, PJ Beavan, reminded me in her recent ZooFit blog about how instinctive horses are with people. They can tell a rider’s mood and even reflect it in their own actions. Through my research I learned how well rancho vaqueros and their horses were in tune with one another. They had to be when working with cattle and when so many threats surrounded them in the nineteenth century wilderness of Alta California. The horse was a valuable work animal that learned to hold a rope taut when a steer or a grizzly was lassoed. Their quick reflexes and natural instincts protected many riders from disastrous injuries or death.