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The Problem

So Many Horses... So Little Land

Native Horses

What defines a native wild horse or Colorado mustang?  Is it the number of generations their family has roamed freely within Colorado, or is it their history of having been born in the wilds of Colorado and having never been tamed?

Oddly enough, the most important aspect of wild horses is that they have evolved for hundreds of years like so many other species of animal living in Colorado and deserve to be treated as a native or indigenous species.


Due in part to the prehistory of the horse, there is controversy as to the role mustangs have in the ecosystem as well as their rank in the prioritized use of public lands, particularly in relation to livestock. There are multiple viewpoints.

Some supporters of mustangs on public lands assert that, while not native, mustangs are a "culturally significant" part of the American West, and acknowledge some form of population control is needed. Another viewpoint is that mustangs reinhabited an 
ecological niche vacated when horses went extinct in North America, with a variant characterization that horses are a reintroduced native species that should be legally classified as "wild" rather than "feral" and managed as wildlife.

The "native species" argument centers on the premise that the horses extirpated in the Americas 10,000 years ago are closely related to the modern horse as was reintroduced. Thus, this debate centers in part around the question of whether horses developed an 
ecomorphotype adapted to the ecosystem as it changed in the intervening 10,000 years.

The Problem

The mustang is a free-roaming horse of the Western United States, descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish. Mustangs are often referred to as wild horses, but because they are descended from once-domesticated animals, they are actually feral horses. The original mustangs were Colonial Spanish horses, but many other breeds and types of horses contributed to the modern mustang, now resulting in varying phenotypes. Some free-roaming horses are relatively unchanged from the original Spanish stock, most strongly represented in the most isolated populations.

In 1971, the United States Congress recognized that "wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people" The free-roaming horse population is managed and protected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Sand Wash Basin is the home to one of the few remaining herds of free-roaming wild mustangs in the United States. It is also a destination for 4-wheeler and dirt bike enthusiasts. Sand Wash Basin is located 45 miles west of Craig. Drive west on U.S. Highway 40 past the town of Maybell. Turn north on Colorado Highway 318 and drive approximately 15 miles. Turn right on CR75 to enter the Basin.

The Sand Wash Herd Management Area (HMA) is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and includes 154,940 acres of public land, 1,960 acres of private land, and 840 acres of state school section lands, for a total of 157,730 acres. Sand Wash Basin is surrounded by ridges and mesas. Vegetation types within the HMA include sagebrush/bunchgrass, saltbush, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. The boundary of the HMA is fenced, except along State Highway 318, generally preventing wild horses from entering or leaving the HMA. There are no fences within the HMA, allowing horses to roam freely within the confines of the basin.

The horses within the HMA exhibit many different colors. Among the most common are grey and sorrel, although most colors and color patterns can be found, including buckskins, duns and paint. Genetic analysis indicates the highest similarity for the herd was to the Iberian derived Spanish breeds, followed by Gaited breeds, North American breeds and Arabian breeds.

The original population of horses with the HMA in 1971 was 65 head. The managed population range recommended is 163 to 363 horses. The existing horse population has been managed to the most current of these numbers through horse gathers in 1989, 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2005. The herd had a population high of 455 head in 1998. The most recent aerial census conducted as of 2021 there were an estimated 896 wild horses in and around the Sand Wash Basin HMA – approximately 746 wild horses within the HMA and 150 excess wild horses outside the HMA. The BLM recently set the Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the Sand Wash Basin HMA between 163 and 362 wild horses... which resulted in the removal of 700+ horses in 2021.

The Question at Hand

What is it about the wild Mustangs that draws so many people in?  Is it simply they are individual animals that display great beauty, majesty and individuality, or is it their free and wild spirit that casts a spell over our hearts and minds?

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When you take one of these free spirits and shackle it by locking it into a relatively small space, are they really the same animal, or is it truly the freedom to run free that breathes life into their soul?

Can any of us really stand behind the concept of keeping family units together over the ability to protect each horse’s individual freedom?   Does that mean each of us as humans would prefer to have our family members locked within a restrictive cell for the remainder of their lives – or would we prefer to sacrifice our wants and needs so that our treasured family could remain free and able to fulfil their own destiny?

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That is the question that ebbs and flows between those who love these wild horses and want to see them completely left alone to do as they wish.  Yet, what is the best alternative if fate leaves us no choice but to deal with a certain change that must take place?

Do we strive to protect their freedom by giving them the closest thing to the wild, or do we value family at all cost?  What would you choose if your decision could potentially hurt the ones you love?

For some, sacrificing their own desires for the benefit of those they truly cherish is the only way to go… while for others, sacrificing freedom in order to remain close is the only thing that counts.

There are no clear answers other than what each individual being would choose as their own destiny.  The only thing we can do is try to empathize and understand what these wild and free spirits would choose for their own future – rather than what we might choose for our own.

Protect their freedom!

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