The play Equus opened on Broadway this week, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. It's based on an actual incident that unfolded some time ago in the British countryside, in which a young man, roiled by horses and shamed by their gaze, blinded six of them with a spike.
Unbeknownst to many people, such episodes have been playing out across our own lands for decades. In fact, as I document in my book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a two-pronged war against wild horses is underway, and is heating up as our flag-waving President heads off into the sunset - on foot, across a field of bones.
One front in this war involves agencies tasked with wild horse management, primarily the BLM, which recently floated a proposal to euthanize thousands of "excess" wild horses in its custody - animals removed from public lands during the voracious round-ups of the Bush administration, and those that preceded it.
The other front involves lone operators who venture into the wilderness and kill wild horses - which is illegal, although arrests are rarely made and when they are, the cases often fall apart. For the sake of brevity, I'll skip the incidents that occurred before federal protection for mustangs went into place 37 years ago (the law that was unravelled under the Bush administration). But for the record, let this be known: In 1973, in Howe, Idaho, ranchers on snow mobiles and saddle horses chased a herd of 32 mustangs for 45 days, driving them into a narrow canyon and trapping them on a shelf. Some jumped off the cliff to their deaths. Others panicked and jammed their hoofs into rocks.
To make them more manageable, ranchers sewed hog rings into their noses. The fright escalated and some horses broke their legs as they scrambled on the rocks. “We didn’t know what to do,” one rancher said. “We disposed of them by cutting their legs off. I mean it was gruesome. We sawed that one sorrel mare’s legs with a chain saw.” When it was over, the six surviving horses were shipped to a packing house in Nebraska. A few days later, the dead and mutilated horses were found at the foot of the cliff.
In 1989, over a period of months in Nevada, at least 500 mustangs were mowed down by rifle fire. When coyotes came to feed, they too were killed. In 1992, 54 burros were gunned down on Good Friday outside Oatman, Arizona. In 1998, 34 wild horses were gunned down outside Reno at Christmas time, an episode I explore in my book (and include the story of the survivor of this incident, an amazing mustang -now ten - named Bugz).
In 1999, four wild horses and two burros in the Spring Mountains in Nevada were shot and killed. (In the same year and the same state, this time in Fallon, a grazing and military town, eight cows were raked with automatic weapons, one while giving birth, by two Navy airmen). In 2000, 37 wild horses were shot to death in the Rock Springs area of Wyoming - one of the largest federally sanctioned livestock grazing regions in the country.
In 2001, seven wild horses were shot to death in eastern Nevada, and six more later that year. In 2002, nine wild horses were gunned down by two ranchers in Utah. In 2003, possibly as many as 500 Nevada mustangs – known for the record as the Fish Creek horses - died after being rounded up in an ongoing territorial dispute between a pair of Shoshone Indians and the feds, adopted by a rancher in California, but left without food in BLM corrals as they awaited relocation and then dumped in the wilderness after they starved to death. In 2006, a mare and stallion were shot to death in Gerlach, Nevada. The mare had aborted her foal during the incident and it too perished. In fall of that year, seven horses were shot and killed near Pinedale, Arizona. The BLM offered rewards, but no one has come forward.
On October 11th and 12th, people from around the country will gather at a wild horse summit in Las Vegas to try to figure out how to end this war against the animal that blazed our trails and carried us through our greatest battles. "Is it possible," a character asks in Equus, "for a horse at a certain moment to add its sufferings together, and turn them into grief?" Certainly that is one way to explain its big sad satellite eye, which has seen it all.