Those who call for the brutal and systemic removal of wild horses and burros (burro is the Spanish word for donkey) from public lands in the US are generally under the impression that these animals are an "invasive" species. This long-standing piece of misinformation is central to how they have been treated, as wild horses and burros have not been offered the same protections they might have received if they were listed as a native species. The genus Equus, which includes horses, donkeys, and zebras, both originated in, and co-evolved with, the native flora and fauna in the Americas, a fact that has been documented and confirmed through the fossil records.
Further, the modern horse, Equus caballus, regardless of later domestication by humans, is the exact genetic equivalent to the most recent species within the genus Equus to have originated in the Americas. This calls into question the mis-use of the word "feral" to describe these animals, as opposed to "wild", which the BLM and other federal agencies have used historically, and continue to use in order to justify their mistreatment of these animals, as from a biological viewpoint this word has no scientific basis at all. The fact that the modern horse or donkey can, and has been, domesticated, as many other wild animals can, and have been, also, does little to alter their innate biology, the hardwiring of millions of years of evolution, and their ability to reclaim their wildness once returned to their native soil and natural habits.
This explains why the horses and burros that were brought to the Americas by the Spanish in 1493, and who either escaped or were released in back into the wild, reverted so quickly and so thoroughly to their ancient wild behavioral patterns, and why they have survived and thrived in the extreme climates and habitats where their species first evolved, all without the need for hoof care, dental work, or human intervention of any kind. In addition, many Native sources have documented how these animals "gone wild" interbred with the ever-present Indigenous Horse of the Americas. This brings to light another common mis-understanding, namely that Equus became extinct in the Americas during the Pleistocene Ice Age. Recent advances in molecular biology through the extraction of mitochondrial DNA in the melting permafrost, have revealed that equines may have existed in North America at least as late as around 5000 years ago. Some Native sources say they never left.
The original theory, that there were no horses to be found in the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival, was first forced to change when paleontologist Joseph Leidy discovered horse skeletons embedded in American soil in the 1830’s. These horse bones were the oldest of any to be found in the world at that time, and while the scientific community questioned Leidy's findings initially, and expressed outraged at his discovery, scientists were compelled to accept the evidence he had provided. Dr. Ross MacPhee, a curator of the American Museum of Natural History who is currently pursuing DNA research into the origins of the equid species, states the following:
"Equidae, which includes all living horses, zebras, and asses, plus all of their extinct relatives, originated in North America approximately 53 million years ago. Since that time, equids have continuously evolved, producing numerous lineages. All of these are extinct except for the remaining species within genus Equus. The horse traveled over the Bering Land Bridge over millions of years as part of a migratory journey, along with many other mammals, many now extinct. Fossil evidence had long supported the idea that horses, once leaving the Americas, evolved into a new species, and so the horses which Spanish explorers brought to the New World were unfamiliar to this land. Advances in molecular genetics have proven otherwise: the horse completed its last adaptation in North America before its absence (for what was ostensibly a short-term blip in geologic time scales), and so when the Spanish and then early European settlers brought horses to his new land, these horses, Equus caballus, were, in fact, returning home.”
In 2020, when Emily Lena Jones radiocarbon dated horse bones from a site called Paa’ko on the outskirts of Albuquerque in New Mexico, which was settled by Puebloan people from 1525, she was surprised to find that these bones were at least 400 years old, which predates the establishment of the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598. As she writes in the article Horse Nations, from the May 2023 edition of Science magazine, this change in the historical records as to when European horses and donkeys first appeared in the Americas “opens up a wide range of cultural change happening outside of European view.” It shows how the European settlers who chronicled history at that time had failed to take into account the Native oral histories, and the dispersal of horses that had happened mostly out of sight.
A study from March 2023, that looked at the genetics of horses across the Old and New Worlds by studying archaeological samples, showed that horses had in fact been deeply integrated into Indigenous societies long before the arrival of 18th-century European observers, as reflected through herd management, ceremonial practices, and Native culture. For example, horse teeth that were found on the banks of the Kansas River in northeastern Kansas, from before 1650, show that the horse had been fed corn, a wintertime staple for Plains people. Archaeologist William Taylor, from the University of Colorado, a co-author of the study, remarked that this is "an incredible snapshot of an animal that was deeply integrated into Indigenous culture”.
Further, in her 2019 dissertation, Yvette Running Horse Collin, scholar and enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation (Oglala Sioux Tribe), presented archaeological evidence, radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis, and ancient DNA to back up this new historical perspective, alongside interviews from seven first nation tribes, all of which reported that horses have been an integral part of their culture prior to European arrival. Each of these indigenous communities shared their traditional creation stories that describe the sacred place of the horse within their tribal societies. As one Blackfoot (Nitsitapi) participant in Collin’s doctoral study states, “We have calmly known we've always had the horse, way before the settlers came. The Spanish never came through our area, so there's no way they could have introduced them to us."
LEARN MORE FROM THE ARTICLES & FILMS BELOW...
The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth
by Yvette Running Horse Collin
Rewilding Horses in Europe: Background and Guidelines ~ a Living Document
by Rewilding Europe
The Medicine Horse Way: The Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and Their Traditional Horses
by Yvette Collin
The Historic Nokota Horses, Descendants of Sitting Bull's Herd, Part II
by Patricia N. Saffran
The Aboriginal North American Horse
By Claire Henderson, Laval University, In Support of Senate Bill 2278 (North Dakota)
Colorado Experience: Native Horses
Ancient Sediment DNA
Mustangs & Renegades
“They each shared when the horse was gifted to them by the Creator,
that the acquisition was spiritual in nature, and that they
did not receive the horse from the Europeans.”
Carlton Shield Chief Gover