Wild Horses: Past, Present and Future

In 1971, the US Congress recognized mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” However, subsequent laws run contrary to this ideal. Private ranchers and mining interests have pressured to government to lower horse populations by rounding them up and offering them for adoption, but there aren’t enough homes so tens of thousands of wild horses are held in facilities not open to the public or killed. In 2004, a change to the law made it legal for wild horses in holding facilities to be sold for slaughter. Legal battles are currently underway to close loopholes that allow this practice to continue.


60 million years ago horses originated in the forests of North America.

1 million years ago North American horses migrated to Eur-Asia.

8,000 years ago Horses became extinct in North and South America.

500 years ago Horses were brought back to North America by Europeans. American wild horses are descendants of the horses who broke free from early Spanish explorers, settlers, ranchers, Indian tribes and the U.S. Cavalry, from the 1600s through the early part of the 20th century…

1912 100 years ago there were an estimated 2 million American Mustangs running free. Today there are approximately 30,000.

1946 The Federal General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service are combined to form the Bureau of Land Management. Located primarily in 12 western states including Alaska, the BLM’s stated mission today is to sustain the health, productivity, and diversity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. 29% of U.S. land (657 million acres) is in federal hands.

1959 Following decades of unregulated and widespread killing of wild horses, the first federal law was passed for protection of wild horses in 1959, named the Wild Horse Annie Act (PL86-234) for the heroic woman who fought vigilantly alongside other wild horse supporters to protect America’s mustangs from cruelty and exploitation.

1971 The United States Congress recognized Mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

The Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Act is published as Public Law 92-195: “To require the protection, management, and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands… protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to… be considered in the areas where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act adds Section 9 to Public Law 92-195, permitting the use of helicopters and motor vehicles for rounding up and transporting wild horses.

1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 adds provision to Public Law 92-195 to define horses that have been moved from an area as “excess animals.” This law further provides for “the destruction of excess animals.”

1980 A US Government Accountability Office report concluded that BLM horse removal decisions are often not based on “solid information concerning range carrying capacity or the impact of wild horses on range conditions.” The report indicated that advisory groups were largely composed of livestock permitees.

2004 Public Law 91-195 again amended to allow wild horses in holding facilities to be sold for slaughter.

2005 A rider to the 2005 federal Appropriations Bill introduced by Senator Burns resulted in the stripping of federal protection of wild horses and burros, and legitimized the capture and selling of horses for slaughter and human consumption to satisfy the demand for foreign horsemeat. The Bill, known as the Burns Amendment, was signed into law by President Bush on December 6, 2004

2006 After leaving Congress, Charles Stenholm became a lobbyist, representing various agricultural interests, including the horse meat industry. In 2006, he was the most visible lobbyist for three foreign-owned horse-slaughter plants in the U.S. that are fighting legislation that would force them to close. Meat from these horses is used as food in European Union countries, Japan and Mexico, for zoo food and for medical purposes. Since 2005, Stenholm has been a senior policy advisor and lobbyist with Olsson Frank Weeda, a Washington law and lobbying firm that specializes in representing food, drug, and agriculture interests before material federal agencies.

2007 The three remaining U.S. horse slaughter plants were closed in 2007 as a result of state legislation following the 1998 closure of California’s slaughter houses. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1949 Texas state law, which made it illegal to sell horsemeat and the two Texas slaughterhouses were closed. The last remaining plant, located in Illinois, was closed following a ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which prohibited the transportation and slaughter of horses. In the 5th Circuit’s decision, Jude Fortunato Benavides wrote “The lone cowboy riding his horse on a Texas trail is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse.”

While California had been successful in abolishing the practice with 60 percent of the vote [in 1998] American horses continue to be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico for wealthy diners in Europe and Japan where their meat is considered a delicacy. The great majority of horses sent to slaughter are the by-product of the for-profit horse industry.

2011 The Humane Society submitted a report to the Bureau of Land Management, calling on the agency to make several critical improvements to its standard operating procedures for wild horse gathers.

2012 Horse welfare experts gathered at an international conference to address cruelty, slaughter, and the treatment of America’s wild horses and burros. The International Equine Conference brought together the most notable and influential members of the equine welfare movement to discuss the political, scientific, and legal implications of current international equine issues.

Environmental Protection Agency Announces First Fertility Control Vaccine Approved for Wild Horses in the United States. Wildlife managers join The Humane Society of the United States in support of action.

Forbes Magazine research reveals discrepancies in BLM numbers of horses in captivity which could be as high as 57,000 horses confined to “short- and long-term facilities.”

In order to stop the suffering experienced by horses and put an end to slaughter practices that most Americans abhor, efforts are underway to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (HR503 and S311) which would establish a permanent ban on horse slaughter and the transportation of horses to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico.