Captured – Meet the Mustangs

I fell in love (again) with wild horses on a cold winter night in 2001. I rarely watch tv but for some reason I turned it on that night to pbs. I plopped down on my teal sofa as the stallion Cloud thundered across my screen.

Within seconds, I was hooked to this film that chronicled the life of Cloud in the mountains of Montana. Ginger Kathrens had been visiting his wild herd and recording life since his birth in 1995. It was incredible to see the social structure of the herds and the dynamic way the horses lived together.

I didn’t realize until later how special it was that the wild horses were still on public lands. Since the late 1800’s, wild horses were barbarically captured by ranchers, hunters, and ‘mustangers’. In 1950 one woman’s actions changed all that.

Her name was Velma Johnston. It all started when she was driving behind a truck with blood pouring down the side. She followed the truck to the slaughterhouse.

Velma saw first hand the mangled and injured horses in the truck and the whites of their terrified eyes as they waited at their final destination.

Their last stop was to be put into the new pet food industry’s cans just like the tens of thousands of mustangs that had already been fed to cats and dogs.

 Think about Velma in that moment. 

What could she do? It was 1950. She was 38. She was a secretary. She partially crippled by polio. Most people would have given up. I mean who was she to go up against the business of pet food and ranchers? She must have known that she had a voice no matter what the odds and that her voice mattered. She decided that the brutality had to stop but how?

She got the word out by mounting a grassroots letter writing campaign with mostly school children. The campaign became known as the “Pencil War.” Through determination and grit, she became the voice of the voiceless and her new identity as Wild Horse Annie was born.

Due to Wild Horse Annie and her supporters,The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was passed.

The Act declares wild horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Under the law, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages herds in their jurisdictions within areas where wild horses and burros were found roaming in 1971.

Sounds like it all ended well, right? Well…no. 

I wish I had a fairytale ending. Sorry.

Right now 35,000 wild horses have been rounded up by the BLM and are in holding facilities at a cost of $30 million a year. If you go on the BLM website, you’ll see that many of these horses are up for adoption. A very small percentage are adopted and most live their days in feedlot conditions. Not exactly a living symbol of the West.

There are a number of special interest groups at play. The welfare and future of these horses is once again in a precarious position. Starting with low flying helicopters to terrorize and stampede wild horses into trap pens to separating families to the toll of feedlot conditions, our wild horses once again are facing the inhumanity that Wild Horse Annie fought against for decades.

The Artwork – Captured

Before I created this artwork, I did a rough sketch of what I was thinking about. Raptor, helicopter, blood, resources, escape, tension and beauty came to mind.

The tension between man and nature has always been a subject of interest for me. That’s the reason I called this piece Captured.

As humans we have a drive to capture or own/control the natural world.

Part of that drive is important for our own survival but part of it is the desire to take away more than we really need to.

Where do we stop and what needs to be protected from our insatiable drive for more? How do we protect wild space and animals from our desire for resources? Can we even appreciate wildness (I ask myself this as I look out the window at a sad looking tree)?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Send me a email and check out several of the organizations that are working for wild horse freedom: