Horses: Wild, But Not Free

There are now so many wild horses on public land – nearly 100,000 – that they have become caught in a battle between the government, ranchers and environmentalists.

The decades-long quest to save wild horses has run amok, creating a problem that even swooping helicopters, aging cowboys, camera-savvy activists, and millions of dollars can’t solve.

America has been fighting a war over wild horses since 1971, when Congress passed a landmark law protecting animals it called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer sprit of the West.”

The measure promised to end the widespread harassment and slaughter of mustangs and assure them a secure place on America’s public lands. But that’s not how things turned out.

What’s happened to the horses it saved?

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For teachers
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  • Producer: Erik German
  • Editor: Kristen Nutile
  • Additional Reporter: Sianne Garlick

For Educators


Largely in response to the letters and lobbying of young people, Congress passed a law in 1971 that prevented wild horses from being captured and slaughtered. This 10-minute video shows students how that 1971 law was a solution that created a new set of problems, and how environmental activists and ranchers continue to fight over the future of the American West. This video is useful for any lesson showing students why activists and lawmakers felt compelled to enhance environmental regulations in the 1960s and 70s, and how some of those regulations have created unintended consequences that remain unresolved.

Background reading

Nearly 100,000 wild horses are roaming public lands across the West, and they provide a continuing lesson that sometimes even the best intentions can go badly awry.

Back in the 1960s, the wild horse population was actually vanishing, thanks to continual roundups that often sent mustangs to the slaughterhouse for pet food or fertilizer. But that began to change when the horrors of the trade were dramatized in the critically-acclaimed 1961 movie “The Misfits,” starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and sparked an outrage from horse lovers and environmental activists.

By 1970, school children, prompted by activists, were flooding Congress, so the story goes, with letters calling for the wild horses to be protected.

Congress responded in 1971, passing a bill that made it a federal crime to kill a wild horse, and brought the commercial capture and slaughter to a halt.

But absent any predators, the wild horses began reproducing at an astonishing rate and soon dominated parts of the range, sparking a range war.

Ranchers who relied on that same range to feed their sheep and cattle, wanted the horses rounded up. Activists, appalled at the prospect of horses being rounded up and killed again, wanted the wild horses to remain free.

The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for tending public ranges, compromised. It began culling the herds – up to some 7300 in 2019 – but housed them in corrals and holding pastures, and fed them on the government dole.

That created another problem, that pleased no one. The government is currently housing and feeding some 49,000 horses, at the cost of up to $50 million a year. That figure is threatening to bankrupt the entire program.

Meanwhile, the wild horses on the public lands continue to multiply.

Lesson Plan 1: The Environment and Natural Resources: Wild Horses

Students will learn about efforts in the early 1970s to enhance environmental regulation and species protections and what happens when those policies lead to conflict – in this case over the wild horse.

  • How activists convinced the U.S. government to protect wild horses.
  • How the government’s efforts to protect wild horses have created a series of unintended consequences.
  • How efforts to protect or regulate the environment in the American West can lead to conflict between ranchers and activists.
Essential questions
  • What caused the government to pass a law protecting wild horses in 1971?
  • What role did young people play in the campaign to pass the law?
  • What were the unintended consequences of the law protecting wild horses?
  • How do ranchers and activists see the issue of wild horses differently?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.13: The Environment and Natural Resources from 1968 to 1980

      Skill 5.A: Identify patterns or connections between historical developments.

      Theme 3: Geography and the (GEO).