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Horse sense

Stillman saddles up to save wild mustangs

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You might not have heard of HB 418, which is currently before Montana’s state Senate. It hasn’t gotten much press in the local newspapers. But nationally, the bill has woken up message boards, blogs and activists, and papers in places like Boston, Las Vegas, and Columbus, Ohio have picked up on the story. In short, the bill—sponsored by the aptly named Ed Butcher, R-Winifred—would clear legal roadblocks for the construction of a slaughterhouse for horses, the only one of its kind in the country, if built. Proponents of the bill argue that horse owners need a place where they can dispose of injured or sick animals. Opponents argue that horse slaughterhouses are inhumane and pose a risk to the environment. But left out in the debate is that wild horses, thanks to a last-minute rider slipped onto a 2004 U.S. Senate appropriations bill by Sen. Conrad Burns, might be sold for slaughter and consumption abroad to any horse slaughterhouse. Montana could be where mustangs go to die.

Wild horses have a large and passionate following. Like many passions, advocacy for America’s mustangs isn’t entirely logical—for starters, the country’s wild horses aren’t technically “wild,” they’re feral. That is, the herds are formed from escaped domesticated animals (re-)introduced to North America by Old World explorers and settlers. For another, the country’s wild herds live in some of the most fragile ecosystems, where, if their numbers grow too high, they can damage the water supply and dwindling native plant species. The most forceful argument for the preservation of wild horses is also the basis of the U.S. law, The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The act protects horses on public lands from “capture, branding, harassment, or death,” on the basis that free-roaming horses “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” And that’s essentially the argument that author Deanne Stillman makes in her powerful book, Mustang.

Centering her book on the history of the horse on the North American continent, Stillman takes us to the prehistoric plains where the horse evolved, all the way through to the reintroduction of the horse by the earliest explorers and settlers, to the spread of horses to the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, to the end of the American frontier and the creation of the Western mythos in Hollywood. Unlike other standard histories of the West, Mustang offers the horse as the protagonist. From Cortés’ use of horses in his conquest of Montezuma’s Aztecs—eased by natives believing the strange animal to be a kind of god—to the battle of Little Bighorn’s only cavalry survivor, a horse named Comanche, Stillman centers the drama on the horse, in effect emphasizing its contribution to our collective
history.

This approach is heightened by Stillman’s bold narrative choices, her vivid descriptions and language, and her penchant for occasionally narrating scenes from a horse’s point of view. This language is especially engaging when she, for instance, relates the first meeting of armor-bound Conquistadores with the Aztec emperor’s famed jaguar guards, or when describing the acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. But she can go overboard—quite literally, as she did speculating what the horses must have seen and felt when they were tossed over the side of an early American-bound European ship: The horses “faltered as they took in the peripheries with their big satellite eyes…and as their eyes swept the horizon they may have experienced a vestigial sense memory of the wide-open space in the New World where they had once roamed before it had a name.”

The book is also marred by Stillman’s almost excessive advocacy on behalf of the American mustangs. For example, the last section of Mustang is pure advocacy for the country’s wild horses, and as such, it’s the least enjoyable. Stillman describes the horse roundups and slaughter that led to congressional protection of free-roaming horses, and rails against any attempt to question that protection, too casually brushing aside concerns for the environment or livestock. It’ll no doubt resonate with those who agree with Stillman on the issue, but the tone will seem off-putting to the undecided.

Still, Stillman gives us a powerful and vivid description of the horse and its place in our history. As such, Mustang is a powerful voice advocating for wild horses’ continued presence in our American landscape. Even so, I can’t shake this 1952 newspaper editorial that Stillman quotes: “The wild horses, harmless and picturesque as they are, are a pleasant reminder of a time when all the West was wilder and more free.” In this era of quickly onrushing economic and environmental catastrophes, can we expend the capital and energy on “pleasant reminders”?

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