Run Wildie Run: The Future of Alberta’s Wild Horses

Photo courtesy Maria Didkowsky.

 By Wendy Bush

Look back on our struggle for freedom

Trace our present days’ strength to its source

And you’ll find that man’s pathway to glory

Is strewn with the bones of a horse.

(Anonymous)

Wild Horses in our back yard? How did they get here?

First of all, it took 7000 years for today’s human/horse domestic union to evolve. Serving men first as food, then as transportation and labour in agriculture, war, and development, the horse is arguably the animal world’s largest contributor to human civilization.

The Spanish brought horses to the New World in 1493. By 1710, all the Indian tribes that owned horses were equestrians. In some of the Eastern States there were “Wildies,” whose herds numbered in the hundreds; the studs stealing homesteaders’ mares. The animals crossed the 49th Parallel sometime in the 1760’s with Aboriginals and some also crossed with their own herds and of their own volition.

Are they really wild?

The word mustang comes from the Spanish musteño, meaning “stray.” In North America, this term is interchangeable with “wild horse.” All wild horses in North America are either a descendant of an escaped domestic animal or recently “freed” (read “abandoned”). The correct term for this circumstance is “feral.” So, in the true sense of the word, all mustangs are actually feral horses.

Today it is thought that about 1000 wild horses live in Alberta, surviving in isolated pockets.

Life as a Wildie

In The Foothills, the horses that still run wild live in bands of six to ten. Each small herd is led by a dominant mare, who is responsible for the overall safety of the group. She route-finds, locates feed and decides when to move on. Usually, a single stallion in the herd has breeding rights and fights off both predators and other studs.

Photo courtesy Maria Didkowsky.

The reader is no doubt familiar with a Disney-fied vision of these wild herds: rippling muscles, shiny coats and foals grazing peacefully in wide-open, grass-filled meadows. The reality of “freedom” for the feral animals is not so utopian. Most are stunted and rough looking.  Winter’s harsh conditions can bring starvation and heightened vulnerability to predators.

So Who’s Right?

The Law of the Sea is this: catch a boat adrift and it’s yours. The law of the range is the same. Anyone who captures and corrals an unbranded horse has right of ownership. For all of Alberta’s history, men who know the value of horseflesh have hunted “Wildies” to train as saddle horses or sell for meat.

Round ups are conducted on public lands, sometimes annually. Some Alberta landowners and lease holders persecute the horses while others revere them. A fierce debate now rages in this province: who has the right to dictate the Wildies’ freedom, capture or death?

Want wild horses to stay wild, gentle reader? Then, as you would with any other wild animal like bear or moose, do not approach. Watch from a distance. If you are already close when you run into them, scare them. Make them run from humans. Make them fear us. Their fear is their best chance for survival.

Guest Contributor

Highline Magazine is stoked to feature the stories of contributors from throughout the Canadian Rockies and the surrounding regions, even if only on a one-time or occasional basis. Keen to contribute? Drop us a line.

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