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Wild Horses

Symbols of the American West

Pryor Mountain Horse Reserve
Pryor Mountain Horse Reserve

Standing there on the isolated, remote and rugged, but beautiful, landscape of the Pryor Mountains, one may see wild, free-roaming horses.  The Pryor Mountains are located in the southeastern portion of Carbon County, Montana.

These wild, free-roaming horses have the distinction of being some of the direct descendants of the old original Spanish horses that were brought to America in the 1600's.  They have thrived in rugged, isolated terrain, surrounded by mountains and deep canyons.

One of the earliest references to horses in the mountains has been associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  As Clark traveled down the Yellowstone River, the Crow Indians stole half of his horses.  Clark sent a small group of men, led by Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor, to track down the missing horses.   After tracking the Crow Indians for some distance, Sgt. Pryor decided they had no chance of catching them, so he and his men returned to the Yellowstone River.  Pryor’s pursuit of the horses moved to the Pryor Mountains, his namesake, and some even speculate that descendants of these horses wander in the Pryor Mountains today.

 Pryor Mountain Horse Reserve Pryor Mountain Horse Reserve

The Pryor wild, free-roaming horses belong to an interesting and unique herd.  These horses are wild in spirit and primitive in form.  Their smaller  bodies require less fuel, which gives them an advantage over the domestic horses.  They come in an array of colors, which is referred to as  primitive markings. Examples that are consistent with their Spanish origin are black stripes down their backs, stripes across the withers, and stripes on the legs.

The wild, free-roaming horses live in family units called harems or herds.  The stallions are constantly battling for dominance to hold and mate their harem of mares.  The horses are called numerous names such as feral, cayuses, broomtails, worthless, or more commonly, wild or range horses.

The predators of the wild horses are mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and bears.  These predators prey upon the old, the sick, and colts or foals.  Despite this fact,  the horses have survived.

By 1912,  there were 300,000 wild, free-roaming horses throughout the western Indian ranges.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) felt such numbers were too great, so they devised a policy to eliminate Indian ponies and wild horses.  They upgraded the best of those captured, so the Indians might benefit from the animals grazing on tribal land.  There were thousands of wild horses that belonged to no one, running in small groups, and  overgrazing the land.  The BIA felt the land could be more profitably used for cattle herds.

Conditions worsened for the wild horses when cattlemen moved more and more cattle onto their range. Cattlemen felt their cattle were being deprived of grass because of the number of wild horses in the area. After gaining support from the Federal Government, a campaign to round up and eliminate the wild horses began.  At first the campaign had very little effect on the horses’ population, but it was not until the drought in 1929 that the food supply ran short, and the round-up and shooting increased.  Bounty hunters, and even some Crow Indians, received $4.00 for the tip of a wild horse ear.  The destruction of the wild horse population continued until 1931.

In order to protect one of the last vestiges of the west the Pryor Mountain Free-Roaming Wild Horse Range (Public Law 92-195) was established by Congress.  This program was to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Public Law 92-195 became one of the first governmental acts leading to the preservation of free-roaming wild horses in the Pryor Mountains and across the west.  They are the living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. 

 Wild Horses Wild Horses

The herd size is maintained to protect the range, forage and water supply and to insure the health of the herd and guarantee its survival.  The task is selecting which horses should be removed at each roundup.  It is a complicated process, taking into account an animal's age and sex as well as status and genetic importance to the herd.  In the fall round up, yearlings and two-year-old mares chosen to return to the wild were given shots for birth control, delaying conception by a few years.  This is in hopes that mares would be in better shape to produce healthier foals.  This may delay round-up from once every three or four years to once every seven or eight.  The undesirable males are gelded to prevent future herds from inheriting inferior traits.

A concern of many is about interfering with nature.   When humans start to select which mares will have foals, this is the beginning of unnatural selection.  This has to be done very carefully so as not to create difficulty later.  Using this birth control management tool is not a magic solution.

When the need arises, some herds may be rounded up,  branded, gelded, and examined under the Adopt-A-Horse Program.  Animals in excess of the range's carrying capacity may be put up for adoption.  In this way the herd is guaranteed adequate space to roam, race, play chase, gallop, kick up their heels in freedom; as result, a part of the American Western heritage can live on.  The Pryor free-roaming wild horses are lucky to be protected by a geographically isolated refuge.  Now some of these beautiful horses are at home on the Pryor Mountain Free-Roaming Wild Horse Range.  Seeing these horses free, wild, and home at last is well worth a trip to the Pryor Mountains.

 Wild Horse Sign Wild Horse Sign Wild Horse Sign


Jimmie Roark Hampton Elementary
Jimmie Roark, Hampton Elementary School


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