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Sorry everyone, but Nevada still does not have "wild" horses

David Colborne
David Colborne

The last time I wrote about feral horses, I received a fair amount of… let’s call it constructive criticism.

One of the more constructive bits of criticism I received was a recommendation to read Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin’s doctoral dissertation, “The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth.” In her dissertation, she argues that horses — which were originally native to the Americas — were not, contrary to present conventional wisdom, actually extirpated from the Americas during the last ice age, only to be reintroduced by European colonists during the Columbian exchange.

Instead, she argues, that narrative was the product of pro-colonist ideology, one which simultaneously viewed horses as a sign of civilization — which, consequently, must have been introduced from more “civilized” Europe — and also automatically discounted the oral and non-written communication traditions of Native Peoples (one of several appellations she uses for those we might otherwise identify as Native Americans, First Nations, or Indians — Indigenous Peoples of the Americas is also used frequently by her).

Summarizing her 246-page dissertation, she asserts that Western-style scientific research has a blind spot — because the traditions of Native Peoples were intentionally suppressed for centuries, and because Western scientific thought doesn’t think much of the primarily oral and artistic methods used by Native Peoples to communicate their traditions, modern-day scientists don’t realize horses have always been in the Americas, even when the first European colonists arrived. Instead, Western scientific thought accepted the original reports of early European colonists, who didn’t see horses when they landed, then erroneously believed they proved those reports through an incomplete reading of the American fossil record.

Consequently, if we take a galloping leap of logic, the mustangs slowing commuters down in South Reno aren’t actually feral — they’re not, in other words, the distant invasive descendants of domesticated horses, crowding out native Nevadan antelope and bighorn sheep. Instead, they’re wild animals, with every bit as much of a right to unfettered access to Nevada’s (and the rest of America’s) open spaces as any other sizable herbivorous land mammal. If we simply remove cows and sheep — both of which were undeniably introduced from Eurasia — from Nevada’s open ranges, nature will heal and a healthy balance will be restored between all of Nevada’s natural herbivores, including the mustangs.

There are, unfortunately, a few issues with both her dissertation and some of the more enthusiastic conclusions drawn by the “wild” horse advocates who uncritically share her work.

The chief issue with the dissertation itself is that reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Were Native Peoples targeted by an intentional policy of cultural and genetic extermination? Undeniably. Do we, or will we, ever possess a complete fossil record of pre-Columbian America? Absolutely not — it takes a lot of luck for a fossil to be created, and additional luck on top of that for any given fossil to be found.

Should we therefore uncritically accept the oral traditions of Native Peoples — or, more accurately, uncritically accept those traditions as recorded by someone who openly started with her conclusion, then scoured the internet for sources which confirmed her biases as fact? Even if the author uncritically cites Latter-Day Saint apologia, which promotes the pre-Columbian existence of horses in the Americas as doctrinal proof of the claim that Native Peoples are the descendants of Jewish settlers who sailed to the Americas hundreds of years before the birth of Christ?

No. Starting with a conclusion and working backwards, citing liberally and haphazardly along the way, may be a perfectly fine way to write an opinion column (ask me how I know!). It is not, however, as other reviewers of her dissertation have pointed out, a useful method for identifying the biases which cloud our ability to accurately analyze the physical world. 

If you want to cross a river but there’s a group of people who won’t let you pass because they claim there’s a lion across the river, the solution isn’t to gather a bigger crowd who will claim there’s no lion, regardless of their motivations for doing so. 

It’s to actually check if there’s a lion across the river.

All of which brings me to the physical reality of Nevada’s horses. Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume Dr. Collin is correct — even if there were native wild horses living in the Americas when the first colonists arrived in America — those horses aren’t the ancestors of Nevada’s horses. Genetic investigation of Nevada’s horses conducted nearly three decades ago revealed our horses are “not significantly different from that of 16 domestic breeds.” 

Nevada’s feral horses share as close of a genetic relationship with wild horses as a random mutt in your local animal shelter might share with a wolf.

I bring this up because Senate Bill 90 — which will almost certainly pass without opposition because feral horses are far more politically popular than the opinions of cantankerous columnists — seeks to declare “the animal known as the wild mustang” as the official state horse of Nevada. Legally, yes, there is such an animal — the bill defines a “wild mustang” as either an unbranded free-roaming horse in the Virginia Range (not to be confused with the Virginia Mountains, which are on the north side of the Truckee River) or a horse defined as a “wild free-roaming horse” in U.S. Code

Similarly, California state law legally defines bees as a type of “fish.”

In reality, however, there are no wild mustangs in Nevada — only feral ones. Additionally, as broadly as SB90 is written, every unbranded horse which makes its way to public property will magically become an “official horse of Nevada.” The Legislature might as well define unchipped feral cats as the official cat of Nevada or untagged European rock doves as the official pigeon of Nevada while they’re at it.

Because the Legislature only meets once every two years and only for 120 days, it would be nice if they could exclusively focus their limited time, attention and Bill Draft Requests on the real material needs of Nevadans without wasting any energy or effort on feel-good horse petting. Expecting that, however, would be every bit as unrealistic as expecting an actual wild horse to walk through your neigh-borhood.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected]


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