Herds of wild horses did not exist in Elko County or Nevada during the early 1800s. As the first European explorers traveled through the Great Basin at that time, they did not report seeing any wild horses. The Western Shoshone did not traditionally use horses and only obtained horses after 1850, when they probably stole or picked up strays from passing California-bound wagon trains.
The first Great Basin “wild” horses appeared during the late 1800s, when ranches released their horses to run wild. In early Elko County, no one called these horses “wild,” they were called “range horses.” During winter, ranchers released unneeded saddle stock to fend for themselves in herds called range herds. In the spring, ranchers picked up experienced saddle stock and new horses for summer work around the ranch. Area ranchers saw these herds of range horses as a ranch resource, a commodity to use and sell. In the 1880s, horses were valuable, worth $30-100 per head. Ranchers brought in horses from their range herds to sell.
Their attitude toward range horses is evident in early Nevada laws. In 1897, range horse herds were increasing and the Nevada Legislature passed a statute allowing the killing of range horses. Interested parties had only to get a permit from the local county commissioners. In 1902, the state repealed this statute due to concern over the indiscriminate killing taking place. Also, the horse market was good at the time and ranchers worried about a potential loss of revenue. By 1913, the horse market crashed and range horse numbers increased so another statute allowed the killing of more horses. Again, a permit was needed from county commissioners.
Ranchers manipulated the bloodlines in these range herds. They released quality stallions to improve the wild-running herds, sometimes killing the herd’s old stallion to make it easier for the new stallion to take over. The U.S. Cavalry had a constant need for a large supply of quality horses. The Army Remount Service gave good stallions to ranchers who used them to raise quality stock. The Army then had first rights to buy the stallion’s offspring. These stallions were often turned loose with range herds. (Here, I change to calling these wild horses, since this covers horses outside of Nevada.)
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In 1898, the Spanish-American War created a huge horse market. Following that, the 1899 Boer war saw 350,000 horses sold to the British for $10 a horse, many of them wild stock. World War I saw as many as one million horses transported to Europe. During this period, wild horse populations across the West dropped drastically.
After these wars ended, horse prices dropped. By 1925, one million wild horses lived in the West, including many turned out after farmers and ranchers obtained tractors. Some of today’s poor range conditions can be blamed on the huge numbers of wild horses during the 1920-1930s.
During the 1920s, markets developed for chicken feed, pet food and protein for human consumption. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act restricted the number of cattle and sheep on the range, so ranchers removed many wild horses to lessen their competition with livestock.
During the 1940-1950s, 100,000 wild horses were removed from the Nevada rangeland to feed these markets. The railroads offered a low, “chicken feed” rate for transporting horses. They had no obligation to feed or water the stock during transport. Such lucrative trade created a large business for gathering wild horses. Following World War II, jeeps, trucks and small aircraft allowed “mustangers” to chase wild horses.
Wild horses at that time were seen as range pests, stunted animals having poor breeding. During the 1950s, the number of wild horses in the west plummeted to 20,000, setting the stage for Nevada’s own Wild Horse Annie to get to work.
(Continued next week)