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Freedom and the patriotic case for wild horse preservation: An interview with Deanne Stillman


Photo Deanne Stillman; At the Little Big Horn Battlefield ©

War against the wild horse continues to rage in both the U.S. and Australia.  The problem has gone far beyond the native or non-native species argument that’s resulted in continuous capture and killing of horses with no humane or sustainable solutions in sight.  As the RSPCA in Australia has questionably deemed aerial shooting by helicopter a ‘kind’ technique for population control and horse slaughter under revival in the U.S., thousands of humankind’s most productive and loyal companions face a brutal and certain annihilation within this decade.

According to Deanne Stillman, award winning and best-selling author of the book, Mustang: The Saga of the wild horse in the American West, it’s not about ‘them or us’ and rather speaks to the underlying human condition.

“There’s a spiritual sickness in the U.S. that is also playing out around the world- as with African elephants and other animals who are being killed off.  We need to stop and ask what is the source of all this?”

Stillman, who spent 10 years researching Mustang – which was presented to President Barack Obama as the ‘go to’ book on American history and mustangs, and is under option for a film starring Wendie Malick- understands that wild horse management is necessary but finds it troubling that it’s often based on outdated studies or entrenched talking points that derive from a mindset that wild horses are livestock or feral.  Moreover, the management that results from prevailing views involving   round-ups and aerial culls is frequently inhumane, and in many cases, fatal.  Band-aid solutions such as  the extreme mustang makeover and brumby challenge – whether they take place in the U.S. or Australia – distract from the main problem.

Stillman says there’s no reason that a wild horse, regardless of  where it’s from, should be pushed through training, as wild horses are  fragile and sensitive, in spite of their ability to endure great hardship on the range. And while training events with glamorous names  may have drawn attention to the horses, she says you have to ask what the ‘source’ is of this kind of activity?

“First of all, putting the word ‘extreme’ in front of anything these days is a marketing tactic.  That isn’t necessarily bad, but I’m against anything that makes animals do anything fast, apart from what happens on a racetrack –  and even that’s debatable, especially in these makeovers.  Sure, it shows  that mustangs are trainable- and with good results in some cases.  But this has already been done in non-extreme situations.   There are various law enforcement agencies and border patrol outfits that have been using mustangs for a long time, and wild horses have also, after being taken from the range, gone on to compete successfully in dressage and other competitions.  But any time we remove wild horses from the wilderness, often in a brutal manner, bigger questions need to be considered.  Why are we doing this to humankind’s greatest partner?  The manner of training can add insult to injury.  There is no dignity in the phrase “extreme makeover.”    Understand that without the horse, we have no civilisation.  I am troubled by the fact that we treat this animal, which every single  religion singles out  when  speaking of truth and beauty, with such disrespect.  Some ascribe wild horse management policies to greed.  But the whole situation goes way beyond greed.  It  says a lot about everything that is going on in the world, and especially America.  After all,  we are a country that reveres freedom.  Nothing represents that more than the wild horse, with all due respects to all animals of the wild.”

Among the worthy wild horse preservation groups out there that Stillman supports is Wild Horse Spirit in Carson City, Nevada.  Its founders, Betty Lee Kelly and Bobbi Royle,  rescued a foal they named Bugz, the lone survivor of the 1998 Christmas massacre of the Virginia Range herd outside Reno -the first mustangs in the U.S. to win legal protection.  Somehow Bugz  beat the odds by possibly hiding in the brush when several men, two of whom were ex-marines, were involved in a gunfire attack on  34 mustangs.  Some of the horses were mutilated; in one case, a mustang’s  eyes, mouths and genitals were sprayed with a fire extinguisher.


Photo by Betty Lee Kelly; Deanne Stillman with the wild horse Bugz ©

The four month old foal Bugz however had managed to keep herself alive for two months under the protection of a band of bachelor stallions who looked after her as she foundered.  Finally she  was discovered by a  hiker in a gulley just after a snowstorm,  collapsed and near death.  After Bugz was rescued, Stillman visited her many times over the years.  “Without Bugz,” she says, “I could not have written my book.  She was my guide into the story and my companion.”   Stillman wrote a eulogy for her on the Huffington Post  after Bugz died in 2009.

Bugz’s ordeal struck at what Stillman and others finds the core of the wild horse issue- there is a sickness of spirit plaguing a country when it can allow its greatest icon of freedom- the mustang, partner on the trail and fellow soldier in war – to be systematically annihilated without as much as a second thought.   It is not unlike Australia’s ill treatment of brumbies whose history of service to Diggers in war and the building of the nation has been tossed aside as thousands of horses are brutally culled and taken to slaughter for dog food and overseas export even though effective, humane fertility control technology has been available and used around the world for over 40 years.  In this excerpt from a article, Stillman addresses the notion of “excess” horses on the range, something often used to justify round-ups everywhere.

If there is a problem with “excess” horses, we must look to the underlying reason, which is overbreeding. We breed more than we need and, like a lot of other things, we throw them away when they’re in the way or somehow aren’t earning their keep. As the slaughter discussion proceeds yet one more time, let us remember that most of the horses sold for slaughter every year are thoroughbreds and quarter horses, jettisoned after performing a lifetime of hard service. Wild horses join them when someone is trying to make a fast buck or decides after “trying one out for a while” that who needs the trouble?

As Stillman continues to write about the plight of wild horses since Mustang has come out, the book has had a big impact in the public sphere,  helping to raise money for groups that take care of wild horses after they have been rounded up, inspiring some people to  purchase  mustangs from the slaughter pipeline, and bringing many into the campaign for wild horses – and burros as well.

Stillman still feels however that much of the material  in the media regarding the wild horse is misleading, including from some environmental groups who blatantly ignore the scientific evidence and facts that have established that cattle outnumber the horse in large numbers, do more damage, and of course are an introduced species, unlike horses, which, according to DNA evidence , are indigenous to the North American continent.    Furthermore, Stillman asserts that contrary to the he said/she said articles that dominate coverage, there is widespread agreement on why it’s important to preserve mustangs.    As she often says at her talks, “Nothing symbolises America more than the horse.  The wild horse has been with us on the frontlines since day one.  We are a nation born in hoofsparks.   Paul Revere’s horse  had wild horse bloodlines and it all went from there.  The wild horse blazed our trails, fought our wars, and serves as our greatest icon.  Now,  we’re destroying our own heritage  We have completely forgotten our history.  Wild horse preservation can only go so far if we don’t understand the full extent of what’s at stake- it’s a disease of the spirit and until we grapple with that, there is no end to this war against the mustang.  I feel that to get to the heart of the problem, we must start with an apology to Native Americans.  Today’s ongoing assault against wild horses is  the end game in the Indian wars,” Stillman continues.  .  Killing off  mustangs and purging the land to make way for other things – mining, cattle, development, mirage cities like Vegas   is a diminishment of the things we hold dear  in America.  And for sure, it’s not patriotic.”

In her other books, Stillman has also spoken on behalf of the voiceless; she says that  immersing herself in her work, sharing the stories, however dark and tragic they may be,  is her mission and cross to bear in this lifetime.  In doing so, she’s lent an ear to those who are often ignored, including men who  ‘like to go out into the woods or desert and whack wildlife,’ among them,  wild horses.  “Most people feel that no one listens to them,” she says.  “They’re right.  Serious problems start when people are cast aside.”

Ironically however, amidst the wars, wild horses is the one issue Stillman says that has cut across party lines and has brought Americans of different persuasions together, calling people to take wild horse preservation to another level, with many former perpetrators coming forth looking to atone for their regrettable actions.  As she states in Truthdig:

Last year, one of these men approached me in tears and took my hand in both of his and said he was sorry. He held my gaze and my hand for a few seconds and his grip was sturdy. Then he shambled off like a mirage, like Shane in the movies, as cowboys always do, but he wasn’t on a horse and he knew that there weren’t very many left, and my guess is that he didn’t have a job and probably had pawned his gear. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the rest of us if we cannot get right by the wild horse; as it goes, so goes a piece of America, and one of these days, bereft of heritage, we may all find ourselves moving on down the road.


Biography:  Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her latest book is Desert Reckoning, based on an award-winning Rolling Stone piece. It won the 2013 Spur Award and the LA Press Club Award for best nonfiction and was named a Southwest Book of the Year. Her book Mustang was an LA Times “best book of the year,” won the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction, and was praised from the Economist to the Atlantic Monthly. It’s currently under option for a film starring Wendie Malick as Wild Horse Annie. She is also the author of the cult classic Twentynine Palms, an LA Times “best book of the year” which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Her work appears in Salon, Slate, the NY Times, LA Times, Orion, the rumpus, and many other publications. For more information, see


Written by maeleesun

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