Wild horses conjure up an image of an earlier time—they are a reminder of our country's mythical and untamed past. Their role in the history of the West and their impact on Native American culture is profound. The mustang is enshrined in our collective imagination as a cultural icon, enduring as the bald eagle, the grizzly bear or the wolf.
Over 50 percent of this country's wild horses live in Nevada, whose landscape is dominated by the Great Basin—a vast desert etched by more than 160 mountain ranges, stretching from Utah's Wasatch Range to California's Sierra Nevada. Sometimes called the "Big Empty," the Great Basin is a stark and fragile landscape rich in minerals, plants and animals. Unlike livestock, which are harvested, or wildlife, which are hunted, there are no natural predators to control the wild horse population. Overgrazing and a lack of water have made the large herds of ungathered mustangs a threat to this fragile environment and a danger to themselves and to the other wildlife and domestic livestock that share the range with them. Although wild horses are now protected by federal law, the problem of how to humanely care for and manage excess numbers of wild horses remains unresolved and is often misunderstood by the general public.
A Symbol of Our Pioneering Past
A new vision for telling the story of the wild horses and their relationship to the land and human communities grew from the work of one artist and the Nevada Arts Council. Early in 1999, Paula Morin, a Montana artist and horsewoman, spoke with the arts council about photographing and researching the wild horses. Inspired by the writings of respected western interpreters such as Robert Laxalt, J. Frank Dobie and John McPhee, Morin fell under the spell of Nevada and its equine heritage. The state's wild horse community and traditional ranching culture would be Morin's guide to understanding the story of the mustang, which she would document through her images and recorded conversations.
Morin began by spending many days with the wild horses and conducting interviews with people whose lives are entwined with them—range scientists, veterinarians, mustangers, ranchers, wranglers and buckaroos, Native Americans, horse trainers, horse breeders, wild horse advocates and officials at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Among these is Tom Pogacnik, senior supervisor and wild horse specialist for BLM's National Wild Horse Program. "People view these animals as domestic horses out on the range, and they're not," observes Pogacnik. "They are a symbol of our pioneering past, but people don't appreciate what they really are. They try to make them fit what they want them to be."
"When I was about 12, this guy told me, 'If you want to know about horses, take your bedroll, and go out and live with them.' So me and my horse went to the hills and followed the wild horses. If they moved, I moved. If they ran, I'd just keep with them. Wild horses really fascinate me...they've dominated my whole life, these wild horses." —Dave Cattoor, wild horse gatherer, Nephi, UT
The result of Morin's efforts was the mounting of an exhibit of words and photographs, which was supported by an Arts and Rural Community Assistance grant, an innovative partnership program involving the Nevada Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the United States Forest Service (USFS). Morin's images of wild horses use a 19th century technique of hand-painted, black-and-white photography. Each print is meticulously crafted to meet museum standards for archival quality and then painted in the studio with oils. Taken as a series, the visual experience presents a stunningly heartfelt yet realistic portrait of her encounters with mustangs in a variety of settings over an extended period of time. The exhibit also contains panels of text from interviews conducted by Morin. Accompanying Morin's images and text are stories, songs and poems about wild horses gathered by Idaho folklorist Andrea Graham.
Explains Suzanne Channell, the arts council's wild horse project director and community arts development coordinator, "The partnership between the Nevada Arts Council, USFS and NEA was formed as a means of specifically using the arts to address values and issues affecting the cultural heritage and natural resources of forest- and range-dependent communities. Representatives from the three agencies believe that the very purpose and inherent nature of the creative process could literally 'go where no one had gone before' and thus raise public awareness in an apolitical and reasoned setting about this highly sensitive yet critically important issue. The results of this approach have been enormously successful."
The exhibit has gained statewide and national recognition, and is touring the United States for the next three years. Morin is now expanding her fieldwork experience and combining it with the images and stories contained in the exhibit, for a book that will be published by the University of Nevada Press.
85 percent of Nevada is public land and most of it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Nevada's Highway 50, the so-called "Loneliest Road in America" and once described by a leading tourism organization as having "no points of interest," is a National Scenic Byway and gateway to the Great Basin.
Nevada's Velma B. Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, spearheaded the popular movement that inspired passage of the 1971 National Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.