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  • Dan Connors

Wild Horses of the Ozark Mountains

"A horse loves freedom, and the weariest old work horse will roll on the ground and break into a lumbering gallop when he is turned loose into the open." Gerald Raferty

The Ozark Mountains are all that is left of a mighty range that once dominated the North American continent over a billion years ago. The land is sparsely populated and unsuitable for farming, and so has been left in much of its original form of pristine streams, grassy meadows, and rocky hillsides. Into that mix of protected wilderness has emerged 40 unlikely heroes-the Ozark wild horses.

The Ozark wild horses roam freely in federal and state parklands, protected by a 1996 law that prevents anybody from harassing them. I saw some of them in person this month, and they are magical to behold. (and not always easy to locate) The horses have become celebrities in this region of Shannon County, inspiring t-shirts, paintings, and groups of enthusiasts who track their movements over the years.

These horses aren't technically wild- the last of those disappeared in Asia centuries ago. They are feral horses, descended from farm horses that were abandoned during the Great Depression. Somehow they've survived almost 100 years in this wild country, helped along by federal and private watchdogs who keep track of them.

So why the fascination with wild horses? There are thousands of them in the Western States, as well as a famous herd in Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina. Horses are majestic creatures, but they've been badly mistreated by mankind since their discovery four thousand years ago. Their great strength and intelligence was valued and has been exploited by farmers, travelers, and warriors for centuries. We owe much of the growth of the 18th and 19th centuries to these noble creatures.

But today, in the 21st century, horses are only visible as advertising symbols (the Clydesdales), tourist conveniences, (carriage rides), and something to bet on (professional horse racing. ) While the Clydesdales are taken very good care of, horse racing has seen a rise in deaths due to dangerous drugs that push them beyond their natural limits. Those who work closely with horses can vouch for their intelligence and vulnerability, and while things have gotten better on the animal rights front, we still have a long way to go to address the cruelty that horses have had to endure.

I guess that's why people are fascinated by wild horses. Cows, pigs, and sheep are so domesticated that they don't survive long in the wild, but horses carry on. They are unique and graceful animals that live in the space between wild animals and domesticated ones. Horses were never native to Missouri. They were all brought over from Asia and Europe during colonial times. But here they are, wild and free, returning to nature after centuries of exploitation by men. Watching them peacefully grazing in a large green field miles from civilization is a wonderous experience better than any zoo or wild animal park.

Missouri's wild horses, like those in other states, are not allowed to explode in population. With no natural predators, they could eventually outgrow their food sources if left alone. So the law that protects them also limits their numbers. If they ever get close to going over 50 total, some horses are removed by law and put up for adoption by hopefully humane owners. The much larger herds in the Western states are treated the same way- if they get too many, horses are corralled and removed by the Bureau of Land Management, ending up in holding pens and sanctuaries.

Here's hoping that the wild horses of the Ozarks keep going for another 100 years and more. Their return to nature has been inspirational, and perhaps humanity will some day look at the animals that we depend on for food, clothing, and companionship with more compassion, treating them more humanely and with a deeper understanding.

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