Considering the majestic sight of a band of horses stampeding across rolling hills at the foot of a mountain, the opposition is understandable. But there’s still a problem: the horses must eat. And what they eat is valuable grass on which cattle, elk and deer graze, leaving only rye grass behind. Rye grass is low in nutrients—horses won’t eat it and neither will cows. Right now, there are too many horses for the land to maintain while still leaving enough grass for the cattle.
The solution has been a controlled capture season, set by the Government of Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resources Development (ESRD) department. Those interested in capturing the horses have to apply for a $200 permit and maintain or rent their own pens. Each year, the ESRD decides if there will be a capture—they monitor the number of horses by flying overhead in winter, counting the brown specs on the white snow. This year, they counted just over 800, about 100 fewer than 2013. The 2013-2014 winter was so harsh that wild horse advocates campaigned hard against the capture—the weather should be enough, they thought, to naturally manage the herd. But late in the season, at the very end of the winter, ESRD handed out the permits.
They are wild by nature, but they are not technically remnants of an earlier time
Every few years, as political tides and public perception change, wild horses come back into the Albertan conscience. From the 1970s through the early-2000s, wild horse management was a hot button issue. The question was whether the province should even “manage” them at all. Wild horses have not been designated at-risk because Environment Canada considers horses to be an introduced species, as opposed to native. At one point, the capture had been indefinitely stopped. Now that it’s back, the dust has been kicked up once more.
Much of the debate surrounding wild horses lies in the language. Thiessen and Bradley call the horses “feral” (though they both sometimes use the slang term “wildie,” as well). A feral horse is a domestic that has escaped or been released into the wild. The argument is that there are no more truly wild horses left on this land. Hundreds of years ago, when North America was first being settled, millions of Spanish mustangs and British thoroughbred horses were brought over to help. Many ran free. They roamed the foothills, below the mountains, and never returned.
Wild horses along David Thompson Highway 11 in Alberta. Photo: Kevin M. Klerks
It’s unlikely that today’s wild horses are true descendants of those original wildies—in the 1970s, it was estimated that less than 1,000 of the current wild horse population were truly “wild.” Instead, they are a mixture of domesticated, work, and outfitter horses that had, at some point, been set free and managed to survive. They are wild by nature, but they are not technically remnants of an earlier time. “You could shake an oat pail,” Thiessen says, “and they’ll come up to you.”
There is also horse overpopulation in the United States, which has very little regulation over the price, management, and sale of the horses. It’s estimated that there are over 15,000 wild horses in the U.S., with the vast majority living in Nevada.
You could ride one if you captured it and decided to train it, but “it’s like riding a Dodge with no tires”
On Bradley’s property there are two horses in a pen, and Thiessen points out certain traits that qualifies them as wildies: they have evolved over time to survive in the bush, rather than bred to look good and for humans to ride. They have the look of a Shetland pony—short, stout, strong but not sleek. They have evolved to climb hills and cross bogs, they can run through the bush backwards. You could ride one if you captured it and decided to train it, but “it’s like riding a Dodge with no tires,” Thiessen says. Bradley has had some interest from horse hobbyists in British Columbia and Manitoba who would like to buy the horses and the one filly he has also kept.
North of Bradley’s property, a gate blocks off the land on which wild horses and cattle graze. (A few weeks before, protestors had camped in front of the gate, setting fires and blocking the road). The metal pen is a half hour ride from here, over hills and wetlands, deep in the foothills that face the mountains. Thiessen and Bradley drive along a steep, potholed ridge to get to where Bradley has set up the six-foot high pen where he traps them.
Arriving at the pen—a series of metal gates and trip wires—Bradley notes that one of the wires he had set up had been snapped, allowing the door to swing shut. Bradley and Thiessen had baited their pens with hay and grass and left the door open–when horses would find their way inside, they would knock a tripwire with their legs. The snapped wire would allow the door to shut, trapping them. Bradley suspects protestors cut it. It wouldn’t be the first time. He has a camera set up, just in case, which has shown protesters sneaking in at night in the past.