A stampeding, crusading history of horses in America during the last half-millennium.
Wild horses are a problem for range-management types and government officials, especially in places where there seem to be as many horses as humans—Wyoming, South Dakota and, notably, Nevada. Thus it is that those mustangs are rounded up and, from time to time, slaughtered, a practice that Stillman (Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, 2001) rightly condemns. Her book offers a spirited defense of the wild horse, as well as a rousing, sweeping account of the horse from the arrival of the conquistadors, who would not have been able to subdue North America without it, even as the unconquered peoples of the plains learned how to tame horses, in nature “animals of prey . . . [that] like the wide open.” More than half of the Spanish mesteños, Stillman notes, died on the crossing from Europe; enough of them survived, though, to give Hernán Cortés and his fellow soldiers the aspect of gods, or so the Aztecs thought. Lacking some of their old natural enemies, the horses multiplied and took up life in the wild. Stillman writes that in colonial Los Angeles so many of them came to the edge of town, browsed the forage and “spirited the gentled horses away” that drovers were forced to take after them with lances and herd them over cliffs into the ocean. The author relates the careers of famed horses such as Comanche, hailed as the lone survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and Fritz, without whom “Hollywood would have stalled at Bronco Billy, the cowboy who couldn’t ride and didn’t even have his own horse.” Stillman sometimes inclines into the mystical, but horses are, after all, inspiring creatures, so she is to be forgiven the occasional reverie—though her celebratory mood darkens, understandably, as she approaches modern times and the tenderfoot bureaucrats who govern them.
A well-written, welcome work of history and advocacy.