(an overview by Marylu Weber)
Horses have run wild and free in the upper plains of North America for centuries, having migrated north from South America and south from Canada. Native Americans oral history differs on when they acquired the horse, but when the plains tribes began using horses in their daily living, it changed their lifestyle forever. They changed from primarily farmers, living along rivers and streams, growing the majority of their food and hunting small game, to a nomadic people who could follow the bison herds. They became experts at gentling and training horses which they called Sunka Wakan, “sacred dogs,” a gift from the Creator. Horses were used as valuable currency when trading with one another.
When Europeans came exploring the region, they reported seeing great herds of wild horses. They also brought with them, horses from the east that had been imported to the new world. Europeans gradually spread across the plains, bringing not only imported saddle horses, but draft horses to work the farms that sprung up on the rich land and along rivers and railroads. The US Cavalry built forts to protect new settlers and their claims. Since horses were still the main means of transportation, thousands of horses flooded the northern plains. Wars brought the need for even more horses, so remount operations were scattered throughout the region and horses were raised or captured to send back east as mounts for soldiers, many of them finding their way to Europe for “The Great War.”
During that time of pioneering and settlement of the plains, it was discovered that the Badlands of Dakota Territory may be treacherous to cross, but were abundant with rich native grasses that nourished wildlife and wild horses. Those same native grasses could support great herds of domestic cattle and the horses the ranchers needed to handle them. Two of the most famous of those ranchers were the Marquis De Mores, a rich young Frenchman, and the young Theodore Roosevelt.
The Marquis settled in what is now SW North Dakota where the Little Missouri River and the railroad intersected. He named the town of Medora after his wife; their summer house still stands on a hill overlooking the river. Importing vast numbers of cattle, he built a packing plant with visions of making millions raising, slaughtering, packing in ice, and shipping beef back east, thus leaving out the middlemen. To handle the cattle and the daily chores of his ranch, he imported Thoroughbred and Percheron horses which he bred to the tough little local ponies. At one point he bought 250 ponies that had been confiscated from the Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull. Using his swift horses, he even started a stage coach service from Medora to Deadwood. There was no doubt the Marquis was a visionary whose dreams were clever and daring.
The young Theodore Roosevelt came to the Badlands to hunt, but wound up turning to ranching also. He loved the vastness of the prairie and credited the years he spent there with building his strength and making him the man he later became. In his writings he told about seeing wild horses running free in the Badlands. He built two ranches in the Badlands, the Elk Horn Ranch and the Maltese Cross Ranch.
Though these men and hundreds of others thought Dakota Territory was the perfect place to raise cattle and horses, with its miles of tall grass reaching from horizon to horizon, they could not imagine the devastation and toll on livestock that could be caused by drought, and a series of mighty winter storms. After one particularly brutal winter, one cowboy reported riding for miles that spring and not seeing a living animal. The Marquis moved back to France, later to be killed in Africa and Theodore Roosevelt went on to become the 26th President of the United States.
That year drove hundreds out of the Badlands, but other immigrants, eager to build a life for their families in the new world, came to replace them. At one time, every quarter of land in the Badlands was homesteaded. These homesteaders brought their saddle and work horses with them as well as cattle and sheep, but Mother Nature would also drive many of them out of the Badlands with the droughts of the 1930s. Livestock by the thousands were lost or abandoned by farmers and ranchers retreating to more fertile lands back east.
As trains, automobiles, and tractors became more numerous, there was no more need for horses. By then the Badlands of North Dakota were only sparsely inhabited, so thousands of horses, either migrated or were driven there from other parts of the country. The bison were long gone, so the horses settled into the rough breaks of the Little Missouri River from Canada to South Dakota, mingling and breeding with the herds of wild horses that still remained. The weak died off and the hardy, that could survive the harsh conditions of drought and blizzards flourished. However their reprieve was not long lived. Ranchers did not appreciate horses, which required more forage than a cow, eating up the grass on the open range. Horses were indiscriminately hunted down with saddle horses, pickups, or airplanes. Many were killed outright and thousands were loaded onto railcars to be made into fertilizer in the east. The lucky ones were bought off the trains by individuals who appreciated the strong, hardy “Northern Horses.”
By the mid-1950s there were very few horses running wild in the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt National Park had been established in 1947 and a boundary fence was being constructed to keep wildlife in and domestic stock out. As that fence went up, a few small bands of horses were inadvertently being trapped inside the park. These bands were made up of wild horses and domestic horses from area ranches. Since the National Park Service looked on horses as trespass animals, the horses were again hunted and many of them removed. There was a large roundup conducted by area ranchers in 1954 in which almost all the horses were removed from the park. Most of them were domestic horses that had escaped from ranches or were part of domestic strings that had run in the park for decades.
Tom Tescher, a local rancher and well known rodeo cowboy and his brothers had watched and wrangled the wild horses for years. Along with more positive public sentiment toward wild horses, Tom was instrumental in the park’s decision to keep a few horses in the park. The decision was made to keep a small “demonstration herd” to represent the wild horses that Theodore Roosevelt had observed when he lived in the area. Tom began to document the horses, keeping detailed records of births and deaths and which stallions held which mares. Tom and his brothers helped the park round up the horses periodically so that numbers could be kept to around 50-100. Culled animals were sometimes sold to individuals and rodeo contractors, but most of them went to slaughter.
My husband and I started riding in the park in the early 80s and fell in love with the wild horses we saw. I started to document them and look for familiar ones each time we returned. In the 90s we met then Resource Manager, Russ Runge, who introduced us to Tom Tescher who graciously invited us into his home and his pickup for horse tracking adventures and shared all his records with us. I started making spreadsheets with information about each horse and in 1999 we began volunteering for the park in helping Tom with the identification and documentation of the wild herd. Since then we have worked at every roundup. I have been the principle identifier of all the horses at each of the 5 roundups since then.
The horses are rounded up by helicopter because the terrain is so rough that it cannot be done safely on horseback. Until the last three roundups, riders were used the last mile in order to lure the horses into the trap, but that was deemed too dangerous and discontinued in 2003. The park has a permanent trap and handling facility that is used for elk and bison as well as horses. Pens are high and solid wood so animals are not temped to try to get out. Each year the roundups have gotten more humane. The 2007 roundup ended early with the crash of the helicopter because it was too low and caught a skid on the fence, but neither horses nor people were injured. There were no injuries to either horses or people in any of the last 3 roundups.
In 2009 a research project was initiated to find a reliable contraceptive to prevent pregnancy on a temporary basis and avoid side effects that would cause harm or behavior changes with the horses. During the breeding season of each year since 2009, technicians have observed behavior, pregnancy status, condition, and any possible side effects of the contraceptive. These data have been compiled and processed by researchers in order to determine the effectiveness of the drug and any changes that should be made. In the fall of 2009, 58 mares were injected with either the contraceptive or a placebo and data was collected at least once a week from March until July each of the following years. In 2013 treated mares were re-vaccinated to test the efficacy of the contraceptive when boosted.
After the roundup in 2009, 77 horses were sold to the public. Because of the efforts of a few passionate people, all but 8 of those horses were bought by individuals who gave them a home.
That winter North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry was established to provide a registry and a network of communication and support for the buyers of those horses. Our goal is that no more horses will be lost to slaughter, but all will find good homes where they will be appreciated and gentled. We registered about 30 horses and created a Facebook page to share stories and photos of the horses. As photos and stories are shared more and more people are beginning to appreciate the wild horses of TRNP.
Over the past 5 years we have attracted a large group of enthusiastic people who love the horses. In September of 2013 we had our first Reunion Ride of horses that were once running wild in the park. Ten once wild horses were ridden back in their homeland. Other activities were held for owners and enthusiasts. This will be an annual event in Medora and the park. The 2014 Reunion Ride is scheduled for the weekend of September 5-7. In the months leading up to another roundup in September of 2013, NDBH stepped up our Facebook campaign to reach as many people as possible with the plight of the horses being removed from the park. We were able to bring in The Cloud Foundation and Legacy Mustang Preservation to help us tell the story of the wild horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Both organizations raised money to buy unwanted horses and Legacy was prepared to take those horses to their facility in Louisa, VA to gentle them, train them, and eventually offer them to forever adoptive homes. Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation wrote press releases and made videos about the plight of the TRNP horses. We are humbled and grateful to both organizations and the people involved in them for caring so much about the TRNP horses that they would work so hard, shoulder to shoulder with us to see that the horses were not lost. Our relationship with The Cloud Foundation and Legacy Mustang Preservation grows as we support one another in the effort to help the wild horses of America.
The public auction was in a small town in ND, but Wishek rolled out the red carpet for us and the potential buyers of the wild horses. The horse sale manager of Wishek Livestock Auction did everything he could to make the horses safe and comfortable, even having his talented cowboys practice gently moving the horses from pen to pen and through the auction ring. Wanting to welcome all the visitors from far away, the town of Wishek had a celebratory approach to the sale with activities in which all could participate. NDBH had depended upon and become friends with so many people during this campaign that we called ourselves TEAM NDBH, knowing that the job of saving these beautiful wild horses had to be a joint effort by many, many individuals. TEAM NDBH succeeded in seeing that none of the wild horses went to slaughter. Horses were sold at a minimum of untainted slaughter price ($.42/ lb.), so that the meat buyers would not be interested. Horses went to homes all over the country and Canada, including 35 to Legacy Mustang Preservation in VA. About 15 of those were bought by a private buyer but the other 20 might have gone to slaughter if not purchased with donated funds. About 20 horses will be available for adoption from Legacy as they get them gentled and halter trained. Five of the mares bought by Legacy have since had healthy foals.
During the festivities before the horse sale, NDBH had a silent and live auction of donated artwork to help pay for DNA testing on the wild horses. Hair was pulled on all 197 horses that came through the handling facility. (Only 16 did not get captured.) We are confident that the results will be consistent with that found by several individuals who have had ancestral DNA reports done on their privately owned NDBH horses, and those results have been very interesting. There is a surprising amount of Spanish influence still evident in the wild horses from the park. There is also strong Oriental, Scandinavian, and other eastern and western European influence along with some North and South American breed connections. They are definitely showing themselves to be mustangs with the typical mix of blood from many diverse sources. One hundred eleven horses remained in the park in about 20 different bands. They will again be documented and evaluated by researchers in the coming years. The foal count as of early June is 31 live foals.
Ranging in size from 13 –16 hands, the horses come in most colors, with grays and red, bay, and blue roans the most prevalent. Many carry the overo traits of patches of white on dark coats, bald faces, and blue eyes. There are no tobiano pintos and no palominos in this wild herd. Most are of sturdy build, with good bone and large, healthy feet. They tend to be healthy in other respects, as the sickly horses do not survive in the wild. When gentled, the horses from TRNP have proven themselves to be mellow, sensible, highly trainable, loyal partners to those lucky enough to know them. The consistent feeling among owners is that they love these horses.
Please visit the Facebook page, North Dakota Badlands Horse for regular updates on the horses remaining in the park and many of those being successfully gentled and trained by happy owners who are so thrilled to be a part of the history of these beautiful horses.