“Belle” and “Sundance” Are a Rorschach Test of What Horses Are to Humans

A motley group of volunteers spent six days wielding hand shovels in the bitter cold in the days leading up to Christmas to dig a trench more than half-a-mile long through three-to-four foot high snow drifts to rescue two abandoned horses.  The successful effort brought out all the usual suspects, including the “Hang the guy who left them there” crowd, the “Aww, isn’t that heartwarming” crowd, the “See what people can do when they work together” crowd, the “How many homeless people could have been saved?” crowd all the way down to the “Wack ’em and stack ’em” crowd.

Belle, a three-year-old bay mare, and Sundance, an eight-year-old palamino buckskin gelding, were reportedly left behind in the mountains, possibly with a third horse, on the slopes of Mount Renshaw, east of the village of McBride, near Jasper, British Columbia, Canada, by an outfitter (and lawyer) from the city of Edmonton in the neighboring province of Alberta.  

Some news reports described the outfitter as a “hunter” but that may be inaccurate. The owner of the horses, identified only as “an Edmonton lawyer,” gave an interview to a television news reporter on the condition that his identity not be revealed.  He said he was forced to leave the horses behind when he got lost on the mountain while delivering supplies to hikers; that he returned to try to save them; and that he only left them there when he decided they were too weak to be saved.  He did not say why he did not seek help from anyone who might have been able to assist in getting the horses down the mountain or (as someone suggested) call animal control to have them euthanized and at least put an end to their suffering.  I think it merits mention that if the owner had “done the right thing” by having them euthanized, Belle and Sundance would not be happily eating hay at a McBride farm today. 

Early reports said the horses were “discovered” on December 15 by a man looking for snowmobiles left behind by renters.  The horses were suffering from frostbite and malnutrition and thought was given to euthanizing them on the spot.  After a decision was made to attempt a rescue, the horses were brought blankets and hay, and snow was melted for them to drink.  Some “40 to 50” people–about a dozen on average per day–then commenced to dig for almost a week in freezing temperatures, using hand shovels to clear a half-mile trench through four-foot deep snowdrifts.  

On December 23, Belle and Sundance were led out of their snowbound prison, and after a seven hour hike out were safe at a McBride farm.  Dozens, possibly thousands, of people are coming forward to take responsibility for the horses who were left to fend for themselves for several months; those people include their owner who has apparently told the local SPCA he would like to have the horses returned to him.  The SPCA is investigating and the horses remain in foster care.  

Among the things I learned while following this saga, it seems that it it “not uncommon” for people, including outfitters, to abandon horses (“let their strings run loose”) in the mountains during the winter because it is “cheaper to let a few of them starve rather than feed them all winter.”  I also learned that some Alberta hunters have a strong bias against roaming horses that they refer to as “wildies,” “feral,” akin to “rats,” “a bunch of dead horses,” “nags” and so on.  These choice descriptions are rife in a thread discussing the rescue on a forum for hunters moderated by the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine that I won’t link to here.  Suggestions from posters to the forum on how to “deal with” the “problem” of “too many” free-roaming horses include “start shooting,” a “couple well placed .22 bullets,” “bring a shovel” and “round ’em up and exterminate them.”

The reasons given for the venomous “final solutions” are that the horses “do not belong here,” that they are “just tame horses that got loose,” that they are “not natural,” that they are  destructive to habitat, feral, compete with “native” wild life such as elk, are not “native” and are not indigenous.  A reason not given is that horse heads do not look good mounted on the wall of the “man cave.”  

Comments on the forum include the following (all spelling and reasoning errors are from the original posts):

Are we talking about feral horses or wild horses? If their feral I don’t see the difference between shooting a feral horse, pig, or dog.

There’s no such thing as a wild horse. They were all introduced to North America. They are a non-native species,the same as the English Sparrow or the Starling, that uses resources that should be used by our native species. If every wild/feral/free-range horse was eliminated there would still be millions of horses in North America.
That’s the scientific, no B.S., hard fact, cut and dryed truth. Period.

Well, I guess that seals it.  It’s a no-brainer..  Except that it is not scientific, it is B.S., it is not a fact–hard or soft–and it is not the truth.  Where in the Smithsonian catalogue of species does the category “Our Native Species” appear?  

Distinctions such as “feral, native and exotic” are economic, not scientific, distinctions.  But even if there were such a kooky category in science as “our native species,” horses would be in it.  The “relatively new” (27-year old) science of molecular biology proves that horses are native to North America.  In fact

Not only is E. caballus genetically equivalent to E. lambei, but no evidence exists for the origin of E. caballus anywhere except North America.

The molecular biology evidence is incontrovertible and indisputable.

Horses may have been hunted or kept for meat by humans who lived here millions of years ago.  They may have roamed North America in masses.  Early North American horses may have been a lot smaller and had different type feet.  They may have competed with bison and other “livestock” for forage, or they may have eaten different things and not competed at all or they may have actually assisted and supported the survival of other livestock by making trails and spreading seed.  They did apparently disappear from North America at one time or possibly several times, perhaps as recently as 11,000 years ago, until they were reintroduced by the Spanish in 1493.  It is an “incontrovertible” and “indisputable” fact, however, that horses are native to North America.  

That horses were domesticated between the time they last disappeared from North America and 1493 when they were brought back does not remove their “native” status.  Heck, if one of those trigger-happy Alberta hunter boys got himself kidnapped and taken off to Paris, France and absorbed some European culture, would that make him less of a native Albertan when he was freed and returned to the province from whence he sprang?  

If we are going to be reasonable about answering the question “What is it about horses and humans?” we need to stop mythologizing them and also stop demonizing them.  If they are neither saints nor vermin, what are horses to humans?  

Does it matter to the horse if we call him “feral” or “wild,” “native” or “non-native?”  Does it matter to the plant if it is called a “weed” or a “flower?”  Is the distinction science?  If it is a matter of life and death–and it seems to be to horses (deer, pigs, etc.)–shouldn’t you get the “hard facts” before you pull the trigger of that “.22?”

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