WHY STUDY MUSTANGS?
“Why did this animal that had prospered so in the Colorado Desert leave his amiable homeland for Siberia? There is no answer. We know that when the horse negotiated the land bridge . . . he found on the other end an opportunity for varied development that is one of the bright aspects of animal history. He wandered into France and became the mighty Percheron, and into Arabia, where he developed into a lovely poem of a horse, and into Africa where he became the brilliant zebra, and into Scotland, where he bred selectively to form the massive Clydesdale. He would also journey into Spain, where his very name would become the designation for gentleman, a caballero, a man of the horse. There he would flourish mightily and serve the armies that would conquer much of the known world.” —James Michener
Humans and horses have been interacting for more than 5,000 years, and despite industrialization horses are still used for transportation, agricultural power, and food, as well as for recreation, companionship, and therapy. The domestication of the horse changed human culture, agriculture, warfare, and politics—but how did it change the horse? There are no ancestral wild horse populations remaining, but the ease with which free-ranging or feral horse herds survive in many different climates argues that the fundamental biology of the domesticated horse is not so different from its wild predecessors. Studying the behavior and biology of feral horse communities such as the mustangs of the western US can give us important insights into how to manage our domestic horses’ health, behavior, and reproduction.
In addition, mustang herds in the west are the focus of much debate over their role in the ecology of the area. The success of the feral herds brings increasing competition for resources in a challenging environment and fuels conflicting views about the type of management that should be implemented by humans on this wild horse population. We will view mustang behavior and ecology both in the wild and in captivity, and study the viewpoints of those charged with their management and other stakeholders.
This “Mustangs and the American West” travel seminar (TX 100A) and its companion course “Inside Equus” (BI 195) comprise a classroom and field-based introduction to animal physiology and behavior, including adaptation to domestication. After several on-campus meetings, students will travel to Nevada and California March 9 - 17, 2019, to observe wild horses at liberty and in confinement. Observations will be documented and used in a formal presentation later in the semester. The ethical, ecological, and economic aspects of wild horse management on range lands will also be discussed.
Readings for “Mustangs and the American West” will be assigned at the beginning of the semester. The course will meet three times before traveling to Nevada and California. Several post-trip meetings are also required to prepare a final poster and presentation.
The seminar will be led by Elaine Larsen from Skidmore College. Elaine has taught vertebrate physiology courses at Skidmore for more than 10 years. She has more than 40 years of experience with horses, including an animal science degree from Cornell University, more than 1,000 miles of competitive long-distance riding, and certification as a professional farrier. She has also worked as an outdoor educator and outfitter, coordinating trips and ensuring the safety and preparedness of participants; she is certified in wilderness first aid and CPR. Elaine conducted horse observations in 1996, 2010, and 2016 on Assateague Island and in Wyoming, and she led a similar Skidmore travel seminar in 2015.