Feral. Wild. Pests. The American mustang, as much as it is an iconic figure and symbol of the spirit of the American West, has always suffered a controversial relationship with the United States. Originally arriving with voyages from the Iberian Peninsula as early as those led by Columbus and Cortes, the mustang has a combination of Andalusian, Arabian and Barb ancestry. Native Americans readily adopted such horses for their ability to assist them during hunt and battle, and the mixed-breed mustang eventually spread throughout the North American plains. In 1900, their numbers were as high as two million. Since then, the population has dwindled dramatically. For most of the twentieth century, people and businesses interested in using mustang body parts as a free commercial resource – their meat, especially – contributed to the slaughter of hundreds of horses.
Several laws now protect mustangs from hunters, such as the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 and the Federal Land Policy and Management act of 1976. In 2010, the mustang population was 33,700 horses, more than half of which roamed the state of Nevada. The debate over whether mustangs are rightful fixtures on the natural landscape or an exotic species that competes with livestock and should not be protected continues today. One particular argument states the mustang should be considered a re-introduced native species, as horses were endemic to North America before the last ice age.
Since 1971, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been responsible for controlling the numbers of mustangs in the wild. Managers regularly capture individuals and subsequently provide incentives for people to adopt them under the condition that owners provide humane, long-term care. However, many accuse the BLM of exaggerating claims of overpopulation, used as a justification of round-up and subsequent adoption of herds. In the same act that appointed the BLM to oversee the mustang population, the government declared that in a given area only a certain amount of vegetation could be used as forage for grazing animals. Although wild horses comprise a fraction of grazing animals (cattle outnumber horses two hundred to one), the BLM has favored ranchers and their livestock when managing mustang populations. In the past, the BLM has also publically considered euthanasia as a means of population control. Such policies conflict with the opinions of many Americans who advocate preserving wild horse populations as a national treasure.
The Epona Project, founded by photographer, journalist and writer Kellie Gibbs, worked as a rescue operation for slaughter-bound and at-risk horses, including mustangs. Using various methods of horse training, the Epona Project was able to educate horses and owners alike, thus offering many horses a second chance at life. Believing that even problem horses had the potential to offer years of gratification, Kellie and her colleagues employed their skills as trainers, consultants and horse rescue experts to rehabilitate mustangs and reintroduce them into humane circumstances.
Four mustangs at Epona came directly from the BLM in Utah, eleven were adopted from the National Forest Service in Nevada, several arrived from individuals who could no longer care for them, and many were bought at local auctions, where, according to Kellie's partner, Susan Ramsey, "...if they'd been bought by the other buyers, they would have gone to slaughter."
For many horse owners and aficionados, mustangs are considered an inferior breed. According to Susan, however: "Physically, though often small, they are hardy and healthy. Their hooves are awesome, and they rarely need shoes. The consensus among owners was they have much less of a tendency to be susceptible to colic. They tend to be 'easy keepers.'" She went on to say, "We found mustangs to be highly intelligent and spirited. We also found that those mustangs with little experience with humans tended to be receptive once gentleness was demonstrated toward them."
In December, 2008, at the age of forty-seven, Kellie Gibbs passed away without warning due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. She died on the grounds of the Epona Ranch, leaving a legacy of emotive, intuitive photographs and many healed equine friends.