Remembering the Equine Veteran

Veterans Day is an official United States public holiday, observed annually on November 11, that honors military veterans; that is, persons who served in the United States Armed Forces. It coincides with other holidays, including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, celebrated in other countries that mark the anniversary of the end of World War I; major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect.

Human, canine, avian, equine, have all served in war side-by-side. We honor all of them this Veterans Day. Thank you. 

Today we honor our American war horses. We apologize for the brutal and callous system of greed that used you, lied about you, betrayed you. We carry your memory and continue the fight. 

One of the last of the Sheldon “war horses” to be removed from the range. The Sheldon herd is now no more than a page in American history. This beautiful horse was one of the lucky few to land in sanctuary to live out the last of his days.

“This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them. And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy abomination of a war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” ― Michael Morpurgo, War Horse

During the Civil War years the concept of breeding horses specifically for the United States Cavalry began to develop as the necessity became evident after an estimated 1.5 million horses died in the conflict, including wild horses.

After the Civil War westward migrations sparked the Plains Indian Wars.  Native tribes that engaged these conflicts rode horses commonly known as “Mustangs.”

“Mustangs” developed from the Spanish and European horses that had gone wild during the colonial period (that possibly bred with indigenous stock, current research still questions if horses went extinct on the North American continent).  These horses evolved into sure footed fast “ponies” which the plains Indians learned to maneuver very efficiently to fight on horseback.  Their speed and agility, proved to be a most valuable asset against the U.S. Army.

Horses with lineage back to the Civil War, and the United States breeding program, would be bred and serve into the twentieth century up to World War II.

The movie War Horse, Directed by Steven Spielberg, brought movie audiences to tears. The bond between a boy and his horse, and the lengths they were both driven, brought the life of a “war horse” during World War I to the big screen. Yet this movie never touched on the big picture. The vast majority of horses in the European conflict were not European, they were American.

The war quickly used up the supply of European horses. US contracts were made to supply American and Allied forces. The horses in the area now known as the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was one of the most well documented areas where “war horses” were taken from to serve in the conflict.

In 1916 the Idaho Daily Statesmen declared about the Mustang: “The little western pony may not be up to cavalry standards, but he is a good little Ford, and will get you there and be up and about the next morning, and if cactus is the only food, he will take it and smile, leaving the regulation Packard waiting for the oats to catch up.”

During World War I, and into World War II, military cavalry contractor Harry Wilson (sometimes referenced as ‘Winton’) would roundup horses from the area now known as Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The horses would then be loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to the East Cost. From there the horses would make a trip across the Atlantic ocean by ship. Horses that survived the journey had a bit placed in their mouths and began to pull artillery or serve as a cavalry mount.

Captain Sydney Galtrey of the British Cavalry described these horses, “in a rough and ready shape; they were shoeless, long-haired, tousled-maned and had ragged hips. But they were tough; generations of their kind had become completely at home with roaming out in the open and in all kinds of weather.”

It is estimated that a shipment of 500 American horses left to supply American and allied troops during World War I every 1.5 days (archive stat). It is estimated that nearly eight million horses died in World War I alone.

Two of the last Sheldon Mustangs. The most well documented ties to the US Military of any wild herd could not save them.

Their historic value to our nation was not enough to save them.

Not only were those herds destroyed they became ground zero for experimentation that included hysterectomies through the rectum. No tracking on range, no balanced studies of the ramifications. Sheldon became a herd unhinged; behaviors never witnessed in other herds ran rampant; a violent place of competition for the few fertile mares left on the range. Vasectomies and gelding left males behaviorally off balance and spaying increased the tension and the death rates. It was estimated that 30% of the mares died within 48 hours of the first experimental spaying; after release the death rate is unknown.

This experimentation ground laid the foundation to hit all of our wild herds, just a few short years later. Today BLM is approving mishmash of fertility control on all herds and the behaviors on the range are changing.

Video from 8 years ago; the last of the Sheldon herds, the most well documented American War Horse herd, were obliterated.

The love of the public, and their historic connection to our military, was inconsequential to land managers catering to the desire of hunters for a utopia to exercise the right to kill wild things; our wild horses simply in the way.

Unprotected by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act because they were under the jurisdiction of Fish and Wildlife, there was no protection from going directly to slaughter. If fact, the tax dollars were used to pay people to take truckloads.

We did what we could and went to court and got the most notorious of Killbuyers removed from the roster. But this injustice will always haunt us and is a blood-red stain on any assertion that our nation values intrinsic living history.

Today we honor our American war horses. We apologize for the brutal and callous system of greed that used you, lied about you, betrayed you. We carry your memory and continue the fight. 

On veterans day we remember all human, avian, canine and equines whose stories mirror the betrayal of the Sheldon this Veterans Day. We thank you and honor you and owe you a debt we can never repay.

A short video featuring Sargent Reckless.



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