A wild horse (or burro) is classified under United States law as a horse or burro (descendants) that was found on public land in 1971 after the passage of the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. However the term “wild horse” actually brings with it a fierce debate.
The horse we know today, called Equus evolved in North America. Some believe that the horses brought by the Spanish repopulated the North American continent, along with animals introduced by settlers.
One of the most fascinating discoveries was that of Yukon horse (Equus lambei). This smaller (about 12 hands) evolved equid populated Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories (Yukon horse resembles Preswalski’s horse).
The origin of the horse is not in debate. But you will often hear a fierce debate using the terms “feral” in a versus argument to “wild.” Feral is a term used to describe a domestic animal turned wild, almost exclusively to a species that is “non-native” to an area. We use the word “wild” almost exclusively to refer to a native species living in a wild state.
In the case of “wild horses,” using currently accepted science, the most appropriate technical term would be “reintroduced native species.” A reintroduced native species, living in an environment that evolved concurrently with that species, would create a harmonic wild existence.
The debate rages (truly) not because of any debate of origin, it rages because of a debate on how the animals are managed on the land and the underlying competition for public resources (minerals, grazing land, water). Those that want the resources utilized primarily for profit driven purposes use the term “feral” to attempt to get the animals removed from public land.
This debate becomes important when you look at the different jurisdictions that manage wild horses. The legal term “wild” is used in the management of horses and burros managed under the Act on Bureau of Land Management Land and also supposedly on Forest Service land. The term “feral” is used in management in Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (Fish and Wildlife) and the plan is to eradicate horses from the Refuge.
But in discussion of BLM and USFS management the debate is entirely irrelevant. to management processes Congress declared them as a wild species “integral to the system of public lands” and to be managed as such. If Congress declared Golden Retrievers to be managed as a wild species it would be the law. Management plans would need to be created to preserve the species (in the case of wild horses and burros BLM skips the planning that is “integral to the system” and simply removes them after giving away the resources they need on the range to rapidly expanding extractive industry, livestock, etc.
Many exceptions to managing any animal on public land exist. As an example a herd of long-horn cattle is managed and preserved for it’s historical component to a wildlife refuge in Witchita. Domestic European cattle have absolutely no evolutionary claim, yet are managed because of their contribution to the history of European settlers in America.
Here is a great book for those of you interested in learning about the fossil record of horses. There have been more finds since this date but this book is available free online: http://books.google.com/books?id=K1upTamSEW0C&pg=PA148&lpg=PA148&dq=fossil+horse+great+basin+horses&source=bl&ots=j6sgWkT7do&sig=1wWGw1k5sgM2Zm3OKXuvgcDH_wU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=h9BjU4TUOIX5oATkgYLADQ&ved=0CG8Q6AEwDA#v=onepage&q=fossil%20horse%20great%20basin%20horses&f=false
Here is an article published last year about a find near Las Vegas NV: http://wp.sbcounty.gov/cao/countywire/?p=388
One fast thought to add to this discussion: there is no fossil record of ATV use, large scale open pit mining or barbed wire fence and European cows. When we talk management we should be talking the law, not “what club do you belong to?”