In a new book, author Chad Hanson calls wild horses ‘very American, completely democratic’

Wyoming is home to nearly 4,000 feral horses roaming public lands, which has often been a contentious topic between ranchers and feral horse supporters.

But a new book by Wyoming author Chad Hanson defends the right of horses to live on public land. The book is called “In a land of Awe: Finding Reverence in the Search for Wild Horses”.

Caitlin Tan of Wyoming Public Radio interviewed Hanson.

Caitlin Tan: So, Chad, throughout the book you talk about some of your first experiences seeing wild horses. What struck me was that when you first moved to Wyoming as an adult, you were shocked to see wild horses. They were almost mythical. Can you explain a bit why you are so attracted to them?

Chad Hanson: Yes you are right. When I first moved to Wyoming, part of the draw was fly fishing. Once I realized that Wyoming was home to several packs of wild horses, I thought that was amazing, because up until then I had just assumed that wild horses were part of our past – something that school kids were reading. I didn’t think they still existed. So to find out that they are here and living these incredible lives on our public lands, it was amazing.

I don’t even fly-fish that much anymore. Once I find wild horses, it seems like that’s pretty much all I want to do is try to find them and take pictures.

CT: So Chad, you have a really unique way of writing about wild horses and dealing with complex issues like public land use and wild horse management. We often have the impression of adopting a philosophical and poetic approach. You also reference many other authors throughout the book, to kind of use their words to sometimes reach a larger point.

I wonder if you can maybe read an example so that listeners can get a little taste? In this passage that I am going to have you read, you have just finished helping to feed wild horses at a sanctuary in the Black Hills. You look over the ridge and see a Palomino stallion. I’ll let you go from there.

CH: When people look at each other, the earth and the animals, we use our eyes to take their measure. There is power in our gaze. But at this moment, I feel the stallion evaluating me.

My world is pressed on me by the eyes of the horse, my hat, my coat, my boots on the road. My past, my projects, my vanities and my insecurities. I begin to see myself through the eyes of the animal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, “Dreams and beasts are two keys by which we must discover the secrets of our nature.”

Our dreams serve as demonstrations of what we can become. For better or for worse, wild creatures show us what we are not. For all the value we place on freedom. Are we free?

CT: Wild horse management is obviously a really polarizing issue, especially in Wyoming. Your book advocates having feral horses on public land. You point out their beauty and how they are icons of the American West. I wonder what you would hope that people who may not necessarily agree with you could take away from your book?

The cover of Wyoming author Chad Hanson’s new book.

CH: Well, I get your point about polarizing wild horses. I hear that a lot actually. But there’s social science on this issue, and it turns out wild horses aren’t exactly polarizing. It turns out that most of the time they are loved.

The American Wild Horse Campaign commissioned a survey about two years ago, and 88% of the American public is genuinely thrilled to know that we have wild horses on our public lands. I think there is a small but perhaps a vocal minority of people who have other interests when it comes to how public lands are used.

I understand that managers of public lands need to have multiple uses in mind, but wild horses, for example, only occur on about 12% of the lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

So they’re already on a pretty small portion of our public lands and they’re really widely respected. I think most wild horses are highly valued in our culture.

What I hope people take away from the book is for people who were like me and didn’t know we still had wild horses, I hope this book inspires people to get out to our grasslands to try to find these animals. If someone was half as inspired as me to find these animals and spend time with them, I think it would be worth it.

CT: Chad, is there a passage you would like to share with the listeners?

CH: Yeah. Here is a passage from one of the last chapters of the book.

“Are there too many wild horses? How many Mustangs do we need? Like the late wilderness advocate Bob Marshall, I would answer those questions with a question.

“How many Brahms symphonies do we need?” Of course, the answer is all. We need large swathes of public grasslands with Mustangs on them more than at any time in our history. We need their majesty in the strike adventure to try to find them.

Wild horses also have the potential to bring us together as a nation. Who among us wouldn’t stop to marvel at the sight of a pack of mustangs racing through a rugged western panorama? It’s one of the best ideas we’ve ever had. Very American, completely Democratic.

For Wyoming public media coverage of wild horse management that includes multiple perspectives on the issue, listen to the “I respectfully disagree” conversation between four wild horse stakeholders.

Grover Z. Barnes