Horse Background and History

Origins of the Horse in North America

The modern horse (Equus caballus) evolved on the North American continent. Disappearing from this area around 10,000 years ago (end of the Pleistocene epoch), it survived on the European/Asian continent. Horses were brought back to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Stray horses became known as mustangs, from the Spanish word mesteño. The word refers to a farmer's guild (mesta), signifying these animals had no true owner. Modern translations have simplified mesteño into signifying "wild." From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, mustangs ranged throughout the Great Plains in vast herds, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

Painting by Charles Russel depicting Plains Indians hunting buffalo on horseback
A painting depicts Plains Indians on horseback; entitled "The Buffalo Hunt."

© Charles M. Russel

Horses on the Great Plains

Reintroduction of horses changed the social and environmental landscape of the Great Plains, most notably for the Plains Indians. Their acquisition of the horse changed their culture from pedestrian hunter-gatherers to mounted buffalo hunters and warriors. Horses played a significant role in the exploration and settlement of the United States.

The unowned, untamed bands of horses on the Great Plains were (and are) commonly referred to as wild; the correct designation of these animals is "feral," as they are descended from domesticated animals. These feral horses figured prominently in the cultural history of the American West.

During the modern ranching era, feral horses came to be regarded as a nuisance. Cattlemen worked to exterminate these animals throughout the West. In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to preserve feral horses began. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated the protection of these animals as a "national heritage species."


Horses in the Badlands

Feral horses have existed in the Badlands of western North Dakota since the mid-1800s. While ranching near Medora in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

In a great many - indeed, in most - localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, cowboys in the Badlands captured horses for use as ranch or rodeo stock. Prior to park establishment in 1947, ranchers used this area to graze their livestock. A horse round-up held in 1954 removed 200 branded animals. Of the few small bands of horses that eluded capture, several were thought to be the descendants of horses that had run free in the Badlands since the turn of the century.

A charcoal-colored horse with white markings.
With a bald face and white side patches, this horse resembles those popularized in western art during the 1800s.

NPS / Andrew Rankin

Some horses in the park do bear a striking resemblance to the horses common in this area during the 1800s. As depicted in drawings and early photographs, local horses of that era were typically large-headed, short-backed, and a bit larger than the mustang of the southern Plains. They were often blue or red roans, many having "bald" (white) faces and patches of white on their sides. This color pattern, called an "apron," may be familiar from the paintings of Frederic Remington and C.M. Russell, but is seldom seen in modern horses.

Band of feral horses
Horses travel in groups known as "bands."

NPS / Chad Allmendinger

Park Horses

Feral horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park do not fall under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, but are managed by existing park regulations. For many years the National Park Service attempted to remove all the horses from the park. This policy was reversed in 1970 when the horse was recognized as part of the historical setting.

The park is home to numerous bands of horses, representing the experience of Theodore Roosevelt during the open range ranching era. These feral horses are preserved as a cultural resource. You can learn more about how the park manages the horse population by visiting our Horse Management page. Today, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few areas in the West where free-roaming horses may be readily observed.


Horse Behavior

During the summer months, bands of horses may be seen grazing throughout the park. They are often seen along the park boundary from Interstate 94. Horses can also be seen at a distance from high points such as the Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill. While hiking or driving, look for fresh manure to locate horses –stallions mark their territory with "stud piles." These are common along the scenic drive through the park.

Feral horses typically range in small bands of 5-15 animals. Each group has an established social hierarchy, consisting of a dominant stallion, his mares, and their offspring. Frequently a subdominant stallion will "run second" to the leader. Stallions herd their mares by extending their heads and necks low to the ground in a gesture known as "snaking." When a band is in flight, a dominant mare will take the lead with the stallion bringing up the rear. Young stallions roam together in bachelor groups, sometimes in proximity to a stallion harem.

A mare with her colt
Young horses can be seen with their families during the late spring and throughout the summer.

NPS / Chad Allmendinger

Once formed, these social groups remain remarkably stable and often range within an established territory. Foals are born in the spring after an 11 month gestation period. Upon reaching sexual maturity at age 2-3, young colts and fillies are driven from their natal group and form new bands. Occasionally a bachelor stallion attempts to steal mares from an established group, resulting in fights between rival males.

Extreme caution must be exercised in attempting to observe feral horses closely. Binoculars are advised for optimal viewing. Horses have keen senses of smell, hearing, and sight. They are extremely wary, often sensing the presence of humans in advance. They are especially fearful of horseback riders.

Please do not feed, chase, harass or otherwise approach horses. Free-roaming horses are a part of the cultural landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and should be treated with respect and caution. If you are interested in helping the park's horses, please keep an eye out for more details coming soon about the horse adoption program sponsored by our partner, General Services Administation (GSA).

Last updated: July 1, 2017

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Medora, ND 58645


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