Wild horses of South Dakota

Foal at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Wild horses couldn’t keep me away…


It was one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen and I knew I had found the place I had been searching for – the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.

As I drove up the gravel road there they were. There must have been 10 or 12 horses, heads turned my way, ears standing straight up.

I stopped and watched the horses. As I did so my mind began to wonder. Was this what it was like some 300 or so years ago when wild horses roamed the entire American West? My quest to learn more about wild horses is what brought me here to Hot Springs, South Dakota and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (BHWHS).

herd at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Wild Horses History

The ancestors of American wild horses were brought here by the Spanish in the 1400s and 1500s. In the 1600s Spanish settlers brought these horses north into what is now Arizona, Texas and New Mexico where they were used to heard cattle and sheep. Over time many horses escaped, were turned loose, or where stolen by the area’s Native people.

When settlers started moving west they brought horses with them. Some were draft horses, others saddle horses and still others were cavalry horses, mainly Thoroughbreds. Some of these horses made their way into the bands of wild horses and thus adding to the genetic traits we see today in wild horses.

Blue-eyed foal wild horse

Sometime around the mid-1800s there were millions of wild horses roaming across the west. For many reasons these horses were rounded up and slaughtered. Some went for dog food, some were shipped to Europe as human food and some were slaughtered by the cattle industry because they were in the way. In 1971 the U.S. passed a Federal Law that banned the “capturing, harming or killing of free-roaming horses and burros on public land”. The management of the wild horses fell upon the shoulders of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Today the BLM rounds up wild horses and tries to sell them or offer them for adoption. As well-intentioned as this sounds, many of these once free animals find themselves in crowded feed lots with many of them finishing their lives in these conditions. Some will never be adopted because they are too ugly, too weak, too old, or to high spirited. Today there is an estimated 50,000 wild horses living on private ranches, wildlife refuges, Native American reservations and federal land.

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

In 1988 a man by the name of Dayton O. Hyde started the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (BHWHS). The BHWHS is privately owned, receives no Federal funds and is supported by donations and tourism. The sanctuary covers 11,000 acres, all of which is on private land. It is a mixed environment of rock canyons, box canyons and grassy prairie. With supplemental winter feed of hay the sanctuary can support 500 horses.

Small herd of wild horses

All of the horses on the sanctuary are wild and like any wild animal they can be unpredictable. We drove very slowly as just never know where the horses will be or if they will tolerate visitors. Rounding a bend we found ourselves in a small herd. There were many foals in the herd and all of the mares stood looking in our direction, ears standing straight up. These horses made it clear that they were prepared to defend the young ones. We stayed quiet and let the horses settle down. The horses seemed to recognize the vehicle we were in and the driver so they began to relax, though they never did take their eyes off of us as we got out. I have never seen animals so sure of themselves and proud. Unlike domestic animals, these horses didn’t “need” us. They stood there because they wanted to, almost daring us to try to move them.

I saw many individual herds of horses while visiting BHWHS, each one different, but just as magnificent and beautiful as the one before it. Thankfully there are places like the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, but there has to be more that can be done.

If you wish to find out how you can assist BHWHS’s wild horses, please visit their website. You can buy gifts (wild horses/mustangs books, calendars, clothing and more) from their online store, sponsor a horse, or make an online donation.

Editors note: The Bureau of Land Managment in the US has just announced a new project to assist with the adoption of wild horses. The “Online Corral” is a new website connecting the public with wild horses available for adoption or purchase.

Images: courtesy © Dana Benner

For more:

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (visitors accommodation available)
Facebook: www.facebook.com/wildmustangs

DANA BENNERdana-benner-bio-image

Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors for over 30 years with his work appearing in both regional and national publications in the U.S. He has a particular interest in wildlife, culture and the environment, and Native American history. He holds a M.Ed. in Heritage Studies and teaches Sociology, History and Political Science at the university level. Dana is based in the USA and is a regular guest writer for Our Planet Travel.

Join us on Our Planet Travel’s eco adventure: