Wild horses are prey animals. As such they sleep less than other animals… say a cat who can sleep 18 hours a day or 12 hours for a dog. Horses however spend lots of time during the day just standing and resting, but they only need 3-4 hours of actual sleep and they must get 30 minutes to an hour of REM sleep. They have eyes on the side of their head so they can see a predator from both sides. Predators like mountain lions know this instinctively so they try to get above their prey and pounce from a rock, a ledge or a tree branch. One of the ways wild horses stay alive is by detecting predators before they detect them, allowing them to either freeze in place or escape quickly or very slowly, depending on how close the predator is to them. Wild horses need to be very aware of everything in their surroundings. As a result, they have highly developed senses, including powerful vision, hearing, and smell. Our wild horses are very reactive so they can escape quickly.
Now just imagine, in the old west as wild horses stood on the range with an occasional cougar, pack of coyotes or other predators to watch for… now flash forward to 2020 and the land our wild horses roam on has been invaded by humans… and all those contraptions they own, be it a car, truck, UTV, quad, motorcycle, bicycle. Oh yeah, let’s not forget drones and paragliders. Now the horses do adapt, they take turns sleeping so some are sleeping while others are watching. Each band has one horse assigned the job as sentry, and another as a sentry in training so the first sentry can get that valuable sleep. But of course, all adult horses in the band are usually watching. But if you walk up to a larger band of horses you will usually notice the same mare raising her head first… over and over. She is the sentry and her job is to notify the band stallion of any potential threats. I also have observed that the second and third heads to go up are the band stallion and the second sentry. I always wonder how this happens? How does she notify him? Is it all body language or is it more? How can he nearly always respond even though he isn’t facing her and is many yards from her?
Observing wild horses is fascinating. So needless to say our 2020 after Covid-19 quarantine month of May was beyond fascinating… is rolled over to frustrating and even at times infuriating.
On the Fish Springs range we have a team who monitor the wild horses from sunup to sunrise and at times even in the dark of night. While they rarely actually interfere with other humans unless they are putting their own or others life in danger, none the less we sure do observe a whole lot of human and wild horse behavior. Recently, we have preferred the behavior of wild horses to some humans. LOL Maybe this is just because the number of humans on the Nevada desert has increased as they looked for ways to escape from the homes they are suppose to stay in, as they avoid stores, parks, casinos, bars, restaurants, libraries, barbers and so many other places that usually fill their week. So they take their toys and head to the desert for some safe social distancing with their family. The usually quiet desert with a few dozen wild horses saw a whole lot of increased activity. The horses normal routine was seriously interrupted by the noise of playful humans. Now
on an ordinary day the horses will graze on any given area and if they see a truck or a UTV coming up the road they move to another area.
But recent activity left the horses with few areas to escape. As fast as they moved, another vehicle or motorcycle appeared in the new area, until the horses headed up high in the trees to areas where they knew there were no jeep trails…. no humans. They all quickly there were no jeep trails…. no humans. They all quickly learned that most humans go home at dinnertime so they could wander back to the center valley gradually and safely, but cautiously head to water anytime after 6 pm. I would see them on the hilltop watching and waiting until the majority of the UTV’s and motorcycles have headed home for the night. These are the two vehicles we have observed chasing the horses… oh, only a short distance. Not all, the vast majority of the off roaders were quite respectful of the wild horses but if one an hour felt the need for a little high spirited fun the horses were getting chased off and on all day.
We observed the horses being forced to run by motorcycles, quads, UTV’s, a drone, a world war II airplane and the worse offender was a paraglider who intentionally found sport in coming in low to watch them run below. This caused the horses to stampede in the direction of a local photographer who was taking photos of a two week old injured foal we were monitoring. Fortunately, he was skilled in reading the horses and he was able to get behind a bush as many wild horses galloped by on both sides of him. The last horse to pass was the injured foal trying to keep up with her Momma and Mom trying to stay slow enough for her to do this. All terrified of the motorized human in the air. When I started to write this article, and another for the newspaper, I ran it by a couple members of our team… I had fears it may alienate some of the people who frequent the range the wild horses roam on… we all know them. The kind people who slow down when they see wild horses
on their UTV, those that choose a different trail so they don’t scare them. Those that drive up and watch the wild ones quietly with their binoculars. Those are not the people this article is for.
This is in hopes that we can bring awareness to everyone that wild horses, when near populated areas are constantly being pressured by humans to run in fear. This does, in fact cause great stress to the individual horses and the bands as a whole. We all noticed that the horses were “edgy” all memorial day weekend. Spats more often between stallions, mares nipping at their foals to stay close more frequently. Oh yes, this stuff happens all the time, but in the month of May all the photographers and volunteers were talking about the unusually tense mood of the horses and the lighting that was going on in bands and between bands. We strive to document the behaviors of our wild horses and this is one month for the books. We hope that by telling this story that perhaps
people will realize that just because you have a moment alone with the wild horses nearby and the temptation is there to watch them run… well someone else just left the spot you are in and those horses have been chased off and on all day long. For a young mare with a new foal this can be terrifying. For a horse that needs to sleep this can be frustrating. Perhaps we can try to amuse ourselves at their expense. Please be kinder and go fishing or find another way to amuse yourselves.