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The Wild Bunch 
Bureau of Land Management Environmental Education Resource










Based on an article in Science & Children Magazine, Published by the National Science Teachers Association, May 2001


Freeze Marks
Around the World

Hoofbeats Through History

Man's relationship with the horse probably began some 50,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnon man considered the horse a valuable source of food. More than 5,000 years ago—most likely on the steppes of Eurasia—farmers may have begun the process of domesticating horses for meat and milk. Horses were eventually used for riding, hauling, hunting, and warfare. In the 18th century, horses began to be used extensively on farms, replacing the ox. Smaller ponies were used in mines to carry coal, and larger breeds were used to carry logs out of forests, haul cargo, and control herds of livestock on farms and ranches.

Horses provide a common link in the history of four cultures in the American West. Spanish conquistadors, American Indians, Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry, and European-American settlers all were dependent, in part, on the horse.

Pictographs depicting horses and riders
Native Americans were greatly impressed with Spanish riders on horseback. After the first encounters, some Mexican Indians reported seeing a fantastic new creature–one with two heads and six legs. Rock carvings and paintings of horses and riders–some dating as far back as the 17th century–can be found in many parts of the West.
Conquistadors first introduced the modern horse to what would become the American West when Coronado made his way across the plains in 1540. To the Spanish, the horse was a symbol of authority and rank as well as a means of transportation. It was also used very effectively as an instrument of war.

American Indians obtained horses in significant numbers after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, capturing many of the Spaniards' mounts, which they used for food as well as for trade with other tribes. Within 100 years, descendants of these horses as well as Spanish runaways were found throughout the West from Mexico to Canada. The horse dramatically changed the American Indian way of life. Some Plains tribes, including the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Crow, and Blackfeet, had been nomadic, following the buffalo herds and moving with the seasons. Other tribes, including the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Pawnee, Ponca, and Omaha, had been farmers who lived in villages. The acquisition of the horse greatly expanded the ability of all these groups to hunt and travel. Horses also enabled eastern woodland tribes, such as the Sioux, to move westward into the Great Plains. Horses allowed greater interaction among the tribes as well. The result was increased intertribal friction, often over horses, which were highly valued and used as currency. In the 19th century, when the tribes began to encounter Europeans venturing inland from the coasts, horse-riding warriors were an effective force in opposing the newcomers.

Horse-mounted soldiers have been an effective fighting force through much of history. In the American West the horse provided soldiers the mobility that the vast expanses demanded. African-Americans became famous as Buffalo Soldiers, troopers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. Their success against adversaries (including Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, and Pancho Villa), battle honors, and other exploits such as exploration, mapping, and the stringing of telegraph lines would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the horse.

Horses transporting material in AlaskaHorses played a vital role in the settlement of the frontier, including the northernmost frontier of Alaska. In 1897, after word of the Klondike Gold Strike in northwestern Canada became known, gold seekers streamed north. Many stampeders arriving in southeastern Alaska brought horses with them, naively believing that they could ride or haul wagons with their tons of supplies to the goldfields. They had no idea that steep, ice-filled mountain passes lay between trailhead cities and the Klondike gold. Many horses died along the trail–not from exposure to the cold, but from slipping on the icy trails and falling to their deaths. So hazardous was the route that one stretch of the White Pass trail between Skagway, Alaska, and the Klondike was nicknamed "Dead Horse Gulch." The above photo, taken in the spring of 1898, shows conditions at Sheep Camp, one of many boomtowns that sprang up in Alaska.


The exploration and settlement of the West was inextricably linked to the horse. European immigrants and settlers used the horse for personal transportation, communication (the Pony Express), shipping goods, herding cattle, and warfare. Initially they brought their own horses with them, but they were able to add freely to their stock from the herds of wild horses that roamed the prairies and range. Settlers began gathering, gentling, and training wild horses, and breeding them as well. Today horses are still used for herding, and to a limited extent, for transportation and recreational riding.

Adopting a "Living Legend"

Historically, most wild horses and burros offered for adoption have been five years old or younger; current policy favors removal of a range of classes. Mares with unweaned foals are adopted together. With kindness and patience, wild horses can be gentled and trained for many uses, and can even become champions in equestrian competitions; they are best known for their surefootedness, strength, and endurance.

BLM's adoption facility in Cross Plains, Tennessee
At BLM's adoption facility in Cross Plains, Tennessee, potential adopters have the opportunity to view up to 170 wild horses and burros.
Each year 6,000–8,000 horses and 500–1,000 burros are offered for adoption. Adoption fees are $125 per horse or burro, and $250 per mare/foal pair. However, most adoptions are conducted using a competitive bidding process. Adoption fees help defray the costs of gathering, transporting, identifying, and sorting the animals; treating them medically; recording data; and conducting the actual adoption events. Potential adopters are provided with a wide variety of information before an actual adoption occurs, including suggestions as to what size and age of animal might be best for a particular use. In order for a person to qualify to adopt a wild horse or burro, he or she must be at least 18 years old and have no convictions for inhumane treatment of animals. The potential adopter must also have and the financial means to provide for the number of animals adopted. An individual who has expressed an intention to slaughter or commercially exploit "the wild nature" of a wild horse or burro is ineligible to adopt one. (And even qualified, eligible adopters are cautioned that horse or burro adoption shouldn't be undertaken casually: Caring for and training a horse or burro requires dedication and a substantial amount of time. Anyone interested in adoption is encouraged to consult BLM before applying.)

Adoptions take place at locations across the United States. Some BLM locations, such as prison training facilities and BLM contract facilities, have horses available year-round.

Adoptions also occur at "satellite" (temporary) adoption centers throughout the nation; a current adoption schedule is available via the BLM Wild Horse and Burro website: Adoption application forms are also available from the same website or from any BLM office. Online adoptions are conducted via the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Internet Adoption website:

A wild horse or burro belongs to the federal government until BLM issues a title to the adopter. (When the adopter signs the adoption contract, he or she automatically applies for title to the animal.)

Horse and rider at the Kentucky Horse ParkChild and horse
At the Kentucky Horse Park, a horse-themed educational park in Lexington, 19 adopted wild horses were teamed with inner-city youth to form the "Mustang Troop." Before joining the Troop, many of the youngsters, aged nine to 14, had never even seen a horse in person. The Troopers became so proficient that they performed as part of the Inaugural Parade in January 1997.
Although adopters must be at least 18 years old, many children participate in the care of adopted horses.

After one year of humane care and treatment of the animal, as attested to by a veterinarian or equivalent expert, the adopter receives a "Title Eligibility" letter.Once the adopter returns the letter and expert testimony, BLM mails the title to the adopter.

BLM's Adopt-a-Horse-or-Burro program relies heavily on volunteers. For information on volunteering for this or other BLM programs, please visit the BLM Volunteer Program website at

Who's Who: Codes, Keys, and Freeze Marks

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for most of the wild horses and burros on public lands. The agency uses a "signalment key code" by which the animals' visible features can be catalogued using a series of nine numbers and capital letters. The characteristics included in the code are the animal's species (horse, burro, or mule), sex, face whorls, markings on each leg, face markings, and color, with each category having a set number of defined choices. For example, a signalment code might read HM1EEEEBB; to a person with the code key, this code means that the animal in question is a male horse with one face whorl, a white "sock" marking on each leg, a "star" marking on its forehead, and that its color is bay.

Sample Freeze MarkSince 1978, BLM and the USDA Forest Service have also been identifying captured wild horses and burros by freeze marking them on the left side of the neck. Freeze marking is a highly visible and unalterable way to identify individual animals. A series of straight-line and angle symbols based on the International Alpha Angle System, each animal's unique freeze mark contains its Registering Organization (the U.S. Government), year of birth, and registration number.

Each state where wild horses and burros are located has an assigned range of numbers unique to the animals in that state. In the illustrated sample, the registration number indicates that the animal was captured in Oregon, whose assigned numerical range is 000000 to 080000. After an animal has been freeze marked, its registration number is recorded and maintained indefinitely in BLM's database. Each freeze mark is tied to about 100 categories of information in the database, including the animal's capture location and the adopter's name and address.

Developed by Dr. Keith Farrell of Pullman, Washington, the freeze-mark technique is simple, completely painless, and inexpensive. The hair on the left side of the animal's neck is first close-clipped and washed that has been chilled in liquid nitrogen to -196ºC. After 30–60 days, the hair on dark horses grows back white in the shape of the identifying mark, while the hair of light-colored animals is missing or grows in dark.

Adopted horse and riders
Adopted horses have earned their share of honors in numerous equestrian events. Freeze marks, such as the one visible on this horse's neck, are used to identify horses and burros removed from BLM lands. Each unique mark is recorded and kept indefinitely in a BLM database, along with information about the adopter.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an adopter to sell an untitled freeze-marked horse, burro, or mule. However, once BLM issues title for an animal, it becomes the private property of the adopter, and state and local private-property laws apply. Both the freeze-mark number and the signalment code on the title should be checked against the animal to make sure that both match the individual. The best way to prevent wild horse and burro abuse, theft, or illegal sale is through the involvement of informed private citizens who are observant, carefully document what they find, and report the evidence to BLM.

Global Roaming

Though wild horses are most often associated with the western United States, other parts of this country (including Missouri and the mid-Atlantic coast) as well as many other nations (including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) have their own free-roaming feral herds. In the eastern United States, Assateague Island's famous "Chincoteague ponies" live within a National Seashore and State Park located in Maryland and Virginia, respectively. Additional herds are located along other mid-Atlantic coastal barrier islands, extending all the way south through the Carolinas to Cumberland Island, Georgia. Local folklore has it that the ancestors of these horses were the hardy survivors of shipwrecked Spanish galleons; however, it is more likely that today's horses are descendants of 17th-century domestic animals that were moved to barrier islands by farmers seeking to avoid mainland livestock taxes.

Coastal horses eat so much salty vegetation—even seaweed—that they drink twice as much fresh water as their domestic counterparts, which sometimes gives them a "fat" appearance. Because of their relatively poor diet and harsh environment, they are small, averaging only 12–13 hands (1.2-1.3 m) in height. Various federal, state, and local governments, as well as private organizations, manage the barrier island herds. Despite the very different environments, herd managers in the western and eastern United States may find themselves faced with similar issues and conflicts in resource use. On barrier islands, for instance, marsh grass and sea oats, which hold fragile dunes in place, may be completely mowed down by grazing horses. And trampling endangers native wildlife such as ground-nesting birds and sea turtles.

Australia has its own burros and feral horses, known locally as "brumbies," whose domestic ancestors were shipped to the continent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for use as farm animals, transportation, and racing stock. Many of these introduced animals escaped or were abandoned, becoming feral. Viewed as both pests and resources, brumbies cause damage to fences, compete with cattle and wildlife, overgraze (and selectively graze) fragile ecosystems, cause erosion, and may transmit disease to domestic horses. In many parts of Australia, brumbies occupy similarly remote arid and semiarid lands as America's western wild horses do. Though culling the Australian herds (whose total population is currently about 300,000 animals—the largest in the world) is widely seen as necessary, the best approach to accomplish this has not been agreed upon. Currently, many feral horses are being captured and slaughtered for meat and hide.

The only true wild horse left in the world is Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalski), a species distinct from feral and domestic horses. Also known as the Mongolian wild horse, the Asiatic wild horse, and the takhi, Przewalski's horses are dun-colored with upright black manes and no forelock, and have thicker necks and shorter legs than do domestic and feral horses.

Chincoteague Ponies
Virtually all of the world's wild horses are technically feral–descendants of domestic animals–including the famous "Chincoteague ponies" that live on barrier islands along the coast of Maryland and Virginia.
Though the horse is an integral part of Mongolian culture, Przewalski's horse has not been seen in the wild since the 1960s. Collection of foals by westerners and pressure from increasing numbers of people and livestock in the Gobi Desert—the species' last refuge—are thought to be the reasons for the final die-out.

Though they once ranged through many parts of Europe and Asia, almost all of the approximately 1,400 Mongolian horses alive today are in zoos around the world, descendants of 12 that were captured and bred in captivity around 1900. Luckily, zoo propagation strategies have ensured that the species maintains good genetic health, and reintroduction programs are in the trial stages in Mongolia.