I took this clip months ago. At the time, it didn’t seem worth sharing. It was shakey, windy, and nothing special had happened. Like thousands of other clips, it was left on the laptop to sit. Yesterday, however, I stumbled upon it again. After seeing it with fresh eyes I was struck by a simple detail that I had previously missed. It’s a small thing and may seem unremarkable to most, but I found it astounding. I see wildflowers!
In the spring of 2017, a small team from the Serengeti Foundation (SF) and myself traveled to the defunct cattle ranch now know as Engler Canyon. We were touring the property to take a baseline survey and contemplate whether this land could sustain the project that SF had dreamed about. Could this land be the site? Could we effectively rewild 100+ of the BLM’s least desired Mustangs? Could we do it while operating as a wildlife refuge? I won’t lie, what greeted us was daunting!
The climate here is harsh and large areas of land were badly damaged, the infrastructure was aging, and the houses…yikes! We would be starting from scratch. The most recent owner, the heir to a mass corporate fortune, had purchased our sanctuary to use a shooting range. Literally. Multiple family homes did exist, but not one could be found without hundreds of bullet holes in it. And artillery. I kid you not! We had a monumental task ahead of us, and that was *IF* we could make it work.
During those initial days, we toured a large portion of this 22,000-acre property. We drove through several thousand acres that were barren or filled with noxious weeds. The erosion was evident and huge crevices were sliced into the earth. The grass was sparse, the cacti were plenty and it was feeling pretty bleak! It wasn’t until we stumbled into a hidden gem, an area we now call “Whiskey Meadows”, that our energy lifted. We each voiced our renewed support for the project, and most importantly, our support for the project on this land. We shared a toast under the moonlight, and SF put an offer in the very next day.
My initial impressions of the land have stuck with me for the past three years. I’ve worn many hats in my life, but it was a background in horticulture that had connected me with SF. While the rest of the team’s attention was initially captured by rock formations, homestead sites, and the scenery that surrounded us, my eyes were fixed on the soil. Every weed caught my eye, exposed roots hurt my heart, aged and diseased trees made me ponder, and my out loud enthusiasm for finding an amaranth sprout still causes teasing to this day! During all of that touring, we only saw only a single flower. This lonely plant was in a narrow spot by the creek, surrounded by tall rock formations that the cattle didn’t like. They had missed it! It seemed like a pitiful find at the time and it weighed heavily on our hearts. We found it unsettling that we could only find one. None of us liked that.
The lack of pollen sources drove us to urgently consider projects that incorporated bees, though, with no food source, we would need to address that first. In our first year, hundreds of trees were planted alongside boxes full of rootstock filled with native, perennial flowers and fruiting shrubs. We were then hit with a record-breaking drought, nearly all were lost. After that lesson, we put a greater emphasis on seeds. It was around this time that we started to see the first true signs of change around us. Old farm roads had begun to regrow. Areas damaged by lounging cattle began to show hints of green. We saw roots strengthening and the slopes of eroded banks mellow in their steepness. We began to see the change.
What makes wild horses so beneficial to the environment? To start, horses are non-ruminant herbivores. They possess a simple stomach and have a one-step digestion process, unlike the four stages that their ruminant counterparts have. As horses graze, food passes through their single compartment stomachs, through their intestines, and then is deposited in the form of small round balls. This simple process keeps the bulk of the organic matter in an undigested form and with a majority of seeds heads still intact! As horses travel, they can deposit viable seeds along with their manure. They’re literally planting everywhere they go!
It can be interesting to compare horse and cattle manure. The smaller size of each individual horse dropping facilitates a quick breakdown, unlike heavy cow plops that tend to dry into a dense, single pile. Cows are more efficient at breaking down their food, so there is less plant material in the end-stage. Horse manure is largely undigested, though finely chewed, and it easily absorbs moisture making it an inviting space for several species of insects and worms. The biodiversity that can be found in and around these manure piles further attracts birds and insect eaters looking for an easy meal. As the manure breaks down, reseeding can take place in the most fertile place possible.
Did you know wild horses also stimulate grass growth? Their front teeth act like scissors that keep the grass trimmed at an optimal height. The repeated grazing stimulates side shoots to appear, encouraging the grasses to spread out, rather than up. In comparison, many types of livestock find grass roots especially tasty! They use their tongue to pull up on grasses and will happily eat the whole mouthful. You can watch Sully demonstrate her grass friendly grazing in the clip below. There is no pulling or ground disturbance to be seen, just cleanly cut tips.
An unfortunate misconception is that wild horses trample all the grass. This is not so. Wild horses typically travel in single file and on well-established paths. They are not wallowers and will roam over great distances as they graze. In contrast, barren areas or fields of noxious weeds can often be linked to lounging livestock or contaminated hay.
We know that wild horses have been consuming plant matter and seeds, spreading it throughout the sanctuary and into areas that aren’t easily reached. You see friends, that’s why this is so exciting! I’ve planted several hundred pounds of seeds from my backpack and the back of a quad, but not here, not in the area seen in the clip. This was done with the help of our horses! Of course, wind and other critters likely played a role, but I’m a firm believer that this dramatic change would not have happened without the behavior shift of wild horses. I invite you to scroll back up and rewatch the clip. Keep your eye on the ground, notice the density of the grasses, the flowers and seed heads that are visible, and take note of the angle of the slope they’re moving across. Now, compare with the photos below. This is the exact same area, as is the third image in this post above. The view may be different but the location is the same. Pay attention to the dates.
I SEE FLOWERS!!! Flowers that weren’t planted by us. Wild horses are revitalizing this land and fostering a level of biodiversity that can easily be missed. By allowing native plants to re-establish, they also stabilize the soil. The increased foliage from growing plants provides vital protection from the sun, allowing seeds to better germinate in the cooler, shaded soil. The increased moisture level created by the shaded tops attracts insects and small animals looking for a place to rest. As the plants grow, they become a food source for the herd and indigenous wildlife while providing critically needed pollen for our undervalued pollinators. Most importantly, they’re creating a rich mix of the DNA that is required for future generations of healthy plants. This is what brings ‘horse-powered’ to the next level!
This is the work of Mustangs.