In the Ozarks Mountains, a curious herd of wild horses

National Park Service protects a band of horses that were abandoned in the 1930s.

© Cindy Dooley/Cindy Dooley In Eminence, Missouri, horses that were abanonded by their owners in the 1930s roam free. The National Park Service was going to remove them in 1992 because they were damaging the habitat for native animals. A group of local residents asked Congress to let them stay.

By Kathy Love, The Washington Post

A curious wild colt in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri lived in a small herd of horses that roamed freely in Echo Bluff State Park. The park attracts thousands of visitors each year. They come to swim, boat and fish in Sinking Creek and nearby Current River, to hike on trails throughout the hills and to see the wild horses.

The horses are descended from farm horses that were abandoned during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many families couldn’t make a living in the rugged Ozark hills, so they moved away to look for jobs. When the families moved away, many of them abandoned their livestock, including the horses. Left on their own for survival, the horses turned “feral”— a term for domestic animals that become wild. They stayed away from people and banded together in herds. Their numbers grew.

Our wild colt at Echo Bluff was curious in two ways: He had a curious color, and he was curious about his surroundings and the people in it.

His color is curious because he was born black but gradually turned gray, then white. This is because of a gene he carries that has existed in some horses for hundreds of years. It is thought to have originated in Europe. Some of the horses that Spaniards brought to North America in the 1500s had this trait. The Lippizaner stallions of Spain are famous examples of horses that have it — they, too, are born black and turn white as they age.

Why was this colt curious about his surroundings? All young animals want to explore their world — that’s how they learn to survive. The curious colt explored his habitat, which included people who came to visit the park.

© Cindy Dooley/Cindy Dooley Many of the wild horses of the Ozarks have a genetic trait that causes them to be born black and gradually change to white as they grow. The trait is hundreds of years old and is thought to have come from Europe.

One day the colt watched people go through doors into a big stone lodge. He nosed around the door and, probably by accident, nudged the automatic door opener. But as he was about to go in, the desk manager saw him. She thought about what might happen if the colt came indoors: Someone could get hurt. She shooed the curious colt away from the lodge.

The wild horses in Missouri live in eight herds in Ozark National Scenic Riverways, administered by the National Park Service. The agency protects the habitat for native wildlife. The Park Service was concerned that the horses were damaging the habitat for native animals. In 1992, officials announced they were going to round up the horses to get them out of the park.

Local residents such as Jim Smith didn’t want to see the horses removed. He organized the Missouri Wild Horse League. Members worked with their congressman to draft legislation that would protect the horses.

Smith had to testify before Congress about why the horses deserved to be protected.

“I was as nervous as a wildcat’s kitten,” he said, but he described how much local people admired the beauty and natural grace of the horses. The legislation passed, and the horses were allowed to stay as long as their numbers didn’t go above 50.

To maintain that number, several young horses are put up for adoption each year. And that is what happened to our curious colt. Smith says he was adopted by a family, and he is the “gentlest animal you’ve ever seen.” And still curious. 

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Kids Magazine: In the Ozarks Mountains, a curious herd of wild horses
In the Ozarks Mountains, a curious herd of wild horses
National Park Service protects a band of horses that were abandoned in the 1930s.
Kids Magazine
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