Wild Horses and Burros
Nevada is home to over half of the nation’s wild horses and burros, and the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area is a great place to see these living legends and learn about their history.
Ranching and the History of Wild Horses
The westward expansion of explorers, settlers, cavalry, miners, farmers, and ranchers in the mid-1800s was the source of present day wild horses and burros in this area.
During the early days of settlement, homesteaders and others brought saddle and draft horses, burros, and mule teams with them to Nevada. Loss of stock, abandonment, and intentional horse breeding operations over more than a century provided the diverse genetic heritage of today’s American Mustang.
Numerous horse breeds were developed in the eastern U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the demand for horses grew, some ranchers began to raise horses to sell.
Many of the wild horse herds originated as the result of large number of horses being imported into the area for the purpose of starting herds of high quality stock. Between 1870 and 1898, as horse ranching increased in the west, horse prices dropped and the open range filled up with unbranded and unbroken horses, expanding the feral horse herds.
Ranchers and settlers also turned draft and saddle horses loose on the open range to pasture, gathering them as the need arose. Other horses escaped, were abandoned or were set loose when hard times made feed unaffordable.
These horses commonly became referred to as “wild” horses or mustangs. Once the wild herds were established, it was common practice for ranchers to release high-grade stock to improve the quality of the herds. By 1885, local wild horse herds were common throughout the area.
In 1899 the Boer War in South Africa, and later the Spanish-American War, created a large demand for military mounts. Many wild horses were rounded up and shipped overseas. During World War I, ranchers went into business with the federal government raising horses for the Army.
In the early part of the 20th century, many carriage and farm horses were retired to the range as they were replaced by automobiles and gasoline-fueled farm machinery. During the Great Depression, farm and ranch horses were often abandoned to the range when farmers and ranchers went out of business.
In Black Rock-High Rock country, horse-drawn harvesting machinery was used as late as 1954. Today, horses are still used in the livestock business on the larger ranches.
Habitat for Wild Horses and Burros
Wild horses roam over the range in bands of a few to 15 head or more. Each band usually has a dominant herd stallion and his mares and foals. Lone horses are most likely bachelor stallions. Groups of stallions, often of differing ages, also form bands with varying numbers of members.
Bands of both harems and bachelors may loosely assemble into large herds upwards of a hundred animals, but with close observation, obvious family units can usually be identified. Wild burros do not establish social bonds as wild horses do.
When the snow clears from the mountain tops in the late spring, the horses head for higher country in search of new grass shoots in the higher precipitation zones. They will stay high on the mountain slopes through the summer until snow forces them to lower slopes in the late fall.
Breeding reaches its peak in the spring months and foaling occurs mostly from early March through summer, but can occur year round.
Seasonal patterns of burros are more closely tied to water availability. Burros tend to congregate near water in the hot summer months and move farther away during cooler months.
Wild horses and burros are grazing animals. Both prefer grasses, but will browse on forbs and shrubs when grasses are unavailable. Horses can usually be found grazing along mountain slopes or in small meadows. They rest on breezy ridges before wandering to water later in the day.
Burros appear to be highly adaptive with a relatively unspecialized diet. They usually inhabit lower elevations where fewer grasses are available.
Where to See These Living Legends
It is possible to see a wild horse almost anywhere in Black Rock-High Rock country. However, the places providing the best chance to see these “living legends” are along the low to middle slopes of the mountains during the cooler seasons and in open grasslands at higher elevations during summer.
The High Rock Lake area and along the western boundary of the NCA from Washoe County Road 34 are good locations to view horses. Burros are less common in Black Rock-High Rock Country, but a few live year-round in northern areas.
Wild horses and burros are protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Currently, there are 16 Herd Management Areas supporting several thousand horses in Black Rock-High Rock country.
For information, including wild horse adoption procedures, visit the BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Program website.
Herd Management Area information in Black Rock-High Rock country can be found at the Nevada Wild Horse and Burro website.