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New collection documents issue related to wild horses in the Great Basin

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Three wild horses in the Great Basin
“Family Ties” is a giclee print made from handpainted black-and-white photograph from the Paula Morin collection: Honest horses, wild horses in the Great Basin (AFC 2013/038) Artist: Paula Morin

The latest collection of oral histories and related documentation acquired by the American Folklife Center explores the significance and impact of wild horses, which remain deeply connected to the culture, economy and mythology of the West.

Two companion collections include more than 1,000 images and more than 70 recorded interviews with those whose lives are impacted by the horses. Also included are more than 20 colorized giclee prints made from original photographs.  The collections were generated by Paula Morin, who in partnership with the Nevada Arts Council, created this fieldwork to produce an exhibit and the book, Honest Horses: Wild Horses of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press, 2006).

Morin’s research took her throughout Nevada and surrounding regions to photograph horses and speak to those closely connected to the herds through work, personal history, or geography. She interviewed people on Indian reservations, wildlife refuges, and a high-security military base. She attended wild horse roundups and visited veterinary clinics, genetic research centers, government holding corrals, and wild horse training programs.  Historians, poets, animal behavior specialists, ranchers, and working mustangers were just a few of the people she encountered.

Too wicked to keep too noble to kill
“Too wicked to keep too noble to kill” is a giclee print made from handpainted black-and-white photograph from the Paula Morin collection: Honest horses, wild horses in the Great Basin (AFC 2013/038) Artist: Paula Morin

The issue, in short, is that more than 50 percent of the wild horses in the U.S. live in Nevada’s Great Basin, high desert that spans from Utah’s Wasatch Range to California’s Sierra Nevada. Wild horses are protected by federal law and have no natural predators. This leads to overgrazing and other issues that threaten the horses themselves as well as the region’s fragile ecosystem. The issue of how best to humanely care for the horses and manage their excess numbers is the source of great debate.

 “Some of these people didn’t get along with one another, and just as many didn’t agree,” Morin wrote. “Some had prior negative experiences, either with the press or well-meaning activists, and they had been misquoted or misrepresented or misunderstood.  So they were naturally reluctant to participate.”

Nevertheless, she remarked,  “every single person was knowledgeable about and committed to the need for a balanced approach to maintaining healthy herds of wild horses on the open range –that led them to agree. It was a life-changing experience, speaking with and learning about these horses from them.”

While technically feral, these horses are free-roaming domestic horses that have lived in a wild state for one reason or another for multiple generations. Socially and culturally they are referred to as wild horses, wild ones, mestenos, wild ponies, etc.

These collections are open for research. Administratively, the materials are organized into two collections: The Nevada Arts Council “Honest Horses” exhibition collection (AFC 2014/019), which includes the oral history recordings, and the Paula Morin collection: Honest horses, wild horses in the Great Basin (AFC2013/038), which includes fieldnotes and images. Also, the Honest Horses exhibit continues to tour as part of the Nevada Touring Initiative sponsored by the Nevada Arts Council.


  1. Congratulations on a beautiful and important addition to the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center and thanks for the fine work to Paula Morin.

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