He’s an old man now – arthritic and without a family band, but Singlefoot, the oldest stallion living in Roosevelt National Park (TRNP)still roams wild and free where his ancestors did, looking out over grasslands and rolling hills interrupted by dramatic and colorful badlands.
The history of the plains horse dates from prehistoric times; disappearing from the North America about 11,000 years ago and returning in the 1500’s with Spanish explorers. Singlefoot and the other horses in the park are descended from those brought by the Spaniards and other domesticated stock. Once domesticated, they are feral animals, not “wild” horses as they are generally called. Regardless, these beautiful animals seen atop hills and in the canyons of the park evoke emotions of romance, freedom and the beauty of wild open places.
The wild horse has not always been appreciated, and indeed was thought of more as a nuisance than anything else. Cattleman who grazed their animals throughout the west once worked to exterminate the wild horse. Before the park was established in 1947 the land within its boundaries was part of their rangeland. Even today many regard the wild horse as worthless. Some wildlife advocates feel that because they are not truly “wild” like other hoofed animals in the park, horses should not be competing for the park’s limited resources.
Wild horses have been in the Badlands since the mid 1800’s. Teddy Roosevelt wrote about them when he ranched here. Many of the park horses today have a conspicuous likeness to the horse that was common in the 1800’s.
When the park’s boundary fences went up the wild horses were shipped out or run off. Some were inadvertently left behind and prospered. In 1954, 200 branded animals were removed with a large scale round up. Again, a few small bands evaded capture. It was during this era that efforts to preserve the feral horse in the U.S. began. Today in TRNP, the horses are protected as a cultural resource along with the other wildlife in the park; they are a “historic demonstration herd” representing what Teddy Roosevelt would have seen.
The remaining horses are remarkably strong and vibrant. If they are not healthy, they do not survive or reproduce. No owner or vet to comes in and takes care of them. They are used to the varying terrain of the grass and badlands and can make excellent trail horses. While they are free to wander over the 47,000 acres of the park’s South Unit, humans are not complete strangers; people enjoying the park’s unique abundance of wildlife seek out the small bands of horses common along the scenic drive or at park highpoints off in the distance.
The absence of natural predators and the need to balance and protect the park ecosystem requires active management of the horses. TRNP since 2015 has had a partnership with the nonprofit North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry (NDBH) to remove and find homes for excess horses. Volunteers who would later create the NDBH in 2009, started documenting the horses in the 1980’s and began working with the park service in the 1990’s. Tom Tescher, inducted into the N. D. Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1998, was a “resident expert” on the horses. He loved the park’s horses and their heritage. He helped to manage and document them working with other volunteers until his death in 2008. Much of the current NDBH leadership team began their tenure working under Tom.
Previously, there was one large roundup every three to five years using helicopters with the animals sold off through traditional sale barns. Recently a new biologically developed low stress approach has taken over. Instead of noisy helicopters that disturb an entire area and all the animals, the horses are darted with a sedative, rolled onto a sled, brought to the trailer were they are then given a reversal shot and transported to a handling facility. They can no longer be bought by “kill buyers”. Instead of flooding the market every few years the horses are now removed periodically between April and September. In the last two years 54 horses have been successfully placed. Along with a new removal routine there has been another major change, horses are now auctioned by the federal government’s General Services Administration, which transfers government property to private ownership.
The horses that have been adopted by private owners are unanimously treasured and enjoyed; no one has anything bad to say about them. They become not only good trail horses, but also good cutting and roping horses. In early September the NDBH held their fifth annual reunion ride. Seven of the park’s horses were on the ride. A total of sixteen park horses were represented by owners who came to the event. Singlefoot, his progeny and companion bands, will continue to hold their place in the culture and lore of the Dakota Badlands while providing horse ownership opportunities for generations to come.
by Mary Patricia Martell Jones
The Cowboy Chronicle
Publication of The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
- Theodore National Park / U S National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/thro/index.htm
- Preserving the Legacy of North Dakota’s Wild Horses, by Georgianne Nienaber, Huffington Post, 2014
- North Dakota Badlands Horse Registry: https://ndbh.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/NDBadlandsHorse/
- Interview with Mary Lu Weber, President NDBH, September 2017
- Thomas Tescher obituary, Billings Gazette, September 26, 2008
- North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame: https://www.northdakotacowboy.com/hall-of-honorees