Stillman, Deanne. Mustang: the Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008. 348 pp.
Reviewed by Michelle Simon.
Deanne Stillman’s non-fiction novel Mustang: the Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West is complex and evocative, making it a difficult novel to put down. The book covers the history of horses in the Americas, including their involvement in the fall of the Aztec Empire, in the European colonization of North America, in the Revolutionary and the Civil War in the United States, and in the westward expansion. Stillman’s main focus is, however, on the current state of affairs for wild horses in the West. Through an engaging style, Stillman addresses such difficult topics as the mistreatment of horses in the American West today.
Stillman begins her saga of the wild horse with its earliest history in the New World, describing the horses by names according to records. Circling around the early Spanish conquistadors, her first tales tell of horses taken across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to land in the non-European inhabited North-American continent. Stillman also researched various breeds of horses later brought to the Americas, their origination and accomplishments, without seeming to leave any out. Attributing much of the success Euro-Americans had in settling the American West to these horses, Stillman then makes her readers aware of the fact that the position of horses in today’s West is vastly diminished. Therefore, the author seeks to persuade her readers to follow her pattern as she creates a case in the horse’s behalf by telling their story. At Mustang’s conclusion, Stillman successfully provokes her audience’s empathy through a dramatic listing of the admirable qualities horses possess and of the mistreatment they have received in more recent times.
Opening the book by citing numerous historical events, Stillman endears the horse to readers as she emphasizes their power and elegance—characteristics that contributed to successes whose effects are felt to date. She argues that without the horse to aid its European soldier, the Aztec Empire would never have fallen and history would have been vastly altered. The author notes that each horse which was charted over with Cortes and his band of soldiers had a name and description. Treated with absolute care, they were precious cargo and the tool in battle necessary for conquest. At the same time, though, for the vast amount of men who have died in wars, almost as many horses died as well, in wars not their own but in which they were involved. Stillman thus affects the readers’ emotions by stressing that the bravery and influence of horses on the newly colonized continent was, unfortunately, also often the reason for their victimization.
Discussing horses in the American West in the twentieth century, Stillman indicates that increasing technology, along with reduced grazing areas, have decimated the number of both domestic and wild horses. Wild horses today are at the mercy of the government and a society which has no use for them any more–other than possibly pleasure if sold off to private owners. Trains, planes, mechanical plows, and automobiles are the order of the day and have run the horse out of its natural and unnatural home. Even with the Bureau of Land Management intervening, there are very limited spaces for wild horses, and many fall through the cracks becoming victims of a faulty system. Stillman assertively describes many scandalous incidents of mismanagement where healthy wild horses bought for a dollar from the BLM have been bargained away to slaughter houses.
Stillman expands upon the issue of abuse by appealing to the reader’s sentiments as she points out that with space and economic issues very prevalent to date, the wild horses are not allowed to thrive and, in fact, are quartered in population. A food desired in a few European countries, wild horses have even been rounded up with the justification that they were in danger of dying from thirst. Stillman recounts, “Drought is a frequent excuse for roundups. Sometimes the horses are actually thirsty but many other times, they are not… [They] are the only wild animals to be consistently captured because of perceived thirst” (276). Stillman asserts that after these horses are rounded up, many are sent off to slaughter houses. Stillman discusses abuse further, and her evidence confirms that often healthy horses and young foals, too, are rounded up for the slaughter houses. As safety in the wild diminishes, free roaming horses must race against time and fight against the declines in population numbers. The author’s examples of this abuse are paired with personal accounts of those seeking to improve the safety of wild horses. Stillman urges the reader to join her in reforming and lobbying for land preservation or simply in encouraging others to give horses their due respect.
At the end of the book, the audience of Mustang is left with compassion for these horses who are the descendants of those who helped develop the United States but today are left to languish in a precarious environment. Stillman’s disgust for the mistreatment of wild horses fills the pages of Mustang and leaves a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth. The tone of her novel creates an urgency that makes readers understand that what is happening to wild horses is significant. Written beautifully without any distracting content, Stillman successfully relays her opinions and topics to her audience. Mustang’s narrative style and content make the book a worthwhile read.