Story and photos by Dean Curtis
A mare with matted hair grazed contentedly in a pasture along the banks of the Jacks Fork River in Shannon County, Missouri. Nearby, her foal and another groom each other’s manes. The morning sun turns the pasture and the wild white horses golden.
The wild horses of Shannon County have been roaming free for almost 100 years. There are currently four main herds: the Shawnee Creek, the Broadfoot, the Round Spring and the Rocky Creek herds. Local expert Jim Smith, owner of Cross Country Trail Rides and founding member of the Wild Horse League, a non-profit which monitors the herds, said the first herd formed when depression era farmers, facing a severe drought as well, could no longer sustain themselves on their farms and turned their horses loose before leaving. According to Smith, a small herd of seven fillies formed. Another farmer had an Appaloosa stallion that was so wild they could not break it, which escaped and joined the herd of fillies.
The horses roam the lands near Eminence, MO., and are often seen along the banks of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in Shannon County. In 1964 these rivers became part of the National Parks System when the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was created. The horses flourished. Historical numbers put the herd at between 18 and 25 horses that roamed in up to three bands.
In the early 1990s the National Parks Service superintendent declared the horses feral animals and started the process to remove them from the park lands. Outraged locals fought back, getting an injunction to stop the process but later lost in court. The late Congressman Bill Emerson introduced legislation in the house and Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond in the senate to make the wild horses a permanent part of the parks and it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
By law, in a compromise with the Parks System, the number of wild horses allowed was capped at 50. Their numbers are monitored by the Wild Horse League and any horses removed are adopted out. Pasture lands have been cleared and natural grasses planted for the horses in a joint effort of the U.S. Forestry Service and the National Parks Service. Though often not being able to be seen the wild horses are a major tourism draw for Shannon County and they are much loved by the locals.
Dean Curtis is an award winning freelance photographer living in Springfield, Missouri. He has been photographing the wild horses for the last ten years and is a member of the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame. He is selling museum quality art prints of the horses and can be reached at: email@example.com