Wild horses have roamed free in the Ozarks for decades

By Bill Cooper
    Despite heated debates, legal maneuvering and illegal killings, the wild horse herds of Shannon County still roam the hills of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, thanks to the Wild Horse League of Missouri.

    The wild horses of Shannon County are steeped in local folklore; some say they are leftovers from the explorations of Hernando de Soto. The truth of the matter, however, is that horses were abandoned when people began leaving the Ozarks in mass during the 1930s.
    In August 1994, the National Park Service rejected the proposal of the Missouri Wild Horse League to take over management of the wild horse herds running free in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The NPS spokesman stated that no other proposals would be accepted in the future if it included a way for the horses to remain free.
    The NPS greatly underestimated the tenacity of the members of the Missouri Wild Horse League.
     MWHL members utilized a bit of horse sense and Ozark ingenuity, along with the aid of supporting lawyer Doug Kennedy, from Poplar Bluff, to begin a campaign to save the horses.
    In October 1994, Congressman Bill Emerson presented a bill to Congress which would make the wild horses a permanent part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
    President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law on October 3, 1996, and the horses became officially a part of the Ozark National Riverways that can never be removed.
    Tragedy struck the wild horse herd in December of 2000 when trail riders discovered three mares shot to death east of Eminence. Three more dead horses were found 400 yards north of the others.
    Senator Kit bond and Representative Jo Ann Emerson immediately started a bounty fund. With the help of MWHL members, they collectively raised $10,000.
    On May 7, 2001, Harold “Pogo” Williams, of Ellington, pleaded guilty to five counts of misdemeanor animal abuse, in connection with the horse shootings. On June 22, 2001, Judge Robert M. Heller sentenced Williams to three years in prison and $40,000 in fines.
    Former retired NPS Jack Peters, of Timber, Missouri says the horses were doing well over a decade ago.
    “I watched these amazing animals since I first came to the ONSR as the first Ranger in 1967,” Peters said before his passing. “The wild horses are truly a part of this region’s history and culture. Many local citizens look upon the herd as a symbol of the hardiness and wonderfully independent spirit of the Ozarks and its people.”
    “The herd is usually made up of three separate “family” groups, with an occasional exchange of individuals among the groups,” Peters stated. “I have watched the dominant color of the herds change several times over the last 40 years. The original stock most likely was remnants left over from families living here during the depression. The first herd I encountered in the Brushy Creek and Big Creek areas was made of dark bays.”
    “In the early ‘70s, a white stallion showed up,” Peters continued. Some folks thought the stallion had escaped from the Williams farm up on Big Creek. From that point on, the herd gradually turned to all white. The foals are born black. With age, they turn a dappled gray. Eventually they turn a snowy white.”
    The horses have adapted well to life along the rivers. “The herds hang around the spring branches a lot in the winter.” Peters continued. “They have adapted to eating watercress. They actually plunge their heads under water to get at the tender watercress just like a moose.”
    T.F. Cox of Eminence is an avid wild horse fan and is on the Board of the Missouri Wild Horse League. The herd is doing well partially due to the efforts of the MWHL. “The wild horses are now federally protected, largely due to our efforts,” he pointed out.
     The herd seldom passes the 50 mark according to Cox. “Colts are often lost during floods. The mature horses can swim the rivers easily. The colts try to follow and often don’t make it.”
    Cox and other members of the MWHL also bush hog designated fields along the rivers to keep them open for the horses to graze. “We keep salt and other minerals out for the horses, too.”
    “The wild horses mean a lot to local folks,” Cox said. “But other people travel from all over the country to see them. They have received a lot of press. Now, they are a tourist attraction.”
    There are now three herds of wild horses that roam the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. One herd can often be seen at Echo Bluff State Park, or at nearby Round Spring on the Current River.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.