boss mare


Scouting ahead- she looks around, listens, and smells the air before the rest come out of the woods

She is the matriarch and co-leader of the bunch. She typically goes out ahead of the rest as a scout when they move to new locations. She also plays a disciplinary role with the younger ones. If anyone or anything moves in too close and causes fear among the horses, she will charge until the intruder retreats.

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Boss mare meting out discipline



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lead stallion

He is the dominant male in the wild horse band. He fathers all the foals, and not just by breeding with the mares, but by acting as a protector. As they graze and move from place to place, he most often follows behind as rear guard. He will signal them to run, or round them up in a tight bunch, when there appears to be a threat. He will also charge at intruders, and run them off with a fearsome display of equine prowess.


Acting as rear guard:
the band has run into the woods in alarm


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fillies & colts


Fillies are females from a year to three or four years old. They play a “big sister” role with the foals, running and playing with them, and modeling more mature behavior. When they reach reproductive age, their place in the band becomes tenuous. They are often harassed by the older mares, sometimes to the point of being expelled from the group. That might be less about jealous emotions, as we might think in human terms, and more of a genetic instinct which helps to prevent the lead stallion from breeding with his own offspring. Young mares forced to leave one band can be welcomed into another.


Big sister filly plays chase with a foal


Males past the yearling stage face an uncertain future. When they reach three or four years old, they are simply not allowed to stay in the band. As the colts approach maturity they are shunned by the mares with increasing violence. If they try to stay in the bunch, they will eventually have a fight with the lead stallion. With wild horses on broad range land out west, young stallions form bachelor bands if they are not able to defeat a stallion for the male leadership role in a group. Horses do not do well alone, whether domesticated or in the wild. They are communal animals by nature. In the case of Missouri’s wild horses on limited free range, humane herd management plays an important part.


A colt recovers from a night of fighting



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Foals are usually born in the spring. Like young ones of any species, they add a lot of play action and affection to the life of the group. They also provide an intense focus for the bands’ defensive instincts. It is always a good idea to keep a careful distance from wild horses. It is never a good idea to approach them too closely when there are foals in the bunch.


Foal with its dam fording the Jack’s Fork River



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Horses in the wild instinctively form into bands. They are extended family groups in which each plays a specific role. The roles are determined by age, gender, strength, and intelligence.  They are tight-knit groups organized for mutual protection and survival. They have a strict hierarchy with a lead mare and stallion, a few or several other mares, and their young offspring.

The Ozarks wild horses have traditionally divided themselves into four or five bands which range on the Salem Plateau along the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers in Shannon County, Missouri. Each band is traditionally named after the local range area they claim for themselves: Round Spring, Broadfoot, Shawnee Creek, etc. They typically number between seven and a dozen animals in each group.


Shawnee Creek bunch cooling in the shade

In the case of Missouri’s wild horses, there is also a human dynamic that affects the make-up of the bands because of legal restrictions on herd size. 1996 legislation passed by the U.S. Congress protects these free-roaming horses on National Park Service land in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. But it also limits the herd size to only 50 horses. Local area residents volunteer to manage the herd under the banner of the Missouri Wild Horse League. They use humane methods, capturing only a few horses at a time, and readying them for adoption with the help of a veterinarian and a horse whisperer.



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Thanks to Sonja Ecton, Beth Harrington, Kathy Corley, Debbie Holton Price, Dave Hartnett, and anonymous donor

as well as Alan Morgan, Ralph Westermann, Ken Strong, Milton McKinney, Charlotte Abberton, Rita Konertz-Lee, Robert Levy, Brad Trewhitt, Brendan Abberton, and Pamela Devine for contributing toward production costs for this film.

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Foraging in the woods during the drought and heat wave of 2012

I camped in the range of the Shawnee Creek band of wild horses for three weeks in October of 2011. The weather was grand, of course, as it usually is in Missouri that time of year. The horses kept to a mostly nocturnal schedule like deer or elk. You could see them grazing in the open early mornings and evenings, then at night under the moonlight. During the day they hid and bedded down in the woods and cane brakes along the Little Shawnee Creek and Jack’s Fork River.

In the hot, dry summer of 2012 with its record number of days over 100 degrees, the horses acted differently. They grazed at night as usual, but they also gave up their daytime rest and seclusion. The leaves on oak trees were turning brown and falling like it was November. Rivers were low, and water holes were drying up. The grass turned brown. Some of the elk in the area died of stress from the heat and drought. The horses looked thin and tired. They were out foraging in the woods and grazing along the river bank in the middle of the day when they would normally be bedded down in the cool sand, in the shade, in safety. They were spending more time in the risky open.

Open ground in daylight is where they are most likely to show caution when humans get close- fight or flight. They will run you off, or run away. That is natural instinct in the wild. There might also be some collective memory at work on the part of the wild horses of the Ozarks, recalling acts of animosity and violence against them and their survival.

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