“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away/Wild wild horses, we’ll ride them someday…”
So sang the Rolling Stones back in 1971. It would seem that everyone, from British rock bands to American schoolgirls, loves wild horses. When I was in grade school I was one of those kids who loved horses from afar, reading about them and drawing pictures of them without ever learning to ride. I devoured the Saddle Club books and the works of Marguerite Henry. We love wild horses because we see them as symbols of freedom, of, well, wildness. But of course they aren’t technically wild at all – they’re feral, descended from domesticated ancestors, and the issue of feral horse management is much more controversial than my starry-eyed fifth-grade self understood.
They may not be as famous as the ponies of Assateague Island or the mustangs of the Great Plains, but Cumberland Island, Georgia is also home to a herd of feral horses, the descendents of escapees from Spanish explorers onward. Pretty they certainly are, grazing among the ruined grandeur of the old mansions or lounging on the beach. I can’t deny that I enjoyed seeing them on a day trip to Cumberland last weekend.
And yet. Horses are not native to the island, anymore than the feral hogs (which I doubt anyone feels particularly sentimental about!), or the deer who were introduced there for the pleasure of hunters. Cumberland is a National Seashore, and a large part of its area is a federally-designated wilderness; its dune ecosystem is fragile and would blow away without the plants that keep it in place, plants that horses eat. Does an invasive population of large grazing animals really belong there, just because we humans think they add to the place’s picturesque atmosphere?
No effort has been made to reduce the size of the herd since the 1970s. For now, the horses are there to stay.