Lesson Plan

The Environment and Natural Resources: Wild Horses


Largely in response to the letters and lobbying of young people, Congress passed a law in 1971 that prevented wild horses from being captured and slaughtered. This 10-minute video shows students how that 1971 law was a solution that created a new set of problems, and how environmental activists and ranchers continue to fight over the future of the American West. This video is useful for any lesson showing students why activists and lawmakers felt compelled to enhance environmental regulations in the 1960s and 70s, and how some of those regulations have created unintended consequences that remain unresolved.


  • How activists convinced the U.S. government to protect wild horses.
  • How the government’s efforts to protect wild horses have created a series of unintended consequences.
  • How efforts to protect or regulate the environment in the American West can lead to conflict between ranchers and activists.
  • U.S. History
  • Environment
  • Science
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • 1970s America
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • Richard Nixon
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

Nearly 100,000 wild horses are roaming public lands across the West, and they provide a continuing lesson that sometimes even the best intentions can go badly awry.

Back in the 1960s, the wild horse population was actually vanishing, thanks to continual roundups that often sent mustangs to the slaughterhouse for pet food or fertilizer. But that began to change when the horrors of the trade were dramatized in the critically-acclaimed 1961 movie “The Misfits,” starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and sparked an outrage from horse lovers and environmental activists.

By 1970, school children, prompted by activists, were flooding Congress, so the story goes, with letters calling for the wild horses to be protected.

Congress responded in 1971, passing a bill that made it a federal crime to kill a wild horse, and brought the commercial capture and slaughter to a halt.

But absent any predators, the wild horses began reproducing at an astonishing rate and soon dominated parts of the range, sparking a range war.

Ranchers who relied on that same range to feed their sheep and cattle, wanted the horses rounded up. Activists, appalled at the prospect of horses being rounded up and killed again, wanted the wild horses to remain free.

The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for tending public ranges, compromised. It began culling the herds – up to some 7300 in 2019 – but housed them in corrals and holding pastures, and fed them on the government dole.

That created another problem, that pleased no one. The government is currently housing and feeding some 49,000 horses, at the cost of up to $50 million a year. That figure is threatening to bankrupt the entire program.

Meanwhile, the wild horses on the public lands continue to multiply.

Essential Questions

  • What caused the government to pass a law protecting wild horses in 1971?
  • What role did young people play in the campaign to pass the law?
  • What were the unintended consequences of the law protecting wild horses?
  • How do ranchers and activists see the issue of wild horses differently?

Lesson Procedure

  • The government’s decision to protect wild horses in 1971 created a series of unintended consequences. Are there other examples of laws that were passed with good intentions, but ended up creating a new series of problems?
  • How has the government tried to solve the new problems created by its original solution to the problem of wild horses? Why is this such a hard problem to solve?
  • Is there a way to balance the interests of ranchers and activists, or does the government need to pick a side?
  • Knowing what we know now, would you have urged your member of Congress to pass the original protection law back in 1971?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Horses: Wild, But Not Free "Retro Report 
“Wild Horses Troubled Rescue”Retro Report 

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Skill 5.A: Identify patterns or connections between historical developments.

Theme 3: Geography and the (GEO).

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com