Woman aims to rescue wild horses rounded up by Spokane Tribe
Last of four parts
Allison Burke has four mustangs at her place on the reservation of the Spokane Tribe of Indians in Northeastern Washington. All four are from Native American reservations in the Northwest.
She introduces me to Jack. He’s white with brown spots -- an appaloosa. When she got him, he’d been abused and didn’t trust people.
“He's a fighter,” she says. “I have scars on me, from him biting, and just me being in too close proximity.”
Burke’s been working with Jack for about a year to overcome his trauma. And now he loves attention. He loves hugs and scratches. And he's really come a long way.
More than 80,000 wild horses live on federal land in the West, with thousands more on reservations. Many Indigenous nations keep and manage herds on their lands, as they have for generations.
The Spokane and other tribes used horses to cover more ground for trade – and to hunt and forage. They would ride them into the rivers and catch fish from their backs. Horses also helped Indigenous nations in the West fight back against the colonizers who began arriving in waves in the mid-1800s.
“Our ancestors bred horses for stamina, speed, as well as the ability to be able to carry a mother and their child,” Burke says. “So they bred the war horses, and then kind of the babysitter horses.”
Today, though, too many horses could out-compete the deer and elk that tribal members hunt. And damage the plants and medicines they harvest from their lands.
As sovereign nations, tribes are free to decide how many horses they want -- and how to hit that target.
The Spokane try to keep their herd size to between 200 and 250 horses. When that number bumps up to 400 or so, tribal members are encouraged to do round ups – usually on horseback.
They can either keep the wild horses or sell them – and that could be to slaughter. Burke says that over the years, many have been shipped to Canada, where it’s still legal to slaughter horses.
That makes her feel “angry. Very angry. Because without the horse, we wouldn't have a tribe. So what are you doing to our horses?”
Burke sees this as an indication of a broken relationship -- and a disrespect to the hundreds of years of shared history between her people and their horses. Reconnecting with horses has also helped her reconnect with her own cultural heritage.
Burke didn’t grow up on the Spokane reservation. Her father is white and she went to public school with mostly white students in Spokane. She learned to ride in the English style -- wearing britches and a helmet.
Not long ago, she moved back to the reservation and has made it her mission to work with the horses here, like Jack. “So thanks to Jack, I have learned a lot more about my ancestors and the way that they use the horse and how they value the horse.”
She’s started a nonprofit called Spokane Equines in Transition, to help train and rehome horses that are rounded up on the reservation.
Burke has found a woman to adopt Jack. It will be hard to see him go, but she hopes that many horses follow in Jack’s hoofprints into loving homes.
“It is definitely a partnership…” she says. “The more I see him not just as a horse, but as my friend as my relative. And as my brother and it's – I'm gonna start crying. But I know that if he stays here, that's one less horse I can help right because he's taking up that space.”
In his own way, Boo is teaching me about that partnership, too.
I have learned so much from this horse. He has shown me how to be fully present, attentive and patient.
Right now, he’s snoozing quietly with his head in my lap in the middle of his pasture. It’s hard to believe we’ve been together for one year, me and Boo, little more than a year.
Before that he was wild, running around in the open sagebrush, not really trusting humans or wanting much to do with us. And now he hardly looks up when he’s napping and I come and sit with him and he just puts his giant head right on my lap.
It’s the most beautiful gift to be trusted like that. I don’t take it lightly Boo Boo.
I love you baby horse. Good boy.
This series was adapted from Ahearn’s podcast Mustang, which has much more about these iconic wild animals.
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