by Don Corrigan
Sometimes they’re called “feral.” Sometimes they’re called “wild.” Tom Noonan likes them because they’re “free.” Tom Noonan recently took a trip to Ozark country in search of some equine ecstasy and he found it.
The former Kirkwood Councilman captured the horses on film and video near Echo Bluff State Park. Normally, the small herds of horses that run free are miles to the south deep in the Ozarks around the Jacks Fork River watershed near Eminence.
“I was so surprised that I could drive less than two hours from Kirkwood and find these amazing animals roaming freely – no fences, no tags, no nothin,’” said Noonan. “They seem to have no boundaries.
“People fly thousands of miles to see something like this,” added Noonan. “They go to Chincoteague, Virginia to see the horses from tourist boats. Or, to the Southwest to watch them from helicopters. We get to see them just a short drive to Echo Bluff State Park area.”
Noonan concedes that finding the horses may take some patience and luck. He started his equine search at Sinking Creek, which runs through the state park, and it tracked directly to a small herd.
“I watched them from a distance, but they began to move toward me,” said Noonan. “I knelt down and called them silly names. The foal pranced close to me with the lead stallion within charging distance. The boss mare popped her head up, but kept chewing grass.
“It is possible to make the trip down and not see any horses at all – then what? What I suggest is some play and swimming at a beach on Sinking Creek,” said Noonan. “At night, bats start to come out and jet around. There are howls, songs and calls from the forest. It’s nature at its finest.”
Use Horse Sense
If you do make the trip to see the wild horses, use a little horse sense around them if you are lucky enough to find them. Remember these horses are not tame. They can bite and kick, just as tame horses sometimes do.
There have been reports of wild horses in the Ozarks raiding picnic tables, poking their heads in vehicles and damaging RVs. If you try to feed them some grass or an apple, you can get bit in the process.
When taking photos, stay back a safe distance. Do not try to take selfies. Do no try to put the kids on horseback for a cute photo, as tourists sometimes do with the “fluffy cows” known as bison at Yellowstone National Park.
“I cannot confirm any reports of unfortunate incidents,” said Jessica Gillespie,” park superintendent at Echo Bluff. “There was a smaller herd here prior to my taking over the park, and they were adopted out due to becoming just too friendly with people.”
When the wild horses need to be removed, the Missouri Wild Horse League in Eminence is called into action. The Ozark horse organization has authority manage, move and protect the equine wonders.
“We have not had any issues with the current herd causing damage to camp sites or raiding picnic tables here at Echo Bluff, or at the Current River State Park,” Gillespie added.
Gillespie said state park employees know that the horses are not tame and that they should be treated with respect and caution, whether they’re viewed as feral or wild.
“For those of us with the state parks in Missouri, we treat the wild horse like we do all wild animals, stressed Gillespie. “Our goal is to protect their habitat and educate the public about them.”
Bit Of Horse History
Jim Smith, president of the Missouri Wild Horse League, can provide a bit of horse history. He said the wild horse phenomenon began when they were abandoned by farmers in the Great Depression in the 1920s.
“There was just no market for them. The farmers couldn’t feed them, so they let them loose and they became feral,” said Smith. “There were too many of them and the National Park Service decided to start removing them.
“A lot of people got upset in the 1990s when the horses were captured and were being sent to the ‘kill markets’ to be made into dog food,” explained Smith. “Lots of people, some on horseback, protested at the National Park Service office in Van Buren.”
After lawsuits and much legal wrangling, the Missouri Wild Horse League teamed up with several Missouri Congressmen to address the situation. President Bill Clinton was moved to sign an Act of Congress in 1996 to protect the horses.
The wild horses became a part of the living landscape of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It also installed the League as the authority to protect and limit the herd size to 50 horses.
Congress and the League devoted some native grass pastures in areas around Jacks Fork Creek and the Current River for the horses. This gives the horses a place for food and keeps the horses from wandering into roadways.
Young stallions are adopted out for a donation fee. Veterinarians volunteer as do local farmers in the effort to keep the horses wild and safe. With so many happy horse owners and riders in Missouri, there are many advocates for the Wild Horse League.
Noonan rides a motorcycle, rather than a horse, but he supports the work of the Wild Horse League. He served on the Kirkwood City Council from 1998-2006.
He practiced law for years, but later obtained a Missouri Peer Specialist license to serve as a house manager for one of the state residential facilities for Recovery House. It specializes in addiction treatment with 140 beds in St. Louis.
When he can find the time, his motorcycle takes him all over Missouri to enjoy the various parks. Of course, he favors the state parks with the wild horses close by.
“Most of these horses are a beautiful white,” said Noonan. “Their forelocks hide their eyes. Manes are long, splotched and tangled. Seeing them in the wild like this conjures a magical universe
“It is believed that they have the genetic background of the white Spanish horses brought to America hundreds of years ago,” added Noonan. “If true, that just adds to the growing mythology of the wild horses of the Ozarks.”