Visitors entering state or national parks are warned to stay away from the wild animals – don’t pet them, don’t feed them and keep a safe distance. Seemingly obvious advice if one might chance encounter a bear or mountain lion but the danger is much less apparent when the park’s wild residents are horses.

Echo Bluff State Park is set in a pristine valley in the Missouri Ozarks. Surrounded by bluffs, forest and clear flowing rivers, it is a year-round paradise for folks who enjoy the outdoors – folks AND horses.

Echo Bluff Wild Horses

Park visitors approach wild horses despite warning signs. Photo Courtesy Carol Comer (twitter).

Wild horses have roamed this corner of southeast Missouri for over 100 years. They are descendants of domesticated horses turned loose by struggling farmers during the depression. The horses are short and stout in stature, a tribute to their Quarter Horse/Appaloosa heritage.

In the early 1990’s the National Park Service made plans to remove all the horses, a plan that contradicted the wishes of locals who wanted the horses to stay. After several years of litigation, the debate came to a head when 3000 Missourian’s, 500 on horseback, “rode” to the local Park Service Office to voice opposition to the horse’s removal. A compromise bill was drawn and in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law making the horses part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway and giving them a permanent home.

The Missouri Wild Horse League was established to support and monitor the wild horses and a herd cap of 50 individuals was established. When herd numbers increase, the horses are rounded up. Younger horses and stallions are adopted to good homes. The League also maintains fields so the horses have adequate forage away from busy highways.

The horses tend to live in 2 or 3 herds but recently a stallion and 2 mares took up residence near the park lodge. Landscaping near the lodge and picnic areas provide the trio plenty of grass and landscape flowers to eat but it also puts them in close proximity with park visitors. The horses have learned that human interactions usually mean food. They have learned to rifle through bags, dig through trash cans and one has learned to press the entry button to the front door of the lodge.

To park visitors the horses appear docile and friendly, after all they are horses, not “wild” animals, right? People approach the horses, pet them, pose for photos and often hand them a treat.

“I would love to snuggle with them,” said one park visitor who petted the stallion while walking her dogs.

Park Rangers are concerned that a person or horse will get hurt. Despite all the warnings the temptation to touch is too great for some.  If visitors are unable to curtail their interactions the trio may be relocated to a remote area or more likely captured and adopted. They may lose their freedom.

It’s the people who need to modify their behavior, said Carolyn Dyer, secretary of the Missouri Wild Horse League.

Let’s hope park visitors can exert more self discipline for the sake of the wild horses. A treat would be a heavy price to pay for their freedom.