Evoking images of a powerful rush of flying manes and stomping hooves, wild and estray horses have embodied the independent spirit of the Wild West.
However, some groups worry it may all become an illusion.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates 32,290 wild horses currently roam on public lands across the western United States. More than half of them - 17,679 - are in Nevada.
About 6,000 horses are captured every year and roughly the same number are adopted. Yet about 14,000 formerly wild horses are now kept in federal preserves.
While captivated populations are replaced by an 18-25 percent herd-reproduction rate, wild-horse advocates fear herds will be whittled to nothing.
"I am disturbed by the number of horses being left on the range," said Olivia Fiamengo, director of the Comstock Wild Horse Mining Museum and former president of the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association. "It's very important that the federal government be careful that it does not reduce these herds to a non-viable number."
Fiamengo, a long-time wild horse advocate with two adopted wild horses of her own, said horses are competing with profitable beef cattle for grazing lands, and cattle are bound to win if wild horse protection groups don't dig in their heels and get more involved with the government's herd management efforts.
But Ron Hall, a wild horse and burro specialist for the BLM, said although cattle do compete directly with wild horses for grazing lands, the BLM is not worried about their survival.
"Horses can move out farther and they're more adaptable," he said. "We sample all herds as we gather to determine if there is any genetic problems. In most places, herd size is high enough, especially in Nevada."
Since the establishment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act in 1971, the BLM has been charged with managing wild horse populations on public lands, subject to a long list of care and adoption standards.
Although Nevada Department of Agriculture livestock inspector Mike Holmes said every once in a while a horse will die in a gather while running from a BLM helicopter, it is rare.
Of the horses they gather, the BLM is permitted to euthanize the sick, lame and injured.
"We lose about 1 percent of every gather," said Maxine Shane, BLM public affairs specialist. "We do not put down old horses, while most people would rather adopt younger animals."
Those not adopted, about 14,000 currently, go to seven open-range preserves set aside for them in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The cost of gathering horses, inspecting facilities, administering veterinary care and holding unwanted horses costs the federal government $16 million per year.
Wild Horse Preservation League President Bonnie Matton said the relationship between the federal government and wild horse advocate groups has improved in recent years, as activists work with the BLM and become more involved in the roundup and adoption process.
"We are making headway and things are getting better," she said. "(The BLM) has been inviting us to more roundups and it's become more of a good relationship - an open book."
But as their dealings with the BLM improve, their indignation has shifted to the state.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture, responsible for removing estray horses from private land, is not subject to the same set of rules as the BLM.
The BLM is required to regularly inspect the sanctuary and adoption ranches where horses are placed after gathers, but the NDA is not under the same obligations.
"We don't have to inspect them," said NDA livestock inspector Mike Holmes. "We don't have the money or the means to do it."
Holmes admits it's not a perfect system, exemplified by the case of Slick Gardner, a rancher in Buellton, Calif., charged twice with animal cruelty in the past two years. Many of his horses were NDA horses.
Holmes said the NDA has had nothing to do with Gardner since authorities removed Gardner's horses last year.
Matton said the NDA should be penalized.
"It was their responsibility in the first place to make sure the sites they sent these horses to were both financially and physically able to take care of them," she said.
She worried the same fate would befall 117 estray horses the NDA captured in a helicopter roundup last month.
Forty-four horses of those horses were trucked to another sanctuary owner, Ray Fields in Franklin, Texas.
In July 2002, the Houston chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigated Field after his neighbor complained his horses looked malnourished. They found that dozens of his horses were sick with distemper, or strangles.
Holmes said the incident was no big deal.
"There was a big outbreak of it in this part of the country," Holmes said. "The horses become weak and they look in poor shape."
Holmes reports all of the NDA horses Fields received from the last Virginia Range gather have been adopted.
He said Fields is responsible for determining the suitability of adopters.
"We leave that part up to him," Holmes said.
Matton said just like the BLM wild horses, the welfare of estray horses should not be left up to ranchers, but overseen by the government.
"It's a moral issue," Matton said. "People need to start caring about what happens to these horses. There are people out there who just don't care. They see the horses as a nuisance or a chance to make a quick buck. That's it."
Contact reporter Robyn Moormeister at rmoormeister @nevadaappeal.com or 881-1217.