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Wild Horses, Reverence, and the Psychology of Awe

A new book on wild horses focuses on wildness, wonder, and well-being.

Key points

  • Author Chad Hanson offers valuable insights about what it is like to be a wild horse and the importance of wildness for human well-being.
  • His discussion of the psychology of awe and the important role horses play in grounding and rewilding us is educational and inspirational.
  • Hanson notes that horse round-ups are often abusive, and we need more humane management practices that leave more wild horses in the wild.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels
Wild horses running through the mist.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Horses are magnificent, sentient, emotional, and highly social, family-oriented beings. They, like countless other species, struggle to coexist in an increasingly human-controlled world in which they are mercilessly killed and their homes destroyed for primarily anthropocentric reasons. In his beautifully written new book In a Land of Awe: Finding Reverence in the Search for Wild Horses, Chad Hanson tells us about horses and describes where and how they would choose to live in the best of all possible worlds and what they need to express their unique personalities and wildness.

I'm pleased Chad could take the time to answer a few questions about his eclectic book that shows how important awe, reverence, and wildness are for human psychology, conservation psychology, and well-being.

Why did you write In a Land of Awe?

When I discovered there were mustangs in Wyoming, I felt enthralled, and that feeling gave me a reason to go to work. I began to examine the state that we find ourselves in when we encounter scenes of great beauty. My luck—the new science of awe provided the evidence I needed to explain the cultural and psychological benefits of events that make us feel a sense of reverence. I wrote In a Land of Awe as a way to blend the best of what we’re learning about the experience of awe with a chronicle of my travels in wild horse country.

Source: Chad Hanson, used with permission.
'In a Land of Awe' book cover.
Source: Chad Hanson, used with permission.

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

My scholarship and writing rarely stay in one lane, but my background includes studies in anthropology and sociology. Anthropology gave me the tools that go along with field research. I spend time on the range with the aim of understanding wild horse societies. From the sociology of religion, I borrowed the idea that the practice of “normal science” is best when tempered by attention to ethics and aesthetics. The study of our relationship with horses gives me a reason to think about the role of beauty in our lives and to make use of insights from long-standing wisdom traditions. I have found that the study of the American mustang lends itself to contemplation, in addition to the typical calculations that we make as part of the scientific enterprise.

Who is your intended audience?

At least initially, I wrote the book with my students in mind. We face a mental health crisis on American campuses. Generation Z struggles more than previous generations. They have been broadly struck by the condition Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” They are also the first to experience a widespread pulling away from the institution of religion.

Today we have good data to suggest that the twin forces of spiritual yearning and a disconnection from nature can put young adults at risk and rob them of potential. I wrote In a Land of Awe, in part, because I saw the book as a way to send readers outdoors, to help recover a sense of wonder—to make people feel uplifted and connected—as opposed to isolated and adrift.

What are some of the topics you weave into the book, and what are some of your major messages?

Throughout the book, I try to emphasize the health benefits and spiritual potential of travel. The pilgrimage is a time-tested tradition. A meaningful adventure unleashes adoration toward the object of your quest. For most of our history, when we struck out to find mustangs, we did so with ropes as a means to capture and “break” them. When you set out to find horses with a camera and notepad, the focus is different. The goal is not to dominate or overpower a great animal. Instead, the discovery of a band of wild mustangs on the plains inspires devotion.

How does your book differ from others concerned with some of the same general topics?

I am a scientist by training, but I tend to lean on my early education in the liberal arts. With this book, I tried to maintain a healthy disrespect for the boundaries of disciplines. During the course of the writing, I consulted the literature in history, ecology, and philosophy. As opposed to works focused solely on horses or on human psychology, I wrote In a Land of Awe to illustrate how charismatic megafauna hold the potential to act as shafts of light, illuminating many aspects of the relationship between people and nature.

Source: Chad Hanson, used with permission
Source: Chad Hanson, used with permission

Are you hopeful that our treatment of wild horses will improve as people learn more about them?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regularly rounds up and removes wild horses from public land. Then they warehouse them in feedlots that they call “off-range corrals.” The Bureau favors roundups and feedlots because the agency hires personnel with backgrounds in agribusiness. Government agents tend to approach wild mustangs as if they were livestock. As a rule, we use the term “stock” as a way to downgrade or lower the status of animals. When we shrink our thoughts on other species down to where we see them as commodities, that makes it tough to acknowledge the richness and sophistication of their lives.

Part of my goal in writing this book was to send the message that we are only just beginning to understand the intelligence, communication, family structure, and emotional capacity of wild horses. As we learn more, my hope is that we will commit to more humane management practices—and policies that leave more wild horses in the wild.


In conversation with Dr. Chad Hanson, a social scientist, poet, and photographer who serves as a member of the faculty at Casper College and directs the work of the Wyoming Mustang Institute.

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