Mustang magic lives on out west
A volunteer effort is ensuring that an emblem of America’s past receives pride of place and stays alive through a herd of wild horses, writes Julie Miller
A CHESTNUT filly sniffs my outstretched hand, curious but cautious, stepping back warily as I lean in to scratch her forehead. Meanwhile, Arizona, an elderly bay gelding, is lapping up the attention of several gushing tourists, boldly accepting pats and showing his young herdmates that human attention isn’t such a bad thing.
Arizona may be tame, but he is still technically a mustang, an American wild horse. He is one of 750 horses roaming the 5260ha Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary near Hot Springs, South Dakota, a foundation dedicated to the rescue and ongoing freedom of animals officially declared by Congress in 1971 as “living symbols of the historic and pioneering spirit of the West”.
Horses were first brought to the New World by Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century, flourishing on the grasslands where their forebears – the dog-sized Eohippus – had roamed 50 million years prior. Horses that were lost, stolen or deliberately released into the wild became known as mustangs (from the Spanish term mestengo, meaning stray animal); by 1900, there were an estimated two million free-roaming horses, revered by Native Americans and as much an icon of the Wild West as buffalo and cowboys.
Today, there are about 33,000 mustangs living on governmentmanaged reserves in 10 Western states – land which, according to the Bureau of Land Management, can sustain only 26,000. To control numbers, the BLM – which, unlike Australian national parks, has a no-kill policy for feral horses – rounds up excess numbers, “adopting” them into private homes or training programs for prisoners.
On the surface, it’s a humane way of managing herd numbers. But, as in all systems, there are failures: horses like Arizona, bought through a BLM sale but kept as a “trophy” for 15 years, locked up, neglected and abused; or El Cid, who was destined for a slaughterhouse in Canada before being rescued via a Craigslist advertisement.
It was in 1987 that Oregon rancher and conservationist Dayton O. Hyde first offered to rescue 300 horses left over from the BLM adoption process, lobbying to set up a sanctuary for wild horses in peril.
“I was looking for prairie lands in Oklahoma when Governor George Mickelson of South Dakota phoned to invite me to look over a large tract in the Black Hills,” Hyde says. “He flew me over a vast land of rocky canyons, a shining river and short grass prairie, a range perfectly suited for wild horses.”
As a not-for-profit, volunteer organisation, the sanctuary relies on private donations, merchandising and tour proceeds to fund its operations. It’s not exactly a hard sell – there’s something about wild horses that tap into the emotions and fantasies of animal lovers.
I have joined six other horsecrazy visitors on a two-hour tour of the sanctuary, conducted in a rickety old school bus driven by a volunteer guide. We begin by ascending a rocky ridge for an overview of this sparsely vegetated land, cut by the meandering Cheyenne River. Below on the tussocky flatlands are several rustic buildings, built in 1995 when the property was used as a location for the telemovie Crazy Horse.
The sanctuary is divided into several large sections, each housing different “types” of mustangs. Some, such as Iberian and Sorraia mustangs, have bloodlines dating back to original Conquistador stock; by isolating them, their DNA will remain pure, preserving these rare breeds for future generations. Others are herded according to colour; flashy black and white “paint” horses; unusual “grulla” horses, bluegrey with black stripes.
Elder statesmen Arizona and El Cid graze with a bunch of youngsters known as the “home herd”, horses that have been bred on the property. By putting the tame horses in with the babies, the youngsters are socialised and learn to accept the presence of humans, while the old, world-weary fellows learn to be horses again.
It is here that we get a handson experience with the mustangs, alighting from the bus to pat, admire, photograph and to hear individual stories. These horses are accustomed to the bus and its human occupants and they quickly mill around, eager for attention and the possibility of a snack.
This contact is only allowed with a select few mustangs: the aim is for them to remain as wild as possible, unbroken and with minimal handling.
There’s also a surprise for history buffs. On a sandstone overhang near the Cheyenne River are ancient petroglyphs dating back 10,000 years, scratchings of human figures, animals and images of daily life. One more recent carving clearly depicts a horse, an animal that the Lakota people consider sacred. Perhaps it’s fitting that wild horses once again roam this land, back in their spiritual heartland. The writer was a guest of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and South Dakota Tourism.