Mus­tang magic lives on out west

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - WESTERN SPIRIT -

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.

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