Spirit of the Black Hills
The 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, near Rapid City, South Dakota, is home to small herds of rare Spanish Mustangs. We take you on an inside tour of this windswept sanctuary.
The 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, near Rapid City, South Dakota, is home to small herds of rare Spanish Mustangs. We take you on a tour of this windswept sanctuary.
FFrom the moment I first learned of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, I knew I had to go there. Online photos showing windswept South Dakota landscapes dotted with grazing horses were only part of the attraction. The 11,000-acre sanctuary is home to small herds of rare Spanish Mustangs, being preserved for future generations. As a Spanish Mustang owner and a devotee of the breed, the sanctuary called to me.
So one recent spring, my friend, Cathy Blakesley, and I left Southern California for Rapid City, South Dakota, the closest town to the Black Hills with a commercial airport. I’d made arrangements for us to stay in one of the two guest cabins at the sanctuary.
After driving about an hour from Rapid City, we arrived at the sanctuary entrance at dusk, and followed the road three miles through rolling hills to the Visitor Center and our adjacent cabin.
Beautifully decorated with Western touches, our cabin faced the slow-moving Cheyenne River, which serves as the primary source of water for the sanctuary’s horses. After settling in, we drove into nearby Hot Springs for dinner and came back to the sanctuary for the night.
The next morning, Cathy and I stepped outside our cabin door and looked across to towering canyon walls. The river flowed quietly past, with pine and cottonwood trees lining the banks. As we walked to the Visitor Center, we began to take in the developed part of the sanctuary. The adjacent Wild Horse Café and Ole Time Ice Cream Shoppe had just opened, and the gift shop already had visitors. Beyond the small buildings were a few corrals with horses, along with a chicken coop and a pen with white peacocks. Beyond them, chestnut-colored cows grazed. Just to the south, a large paddock held dozens of horses.
Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary offers tours of the areas where the horses live. We were introduced to our guides, Karla LaRive and Gary McDowell, and several other guests. We all then climbed aboard an old school bus for a two-hour tour.
Karla proceeded to tell us about the sanctuary as we drove into a wooded area. As we came over a rise, we saw our first group of horses. An older gray mare was the first to glance up from grazing to look at our bus as we approached. Named Angel, the mare had been saved from the kill pen several times before ending up at the sanctuary.
“No one wanted her because she was ugly,” says Karla. The mare wasn’t well put together, but she had a kind eye, and her gentle nature was clear to see. Karla explained that not all the horses at the sanctuary are mustangs. Sometimes, they’re horses that just had nowhere to go. Like Angel.
A beautiful buckskin gelding with scars all over his body stood near Angel. Karla explained he’d been abused before finding refuge at the sanctuary. In his previous life, he’d been beaten repeatedly with a shovel.
Although learning the stories behind these horses made me sad, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed that they’d found their way to this beautiful place.
The other horses in the small band — an assortment of bays, blacks, duns, and pintos — grazed peacefully among the pine trees.
Next stop on the tour was a ceremonial site used by Lakota people from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. Karla explained the sacredness of the Sun Dance ceremony, which is performed at the site each year.
The sanctuary maintains a close relationship with the Lakota, and acknowledges the importance of the Black Hills and wild horses to the Lakota community.
We were then primed for the next stop on our tour: ancient petroglyphs etched into sandstone cliffs. We were able to walk right up to the drawings, human and animal figures carved into the rock. The ancestors of the Lakota were responsible for this artwork, yet the exact meaning behind the figures isn’t known.
The remainder of the tour had us driving past several bands of horses in differ-
ent parts of the sanctuary. At the end of our two hours, Gary offered to take Cathy and I on a private tour of the sanctuary, a privilege also available to visitors willing to pay more for a more intimate view of the horses.
Gary took us back to an area we had passed through on the bus, a wide-open hillside, green with spring grass. A band of more than 25 horses occupied this area of the sanctuary. While some hung back and watched us from afar, others came closer to get a better look when we stopped and rolled down our windows.
A small black mare came right up to us and put her head through my open window. Gary introduced me to Sierra, who was rescued by the Mustang and Burro Freedom Foundation in Sterling, Virginia, and brought to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. A lover of people, Sierra demanded to be petted as she stood with her head inside the car window.
We got out of the car to get a better view of the expanse of the hillside and the horses grazing on it. Another mare came to greet me, a liver chestnut with a stunningly long mane and forelock. This was Shoshone, a rescued mustang who arrived at the sanctuary wary of people. She’d been abused by her first owner after the mare and her band were rounded up in Nevada.
After being taken from that situation, Shoshone became the possession of another uncaring owner, who kept her in a tiny paddock with no attention for 13 years. She was eventually rescued by the Ark Watch Foundation in Los Altos, California, and brought to the sanctuary. I could see she’d come a long way since her arrival in 2012 as she rummaged through my pockets looking for treats.
The last area we visited was home to a mare named Autumn. I’d read about her on the sanctuary website and wanted to see her in person. She’d been rescued from a bad situation in California, not far from my where I live, and found her way to the sanctuary.
Gary brought us to a large pond where Autumn’s band was known to hang out. She was easy to spot, being the only black horse in the small group.
As we drove closer, Autumn became more alert. Knowing her story, I could understand why. Autumn had been used in Mexican-style rodeos called charreadas, specifically in an event called horse tripping. She was repeatedly chased around an arena while riders on horseback pursued her in an attempt to rope her feet together and pull her to the ground. Whoever owned her had also cut off the tips of her ears.
By the time a humane officer for the Inland Valley Humane Society in Pomona, California, learned about her through an anonymous tip, the mare had been starved to the point of near death. The True Innocents Equine Rescue in Riverside, California, took her in. This group decided Autumn needed to live a life without much human contact because of what she’d been through. This is where the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary stepped in.
Autumn eyed me carefully as I got out of the car and walked close enough for me to take her picture. Her buddy, a chestnut gelding, stayed near her. Gary told me the two were close friends. I was happy to see this poor mare who’d suffered so much now living such a peaceful life.
The next day, Gary once again offered to take Cathy and me around the sanctuary, this time to see the bands of rare Spanish horses. After riding in the feed truck for a couple of hours, watching Gary drop grain for the horses in the various areas of the sanctuary, we came back, got into his car, and headed out for the Spanish bands.
Our first stop was a rolling hill covered with bright-green buffalo grass, dustygreen sage, and a band of silver grulla Spanish Mustang mares. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. The silver of the horses contrasted so perfectly with the colors of the flora, I felt as though I were standing inside a painting.
I wandered out into the band and made quick friends with a stunning mare that reminded me so much of my wonderful Spanish Mustangs at home. As I rubbed
her neck, I looked out toward the wooden remains of the 1800s Ferguson farmstead just beyond the horses — just one of many wonders to be found at the sanctuary.
We visited a few other bands made up of rare Spanish horses. Sulphurs, Sorraias, Kigers, Choctaw, and Spanish Mustangs were easy to spot among the American Mustangs in their midst. Their small, round, compact bodies; long manes and tails; and for some, striped legs and backs, helped them stand out.
The sanctuary not only provides a safe place for abused and unwanted mustangs, but also a place where these very rare breeds can live wild, the way they used to, hundreds of years ago.
While some of the horses we met were very friendly and eager for human contact, most hung back, enjoying their freedom. One band of American Mustangs was particularly wary of me when I got too close to them, and suddenly bolted, giving me a chance to see wild horses in full flight as they galloped down a ravine and across the hill in front of me.
Toward the end of the day, Gary took us to a high ridge so we could look down on the valley where the Visitor Center was located. Not far from the buildings that house the center and the cabin where we were staying, we noticed what looked like a small Old West town. Gary explained to us that this was a replica of Fort Robinson, built as the set for the television movie Crazy Horse, which was filmed in 1996. He also told us that Hidalgo and portions of Into the Wild were also shot at the sanctuary.
As the sun began to set, Gary drove us to another high ridge, far from any buildings. We got out of his car and stood on the edge of a cliff, watching the Cheyenne River flowing quietly below us. The soft rustling of the wind and the call of a meadowlark provided the soundtrack to this bucolic scene, and I was overwhelmed with the magic of this special place.
The next day, it was time to head back to the airport. After visiting with sanctuary founder Dayton O. Hyde and executive director Susan Watts, we packed up our suitcases and drove out of the sanctuary.
I vowed that I would return, next time for a longer period of time. The healing spirit of this place had touched me, much in the same way it had touched the horses that live here. TTR
AUDREY PAVIA PHOTO Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary offers tours of the areas where the horses live. Here, Autumn (left), who was rescued from an abusive situation in California, enjoys a peaceful afternoon with her close buddy.
“No one wanted her because she was ugly,” says Karla LaRive of Angel (below). Not all the sanctuary horses are mustangs; some just have nowhere else to go. CATHY BLAKESLEY PHOTO
Above: The sanctuary maintains a close relationship with the Lakota, and acknowledges the importance of the Black Hills and wild horses to the Lakota community. Shown are American Mustangs near a Lakota ceremonial site. Below: A band of sanctuary mustangs on the run.
“Our first stop was a rolling hill covered with bright-green buffalo grass, dusty-green sage, and a band of silver grulla Spanish Mustang mares,” says Audrey Pavia. “The silver of the horses contrasted so perfectly with the colors of the flora, I felt as though I were standing inside a painting.”
Silver grulla Spanish Mustang mares graze peacefully near the wooden remains of an 1800s farmstead at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, a home for mustangs, rare breeds, and abused horses.
Audrey Pavia quickly befriended this Spanish Mustang that she said reminded her of her own Spanish Mustangs she rides on the trail in Southern California.