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.

Spe­cial Refuge

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.

As­tound­ing Beauty

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.

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