Dreams of wild horses come true
My bucket list just got a little shorter: I’ve seen wild horses on the open range!
“Wow!!!” doesn’t even cover it.
Our trek began at sunrise in the starkly breathtaking Carson Valley, where my favorite husband and I, along with my high school pal and fellow horsey girl, Karen, met up with Mary Cioffi of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, named after the Pine Nut bands of wild horses that roam in that area.
We climbed into Mary’s four-wheel drive truck and set off along a rough and tumble dirt road into the sagebrush-covered hills. I expected her truck to get stuck in the steep v-shaped gullies, with the back and front ends on the banks and all four wheels spinning in the air, or maybe for an axle to bust in half over a gut-punching rut, but “Fancy” (as she calls her ride) tackled the terrain unscathed.
Before long, we rounded a turn, went up a hill and… there they were. Spread out across the hillside below, with the snow-dusted Eastern Sierra mountain range as a massive blue backdrop, was a large band of wild horses. I stared in slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder as the horses of my childhood dreams and drawings milled around, calmly and peacefully… so close that we could hear their hooves crunching the dry brush as they walked. I expected having to use binoculars to see them, but they were right in front of us, and none too concerned about our presence — as long as we kept our distance.
Beyond the simple miracle of seeing wild horses (Mary doesn’t call them “mustangs” because other breeds have infiltrated the herds over the years, and most are not pure mustangs) Mary’s storytelling about the horses made the experience exponentially more wondrous. Mary didn’t just have a name for her truck — she knew the name of every single horse in every band, as well as their lineages, affiliations, quirks and characteristics, and the life stories of each individual. Her stories transforming these horses into much more than pretty wild things to gaze upon. Each had a distinct personality and history.
Mary also explained the horses’ behavior as they wandered about or got into little spats. These horses have a complex and orderly culture, with a stallion ruling each band of mares, foals and youngsters, commanding obedience from his band and fending off challengers. If you do the math, the male to female ratio is heavily skewed, so all those excess colts end up in a “bachelor band,” galloping and cavorting about like any group of rowdy adolescents looking for mischief.
An amazingly sophisticated interaction unfolded before our eyes, and without Mary narrating, it would have been completely lost to adoring novice eyes, which just see a bunch of pretty horses. Blondie, a muscled, robust chestnut stallion with a flaxen mane and tail and apparently the Alpha Stud as well, saw the bachelor band roaming nearby, and slowly and methodically directed a younger version of himself toward the group.
Mary explained that Blondie was introducing his son, Cree, to the bachelor band as a first step in moving him along to run with the boys. There was much sniffing and squealing and arching of necks, but all was going fairly well until Mama showed up. Cree’s mother laid back her ears and snaked out her neck, cut her boy out of the group and directed him right back to the band.
“She’s saying, ‘not yet’,” explained Mary.
As with humans, when Mama says no, it’s “no.” Even Blondie seemed to agree.
We saw four bands on our excursion, and then Mary said it was watering time. We arrived at the horses’ preferred watering hole and sure enough, each band we’d seen ambled up and waiting their turn to drink. The little foals took that opportunity to plop down under their mother’s shadows and cool off, or suckle a bit or just stand and flap at flies with their fluffy, stumpy tails.
Omigosh, those foals. Is there anything more heart-melting than a wide-eyed young foal toddling along on long, wobbly stilts? No. The answer is “no.”
Sadly, there were only a handful of foals left in the bands because they’re easy prey for mountain lions and coyotes. In the span of less than two weeks since we saw the horses, another foal was lost to predators. Her name was Spirit, and I have photos of her cuddling up to Blondie and following her dam, and word of her death was a punch to the chest. I knew her. That’s how Mary’s stories made me feel. And now, she’s gone.
You’d think with relatively few foals surviving more than a few weeks or months that the wild horse populations would be diminishing into extinction, but no, it’s quite the opposite. There are so many wild horses in the U.S. that they’re clashing with cattle and sheep ranchers and homeowners alike. As is the case with all wild animal populations, when people move into their territory and the wild animals do what wild animals do, the animals are declared “a problem” and humans feel entitled to solve that problem.
In the case of wild horses, the “solution” is nightmarish. But we’ll discuss that more next time. For now, let’s just bask in the joy of fulfilling childhood dreams and seeing living legends before our very eyes. Wild horses are our wild, wild west.
You can see some of my photos of our living equine history by visiting this column at www.ipinionsyndicate.com but better yet — why not go see them yourself, and help save the horses in the process? Visit the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates at wildhorseadvocates.org or on their Facebook page, and the page of horse photographer extraordinaire, John T. Humphrey, who offers three-hour tours for up to four people for $250.
You need to see these horses. You do. Before they all end up as… well… we’ll talk about that later. For now, let’s just enjoy.