Wild mustangs, the Black Hills, desire lines, Nietzsche, The Sons of Katie Elder, tree-huggers, breakfast chili, Winter Storm Europa, environmental law, Hot Springs, bottomlands, extra blankets &
the Bronze Warrior.
Wild mustangs, the Black Hills, desire lines, Nietzsche, The Sons of Katie Elder, tree-huggers, breakfast chili, Winter Storm Europa, environmental law, Hot Springs, bottomlands, extra blankets &
We don’t truly know ourselves until we see ourselves in the eyes of another creature.
Last winter, my wife, Lynn, and I scheduled a trip to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. We’d been there before. Our first visit came near the end of a vacation. We’d been camping in the forest outside of Spearfish. Before heading back to Wyoming, we looked at a map, and the name of a South Dakota town caught our attention: Hot Springs. Those two words appeal to us. Lynn and I both had read about the sanctuary. We knew the spot—south of the springs. We admire the cause, and it wasn’t out of the way, so we drove down to soak and see horses.
The author Dayton Hyde created the home for rescued mustangs. He established the sanctuary on the shore of the Cheyenne River. The property includes eleven thousand acres’ worth of valley. The waters of the Cheyenne nourish a meadow on one side, and a row of cliffs guards the other. Hyde maintains a ranch house for himself and a bunkhouse for guests, along with a barn and outbuildings. Early in the effort, Hyde also created the Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM), a nonprofit that runs the operation from an office on the grounds. When Lynn and I made our first visit, we agreed that the valley felt like a refuge for more than horses. It felt like a sanctuary for people frazzled by American society. When you drive into the Cheyenne River bottom, you enter a region with marginal internet and cell service. Turkeys cross the road in front of you at an unhurried pace, and when you make it to Hyde’s ranch, you find yourself greeted by wild horses squinting in the sun.
Hyde felt moved to create a sanctuary for mustangs after he’d been to a holding pen for free-roaming horses. The animals had been taken off of public property by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The sight of the once-proud animals standing side by side in piles of their own feces insulted his sense of ethics. Beginning at the age of thirteen, Hyde had worked on cattle ranches. He’d grown accustomed to roundups and feedlots, but the long-term mustang holding pen struck him as wrong.
Hyde came of age in the company of the wild horses that roam the deserts of Oregon. He compared his memories of mustangs with the animals that he saw in captivity. The horses held by the BLM had formerly possessed the vigor and strength needed to survive the seasons on our wild, rolling plains, but the animals before him in the pen looked deflated. In an interview, Hyde described a stallion looking at him with “sad eyes.” The moment forced him to rethink his life. In the eyes of the imprisoned horse, Hyde must have felt like he represented a set of American morals gone awry. He decided to redirect his future from ranching to building a sanctuary for mustangs.
Two generations before, in the year 1950, a similar event affected Velma Bronn Johnston. On her morning drive to work in Reno, Nevada, she found herself in traffic, behind a semi-tractor carrying what looked like too many horses. Blood dripped from the floor of the trailer. She followed the truck until it turned into the loading dock of a slaughterhouse. At the time, groups of rustlers held roundups of wild horses. They chased them with jeeps and planes. Then they sold the mustangs to meat packers who ground them into canned dog food. The sight of the bloody horses, and the knowledge of their fate, inspired Johnston to become a lobbyist. She became known as Wild Horse Annie. Her efforts, and those of many others, led to the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The bill is still the law and, in spite of some startling exceptions, the policy still protects the mustangs on our public land.
Something profound accompanies the sight of horses in distress. In 1889, the German philosopher Nietzsche fell victim to a mental collapse after watching a coach driver whipping a horse in Turin, Italy. According to observers, Nietzsche ran to the animal and threw his arms around its neck. He used his body to shield the horse from any further suffering. Then he refused to let go. Onlookers eventually convinced a policeman to intervene. The incident marked the beginning of what became a long journey into madness.
Nietzsche spent his productive years penning novels that exalted the power of the individual. In one passage, he declared, “God is dead.” He urged Christians to ignore the value they place on compassion. Instead, he encouraged readers to admire “supermen,” with traits that placed them over those whom he described as “weaklings.” Until the time of the incident in Turin, Nietzsche used his publications and a faculty position at the University of Basel to disseminate his views. He implored people to use their strengths to meet their goals at the expense of others. When discussing the relationships between and among us, Nietzsche favored the exercise of power—an arrangement where the strong rule the vulnerable. He clung to his beliefs until the day he watched a man beating a horse. Afterward, he quit writing about the glory of domination.
My world is pressed down upon me by the eyes of the horse: my hat, my coat, my boots on the road, my past, my plans, conceits and insecurities.
I, too, find myself wrung out by the thought of a horse in trouble. I think it’s their innocence. They’re herbivores. Stallions tussle with each other in order to win the hearts of mares. Otherwise, they don’t hurt anyone. Horses possess no motives or agendas. They’re just beautiful. That’s all. Art historians describe Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished sculpture of an Iberian stallion as his greatest work—despite the fact that he painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
As an artist, architect and man of science, da Vinci considered the mathematics of beauty. The angles, proportion and symmetry of the equine body provided him with the consummate subject. Leonardo crafted the prototype of the horse in clay. Its head stood twenty-four feet tall. He intended to finish the sculpture in bronze, but in 1494 French soldiers invaded his home in Italy. Their attack accomplished its goal, and the French destroyed da Vinci’s horse as a way to humiliate the people they had defeated. For the rest of his days, da Vinci mourned the loss of the sculpture.
W yoming winters wear on you. Weather reduces the landscape to a monochromatic array of white, interrupted, on occasion, by the silhouettes of trees. Last December, Lynn and I scheduled a trip to the wild horse sanctuary in the Black Hills, to see a swath of color: paints, pintos and Appaloosas. We booked the bunkhouse on Hyde’s ranch. We planned the trip around a forecast for snow. On the radar, it looked like we could drive to Hot Springs before the weather started. It seemed like we could hole up in the bunkhouse for a night, then head back to Wyoming after the front had passed. When we set out, we did not know the snow would turn into a storm.
W e arrive at the sanctuary in the afternoon, under a sky inset with scattered clouds. It takes only a moment to check into the bunk and unload the car. That leaves us with an hour of sunlight. The bunkhouse stands next to a pasture where sanctuary staff observe new horses before letting them loose on the property. We bundle up and walk over to the fence line.
In the fall, the BLM had removed several bands of wild horses from a region of Wyoming called Adobe Town, an area of khaki cliffs and globular rock formations. In the weeks that followed, one of the bands received notoriety in photos and stories posted on the Internet. Horse advocates named the band’s stallion Bronze Warrior. People admired him for his color and muscular appearance. After the BLM took Bronze Warrior from his home, wild-horse supporters went to work looking for a way to free his family from its sentence in a long-term holding pen. Carol Walker, a Colorado-based photographer, approached the sanctuary in the Black Hills. Dayton Hyde found room for Bronze Warrior and his band.
We recognize the stallion and his mares in the pasture next to the bunkhouse. In the past two months, they had been hazed by a helicopter, separated from each other, stored in a government facility, trucked across state lines and then, finally, reunited at the sanctuary. They look sublime against the backdrop of stone cliffs on the Cheyenne. Since we know Bronze Warrior’s name, and because we know his story, seeing him safe gives us a reason to smile. The late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau coined a sentence that became a principle of conservation. With regard to landscapes, waterways and animals: “People protect the things they love.” As we came to know Bronze Warrior, we started to care about him. We knew his name and his past.
W hen you spend time with horses, even wild ones, it feels normal to give them names. How can we save our memories, and then share them with others, if the characters in the stories don’t have names? We name everything. It’s how we make sense of the world. When you see a band of mustangs on the prairie, even if it’s a group you’ve never seen before, you have to give them a name in order to be able to talk or even think about them afterward. In the case of Bronze Warrior, having a name and story saved his life; the words and images inspired people to write e-mails and make phone calls. Bronze Warrior became a cause. Advocates worked until they found him a future in the sanctuary.
But there’s another side—a dark side—to the act of giving names to wild beasts and then caring about their fate. American life is marked by polarization. We affiliate with groups that look for ways to harm one another. Too often, if it becomes known that one group of people cares about something, that makes the thing into a target. Poachers shot one of the best-known horses in Wyoming, a stallion by the name of Desert Dust. The animal appeared in a film, and artists painted his likeness. Drive-by shooters took his life in a pasture outside the home of rancher and wild-horse supporter Frank Robbins.
He clung to his beliefs until the day he watched a man beating a horse. Afterward, he quit writing about the glory of domination.
In the 2000s, a bull elk took up residence in Estes Park, Colorado. Because of his size and appearance, townspeople named him Sampson. Facebook posts celebrated the animal’s choice to live, comfortably and without fear, in Estes Park. A homeowner found Sampson decapitated. Similarly, on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, hikers noticed a wolf engaging dogs and people in playful interactions. The wolf seemed to look forward to the encounters. The thought of a friendly wolf thrilled Juneau residents. Nick Jans, a local author, called him Romeo, and the name stuck. Tales of Romeo sightings were recounted and broadcast on a radio talk show. I don’t have to tell you the end of the story. On the internet, and in letters to Alaska news outlets, one phrase appeared online consistently: “The only good wolf is a dead wolf.” Today, if it becomes known that a group of people loves an animal, their feelings in effect place a bull’s-eye on the creature’s back. Somehow, nature became an arena in which we fight a portion of our culture wars.
Ironically, during some of the most turbulent eras of American history, our leaders passed landmark environmental laws with broad bipartisan support. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, when civil rights, the fight for gender equality and questions about our involvement in Vietnam roiled and split the nation into aggravated clans, we passed the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. All of the acts passed with backing from Congress across party lines. Historically, when we have found ourselves divided over hotly contested issues, clean air, safe water and the protection of creatures that we care about have given people common cause. Today, the preservation of landscapes and animals no longer provides us with a mutual set of goals. Recently, in the parking lot of a grocery store, I walked past a bumper sticker on a pickup truck. It said, “Tree-Huggers Suck.”
After sunset, Lynn and I retire to the bunkhouse. We climb into bed with books and fall asleep to the sound of wind-driven snow tapping the metal roof. In the morning, when I open my eyes, my first sight includes a drift of snow that blew in from a crack under the door. That makes me curious. I go to the window and discover that a white dune has swallowed our car. I see the roofline of the Subaru, but that is all I see. Overnight the snow turned into an event called Winter Storm Europa—two feet of snow and forty-five-mile-an-hour wind.
After coffee, I put on boots and hike to the IRAM office. I explain that our car is buried in a snowdrift. I ask, “Do you have someone to plow us out?” The woman on staff explains that the sanctuary has only two hands in the winter: the ranch manager, Dan, and a man named Tim, a summer volunteer whom they convinced to stay. She says, “They have to feed the horses first.” She explains that many of the horses at the sanctuary can no longer forage on their own, so each day the crew delivers hay and nutritional pellets to a set of places on the property.
I say, “Of course. We’ll wait.”
Our paths rarely follow the contours of our landscapes or the shape of our desire.
The bunkhouse comes stocked with a stack of John Wayne movie discs. We watch Rio Bravo over breakfast. Then we spend an hour looking out the window at snow blowing off the tops of drifts, growing in height, across the valley. After lunch, we watch True Grit and I fall asleep to The Sons of Katie Elder in the afternoon. Before dinner, well after checkout time, I call the office.
I ask, “Any chance that Dan or Tim can plow us out?”
She says, “No. They haven’t come back from feeding.” Then she asks me if tomorrow is too late.
I look at Lynn with my hand over the phone. I whisper, “Tomorrow.” Then I ask, “Can we stay one more night?”
She says, “All we have left to eat is chili. Can you eat chili again?” Then she adds, “Can you eat chili for breakfast?”
I love chili, so I lift my hand off of the phone and tell the office, “That sounds good. We’ll look for somebody to plow us out tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I’ll send Dan over with the tractor after horses have been fed. They’ll get started at eight. With luck, they’ll finish before lunch.”
Tonight’s feature film is Rooster Cogburn, starring John Wayne.
With the electric baseboard heater set on high, we can keep the bunkhouse at only fifty-two degrees. Lynn travels with extra blankets, though. We survive the night at the bottom of a pile of fabric. In the morning, I use a dustpan to scrape up the snow blown in from underneath the door. At the window, I notice the sky is clear. The wind is still blowing, but a piece of blue sky also looms cheerfully overhead.
After coffee and a cup of chili, Lynn and I stare at each other. I walk over to the cabinet below the television set. I grab a John Wayne movie called, McLintock! Then I walk it back to the kitchen and tilt it toward Lynn. I raise my eyebrows in an encouraging way. My wife says, “No.” Now we have to think about how to spend the day.
I say, “Maybe we should make ourselves useful.” I tell Lynn, “We should give Dan and Tim a hand feeding the horses.”
Lynn looks out the window of the bunkhouse toward the outbuildings. One of the pickups is running and we see a tractor heading toward a bale of hay.
When you spend time with horses, even wild ones, it feels normal to give them names.
When we travel in the wintertime, I pack boots, gloves and hats. Then I pack extra coats and mittens, too. At the door of the bunkhouse, I pull on my boots and throw a scarf around my neck. Lynn says, “See if you can catch them.”
I find Tim in one of the outbuildings. He’s looking for an ice scraper. A film of sleet covered the windshield of the truck left outside overnight. Neither of us finds a scraper, but I pick up a yardstick and give it to him.
He takes the stick and says, “That ought to work.”
On our way to the truck, I ask, “Can we give you a hand feeding horses?”
“It’s pretty cold. The storm is over. But it’s cold.”
I hold up my wool-lined leather mittens in a gesture that says, “This is no problem.”
“OK. That’d be nice if you want to help.”
I say, “Lynn’s getting ready.” Then I ask, “Can we pick her up at the bunkhouse when we leave?”
W e’re riding in a pickup outfitted with a grain hopper in back. After introductions, Tim takes a minute to explain that he and Dan drive similar routes in the morning. Dan uses a tractor to drop hay at a set of preselected spots. Tim follows behind him, in the truck. Once a line of hay is on the ground, he drives beside the row. He pushes a button on the dashboard, and then the hopper in the back releases pellets as the pickup rolls along.
We drive up the road away from the bunkhouse. Then we turn right. I hop out to open a gate, and we continue on what looks like it might have been a two-track jeep path, somewhere under all the snow. The terrain undulates between ridges and bottomlands. Out ahead, we see Dan on the lower portion of a hollow. The tractor pulls an implement that busts hay bales and lays the loose forage onto the ground.
We plod our way through drifts, heading toward the bottom of the draw. Through the window of the truck I see horses streaming from the hilltops. Mustangs move in rows, coming through the snow on trails they make by walking one by one. Horses and trails write a pattern onto the slopes. The forms strike me as art.
Klaus Hupert, a researcher at the University of Stuttgart, describes the paths that animals create on their way from where they are to what they want: “desire lines.” Forests and prairies are full of them. In Japan, they call them beast trails. In France, they refer to them as donkey paths, and when we give thought to them in the U.S., we describe them as game trails.
Over the course of our lives, we grow accustomed to moving through communities organized into grids—city blocks and numbered streets. Our paths rarely follow the contours of our landscapes or the shape of our desire. When we travel through the streets of home, our routes reflect the models held in the minds of civil engineers. In the developed world, the rectangle evolved to become our shape of choice. Rectangular grids suit our fondness for rectangular homes and offices, but our grids also separate our longings from the curves, relief and watersheds that define our habitats.
In contrast, when horses set desire lines in the soil or snow, they do so as a response to their wishes and the terrain. In the words of Wendell Berry, paths created by creatures represent “the perfect adaptation of movement to place.” When horses approach a valley, the hillsides offer them an infinite set of possibilities. Just by walking, they shrink an ocean of options down to a single route—a riverbed that pulses with a current of motion. In the time that it takes for us to catch up to Dan in the tractor, I enjoy the view of horses winding down the slopes.
W hen we arrive at the base of the draw, seventy horses stand in line, gobbling hay. At the sound of the pickup, some of the horses lift their heads. The pellets we’re hauling contain a tasty blend of corn and molasses. Tim lines up the truck beside the hay, but before he opens the hopper, he says, “Why don’t you two go out and mingle?” Lynn and I climb from the cab and find ourselves surrounded. I am accustomed to watching wild mustangs on the Wyoming prairie. In our home state, if you are quiet, and if you move slowly, a band of horses might let you walk up within thirty feet of them. In this case, horses brush past our elbows. They nudge us with heavy shoulders. Some of them turn their heads and look us in the eye.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life in the outdoors—fishing, hiking, biking, skiing and watching wildlife. I added spending time with wild horses to my list of pursuits for some obvious reasons: they are beautiful, and the places where they tend to live are lovely too. Most animals possess beautiful qualities, however, and when it comes to the landscapes and waterways of the West, the aesthetics are on your side, no matter where you look. Still, the experience of watching bands of wild horses differs from other forms of interaction with the animal kingdom. In most of nature, when a person comes across an animal, the encounters are brief and distinguished by either indifference or fear.
I’ve never been able to spend more than about five seconds in the presence of a coyote, for example. They are rightfully afraid. In my past, I fly-fished at a level of frequency that bordered on obsession. Trout are gorgeous, but when you catch one, it becomes clear that they would rather you left them alone. I enjoy birding, too, but most of the time, when I look at birds and our eyes meet, I feel a coolness in their glance. On the other hand, when you look at horses, they look back. They’re curious. When I spend time on the prairie with mustangs, I am left with the sense that their interest in me matches my wonder at their existence.
Through the morning, we make four more stops with hay and pellets. At each occasion, when they see the truck, horses start to press their way through the snow toward a meal. Out of habit I count the mustangs at each interval. By the end of the route, I estimate that we’ve fed four hundred animals, but from brochures in the bunkhouse I learned that the sanctuary is home to more than five hundred.
I ask Tim, “Is that all of the horses?”
“No. There are a hundred or so that we don’t feed.”
“They’re just too wild. When we turn them loose, they cross the Cheyenne River and then climb through canyons to the top of the ridge. That’s where they stay—on the side of the river opposite the ranch. Sometimes we see them on top of the cliffs. Once in a while, they come back to the river to drink, but they don’t come all the way back.” Tim points to the ridge above the river and says, “They live up there.”
In the eyes of the imprisoned horse, Hyde must have felt like he represented a set of American morals gone awry.
I am confused. I start to think out loud, “They can come down from the hills above the river any time? They can follow a routine, eat hay and pellets every morning, and live the good life, but they don’t?”
“Yeah. They don’t want hay or pellets or people or routines. There’s enough food and water on the other side of the river. It’s tougher over there. But they don’t want an easy life. They want freedom, like they had before the government sentenced them to life in a holding pen. They are wild, and we have room. If it’s freedom they want, they can have that.” When Tim finishes the explanation, it is quiet in the truck. The three of us are thinking about wildness.
As human beings, and as Americans, we tether our lives to schedules, calendars and bundles of obligations. We bind our days to the clock and the goals we expect to achieve. After Tim tells us about the horses that preserve their wildness on the other side of the river, I start to think about how I felt when I realized we were not going home according to plan. When I found out we were snowbound, I started to think about all the things I wasn’t going to be able to do on account of Winter Storm Europa and having to spend an extra day in the bunkhouse. The fear of lost time gripped my thoughts. We see time, and just about everything else, as a type of currency—something to spend or lose, something to covet as a means to something else. In the eighteenth-century text The Social Contract, Rousseau said, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” The chains are made of societal expectations. They’re both personal and cultural. Over the course of a life, we build them, link by link.
W e drop Lynn off at the bunkhouse when we’re finished with the chores. I ride with Tim back to the spot where he parks the pickup. I give him a hand unloading tools. Then I walk back to the bunk to rejoin Lynn. From the road, I can see that Dan has cleared a path out of the parking lot. It runs from our car up the hill and out of sight.
As I walk along, something catches my attention. A horse stands at the top of the ridge. It’s a bay stallion, on the high side of the river. He’s looking down at me. In the horse’s stare, I feel myself becoming the focal point within his field of vision.
When people look at each other, the land and animals, we use our eyes to take their measure. There is power in our gaze, but in this moment I feel the stallion assessing me. My world is pressed down upon me by the eyes of the horse: my hat, my coat, my boots on the road, my past, my plans, conceits and insecurities. I begin to see myself through the eyes of the animal. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, “Dreams and beasts are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature.” Our dreams serve as demonstrations of what we can become. For better and for worse, wild creatures show us what we’re not. For all the value that we place on freedom, are we free?
When I make it back to the bunkhouse I am excited to report that I saw a horse on the wild side of the river. Lynn and I look out the window through binoculars, but we can’t find the stallion.
I say, “I saw a horse. Right there.”
With her eyes still pinned to the distance, Lynn says quietly, “He saw you too.”
Then she pauses and turns to look at me.
Chad Hanson serves as chair of the department of social and cultural studies at Casper College. His nonfiction titles include Swimming with Trout and Trout Streams of the Heart. He is also the author of two collections of poems: Patches of Light and This Human Shape. His recent awards include the Meadowhawk Prize and a creative writing fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council. For more information, visit www.chadhanson.org.
Lead image: Anna Jakobs