” To be great is to go on,
To go on is to be far,
To be far is to return.” (Tao Te Ching)
My earliest memories were punctuated by the belief that the essence of the horse — any horse — was their ability to sense the human heart.
The first horse I ever loved was the television star, Fury. In the series, Fury was a coal-black, wild mustang whose freedom was never up for grabs (except by the bad guys who wanted to capture him) and he had chosen to love an orphaned boy named Joey, who was adopted by rancher Jim Newton in the first episode. The stallion’s choice to love the boy set them on a hero’s journey, repeating the structure of the most ancient hero myths and sacred texts, in which the hero is always an orphan whose parents are either dead or irrevocably estranged. This necessitates the hero facing the challenges that he must resolve alone. It is through his/her solitary journey that the hero enters into a state of “oneness” with the world.
During my fierce love affair with Fury, the adults in my life looked on benignly, since to them Fury was undoubtedly a romantic version of what they understood a horse to be in the real world. But I think my grandparents understood why I loved the wild spirit in Fury, and perhaps especially my grandfather, who had loved an unruly black mare who allowed him to train her because she chose to love him right back. The Fury narrative was indeed a romantic one and that likely gave it some of its massive appeal to the young in the first decade of television. But it was the fact that a wild horse had chosen to form an abiding relationship with a child that drew me irresistibly to Fury. My grandmother’s favourite expression hinged on the word “imagine,” that featured in expressions like “Just imagine…” or “Imagine that…” And I duly spent my girlhood imagining that, one day, a mustang would find me and love me the way Fury loved his Joey.
In the real world, my relationships with horses and ponies were largely based on being in control. The mantra was: to be safe, you need to be in charge. Through it all, I couldn’t quite shake the belief that somewhere in the world there were horses as I imagined them to be, even if I couldn’t seem to find them.
I don’t remember how I stumbled across her photo online at the BLM in Canon City, Colorado, but when I looked into her eyes I felt something so honest, so true, that I couldn’t look away. She was # 9579, a “plain” brown and copper American mustang: not a showy grulla or paint, the kind that get adopted in a heartbeat. But she was my horse, even though I discovered that Canadians weren’t permitted to bid in BLM online auctions.
Even if I owned a generous pasture to turn her loose, which I didn’t, this was not her destiny: wild horses need to be free. Or, as Susan Watt of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (BHWHS) in South Dakota — who came to the aid of #9579 — puts it, ” Wild horses need three things: freedom, friendship and food.” In a series of phone calls, Susan and I planned our strategy and I wired her the funds to buy the mare, having assured her that I would sponsor #9579 for life if we got her. Commitment turned the key: Susan gets literally hundreds of calls a week from do-gooders who might be willing to pay for a wild horse, but have no intention of doing much more than that.
Enter Jim of Portland, Oregon, an online friend who, hearing that not only had we gotten #9579 but also her BFF, another bay mare of the same age, pledged to sponsor the second mare forever.
Both mares had been captured by the BLM as yearlings in separate herd culls and had lived behind fences since 2011, a span of four years that must have been interminable to them. Deprived of their herd and their freedom, they were essentially in solitary confinement. But with their rescue, their story was changing: three people from two countries (who had never met in real time) had banded together to set them free. And although they arrived at the Sanctuary with their numbers hanging around their necks, the two mares now had names that we had given them — #9579 was christened Maya Littlebear, and her best friend was named Felicitas Witness, aka Tassy.
(A more detailed account of the rescue of Maya and Tassy and their connection to Secretariat’s grandson, Bear Witness, is found in an earlier VAULT article here: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/eagle-feathers-for-bear-witness/)
So it was that my friend Joan and I turned off the highway in South Dakota onto the gravel road that led to the BHWHS to see Maya and Tassy in their forever home. It would be a first meeting with “my girls” and with Susan Watt, who was going to take us out to find them. It was an immense and unexpected privilege to have Susan herself take us on a tour of part of the 11,000 acres of the Sanctuary. As the Executive Director of the BHWHS, Susan works 24-7 for the horses, doing everything from answering the phone, to taking hay out to the herds in the middle of winter, to the endless task of fundraising for the Sanctuary, which is a charity/non-profit organization.
Both Joan and I understood that wild horses are just that. Even with “The Guide of Guides” in Susan, you still need to find the herds in the rolling hills and valleys of the Sanctuary. If they want to be found. Freedom is like that: it has agency and mustangs, like any wild creature, exercise it.
Before Susan joined us, we were set loose around the Visitor’s Centre, where there were several corrals of wild horses, beginning with the Choctaws.
The Choctaws carry the blood of the Spanish horses first introduced to North America in 1540 by Hernando de Soto. They were the first horses the First Nations of America had ever seen, and were to become an integral part of the culture and life of the Seminole, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw nations. But their breed’s survival came close to ending in tragedy.
From the BHWHS website:
“Gentle by nature the Spanish ponies quickly became important family members to the eastern Native Americans, who practiced plantation-based agriculture and advanced systems of government. Great companion animals, the ponies were known as ‘Squaw Ponies’ … provid [ing] transportation for the squaws to bring the wild game from the men’s hunting expeditions back to the village. The high quality of the livestock developed by the Choctaw nation, especially the horses, allowed for the development of western trade routes all the way into the Texas and Oklahoma areas.
“The colorful ponies also played a part in the tragic American history known as ‘The Trail of Tears.’ The beloved little horses were forced to carry their Native American families into forced exile from their southeastern homes to the Oklahoma Territory following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Later these ponies were ordered to be destroyed by the US Government. The motivation was simple: remove the Indian from his horse and they’d be easier to force onto the reservations. The military knew that Native warriors on their small horses comprised the finest light cavalry in the world. But this equicide wasn’t simply designed to clip the warrior’s wings: military men like Custer knew that the horse was as much a spiritual part of Native culture as the land itself. Taking away the horses was an attempt to break the people’s spirit. All across the West, Native American horses were rounded up and slaughtered –as Custer had orchestrated on the Washita River-or else their herd stallions exterminated and replaced by studs from larger breeds. The military men were blind to the fact that the ‘squaw ponies’ used by the Native American people carried some of the bloodlines of Spain’s most regal bloodlines.”
Due to the efforts of a few First Nations people, small numbers of Choctaw were hidden away during the slaughter and a trickle of the breed managed to flow into the twentieth century. The Choctaws are one of two special projects ongoing at the BHWHS in collaboration with the Institute of Range and American Mustangs (IRAM), aimed at the conservation of this very rare bloodline in order to save it from extinction. In an act of faith in the BHWHS’ mission to provide sanctuary to America’s wild horses, “…3 Choctaw Mares and their 2012 foals were donated to the BHWHS by the Sheaffer Family of Windrider Farm Choctaw Horse Conservation Program in Pennsylvania. These exquisite mares and foals were greeted in South Dakota by their new herd sire. Lakna (Sky Horse), who was donated by Neda De Mayo’s Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, California. His sire is the renowned Choctaw stud, Beechkeld Icktinicky, owned by Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg.” (BHWHS website). The Choctaw fillies pictured here descend from these individuals. (Further information about the BHWHS Choctaw Program can be found at: http://www.wildmustangs.com/sponsor-a-choctaw)
We had brought a bag of carrots with us, in the hope that we would get close enough to a wild horse to offer him/her a treat. At first, the Choctaw fillies eyed us from a distance, giving me time to take in their different coat colours, reminiscent of the hues of the stone of South Dakota: copper, cream-white, battleship grey, black and sandstone. Then, in unison, they came to us. Eyes as soft as velvet looked us over. Carrots were offered and received. Noses were stroked and faces rubbed.
A little further along was Lakna (“Sky Horse”), the Choctaw stallion, taking a “time out” from his herd. This is one effective birth control method used by the BHWHS to assure that the total number of wild horses don’t exceed and exhaust the available grazing land. In spite of the vastness of the Sanctuary, five hundred plus mustangs can wreak devastation if left to their own devices.
Having been around stallions, I was prepared to carefully offer Lakna a carrot or two. Spying me from the far side of his corral, over he strolled.
The photos tell the story.
As I talked to Lakna and fed him carrots, a volunteer came over to chat with us. We talked about the Choctaw breed and about Lakna’s character, in response to my confessing that I had never met such a gentle stallion. The volunteer laughed, “Yeah, he’s pretty good. But he’ll still give you a nip.”
There was a sharp nudge on the back of my leg. “Lakna wants another carrot,” I countered. “Nah,” responded the volunteer. “He’s just asking to be part of the talk. We should turn around so he’s included.” And, of course, we did.
Off to meet up with Susan, we drove into another part of the valley where a herd of wild horses ran unfettered. These were the “Youngster Band” — mares with foals, together with young mustangs who were turned out with older mares and geldings to learn “herd manners” before they joined one of the many herds roaming the Sanctuary. As we stepped out of our vehicle, some of the horses lifted their heads. We stood quietly as they advanced, wondering how close they would actually come. But they kept coming, until they were as close to us as the last photo you see here (above).
Horses talk to you in their own language if you are able to hear them. And to do that, you need to be on the same wavelength. The mustangs were standing so close to us that their hooves were inches from the tips of our toes. In fact, they had closed the social distance that communicates intimacy among lovers, family and friends in our culture. (Called the study of “proxemics,” the distance for different degrees of human intimacy ranges from less than 6 in. to 4 ft., approximately. The closer you are to another person indicates the level of intimacy you share, so that one might expect lovers to stand closer together than friends. This is well-documented in human behaviour and explains why strangers on a crowded bus don’t like to be touched, and why babies are delighted when you hold them face-to-face. The acceptable distances for different kinds of human interaction differs from culture to culture.)
Mustang herds practice remarkably human principles of acceptable closeness. In closing the space between us, the mustangs were accepting Joan and I into their family (herd) and offering us their friendship in a language they appeared to have learned humans would understand.
If you have ever wondered why war veterans weep when working with therapy horses, it is the breaking down of boundaries of isolation by the horse that does it. As these mustangs extended overtures of friendship and trust to us, Joan and I experienced comparable emotions that will likely resonate forever.
A cynical part of me whispered, “They’re just used to tourists. That’s why they’re coming over.”
Except that it kept happening…..
The next meet and greet was with the magnificent Don Juan, a Spanish mustang stallion. The Spanish/Sorraia Herd is another group of wild horses found at the Sanctuary, and Don Juan is the band stallion. As with the Choctaws, the BHWHS is working in unison with the Institute of Range and American Mustangs (IRAM) to preserve the ancient Spanish and Portugese bloodlines of the breed.
From the BHWHS website: “… Nearly fifty of our over five hundred mustangs at the sanctuary, in our special Spanish herds, represent primitive remnants from rare bloodlines of the Golden Age of Spain and the Old World Iberian Peninsula …The purpose of this project is to preserve, promote, and educate the public about rare Spanish and Portuguese equine bloodlines still found in today’s American mustangs.” (Further information about this preservation initiative can be found here: http://www.wildmustangs.com/sponsor-spanish)
In the photo and short video that follow, you are invited to study the sharp contrast between Don Juan out on the range, and Don Juan choosing to interact with a total stranger. This by way of demonstrating that the wild horses we had met at this point in our tour of the Sanctuary were choosing to offer their friendship in conscious, deliberate ways.
There were repeated hugs and warm smiles when we met up with Susan, and shortly thereafter we set out to locate Maya and Tassy. Rounding a corner, we came upon the girls’ herd grazing in clusters around and under some Ponderosa pines. Given the uncharacteristically dry, hot weather, Sanctuary volunteers had started to feed hay to the herds at the beginning of August and they’d made a trip to Maya and Tassy’s herd just prior to our arrival. The air was redolent with the scent of horses, hay and pine. Even before Susan brought the jeep to a stop, the horses were close enough that we could have reached out and touched them. Only a few lifted their heads: everyone else was focused on lunch.
We located Tassy first. Picking up her head, it only took a moment for my girl to sense that we were focused on her for some unknown reason. But she stood her ground courageously without the slightest show of fear.
Tassy’s eyes expressed a sweet nature, and we noted that she was also beginning to sprout a winter coat. Getting close to her landed us right in the middle of part of the herd. The horses moved around us quietly, taking the greatest care not to bump into us or step on us or frighten us. The only soundtrack was the susurration of horses’ breath in a lazy, mellow quiet.
We continued to move through the herd, looking for Maya. I was surprised that the girls weren’t side-by-side, but Susan explained that they had each chosen new BFF’s, while adding that this showed their confidence and comfort in their new lives. She explained that the Sanctuary had accepted mustangs that people had adopted but then found they couldn’t handle, and that these horses often took much longer to return to their freedom. Some couldn’t manage it at all.
Finally we came upon Maya, who was busy eating. Although she refused to pick up her head, she nevertheless permitted us to get very close to her. Grazing next to her new best friend, a white American mustang mare, I could see into Maya’s deep, dark eyes. The look of desperation when I had first seen her was gone. She was happy within herself.
Unlike Tassy, the feeling from Maya towards our presence was reserved, as though she was saying, “That’s close enough.” When I mentioned this to Susan, she smiled and squeezed my arm, ” But she has come a very long way since she got here. Some of them never get over losing their original herd families or what happened to them when they were caught. But Maya is coming along nicely.”
As we got back into the jeep to continue on our way, I felt no regret that neither Maya nor Tassy had come close enough to invite a human touch. It was enough to stand near them and to know that they were safe, happy and in the process of returning to themselves.
And even now, as I write this, I remain deeply moved by the gift of being accepted into my girls’ herd as though we were one of them.
The Sanctuary area is punctuated by popular tourist attractions other than the horses themselves, together with the sacred ritual grounds of First Nations tribes. In the course of looking for other herds, we stopped at several of these sites.
The coppery red Petroglyph Rock came upon us suddenly, as rock formations tend to do in South Dakota. We spent time there marvelling at its prehistoric face: truly a “Rock of Ages,” evoking that which is eternal, that which endures.
Leaving Petroglyph Rock, we arrived at the site of the 2016 Sundance ceremony.
When Susan located the Spanish/Sorraia/Sulphur herd, they were far up on a hill. Susan leaned on the horn, a signal the horses clearly recognized, as she turned off the road and into the field towards them.
It was their love for Susan that brought the mustangs down to us and they greeted her as a member of the herd, forming an arc around the jeep. Faces thrust through the windows, notably that of the irresistible Josephina. Susan knows the stories of most of the horses in the different herds, and Josephina’s was no exception: the stunning bay is often found slightly removed from the herd. She has taken it upon herself to care for her dam, Martita, as well as the other Spanish/Sorraia mare pictured below. As you can see, the bond between Susan and horses like Josephina runs deep.
Here is footage of Josephina. Her dam, Martita, can be seen in most of it, together with some shots of the Spanish/Sorraia Mustang herd to which they belong.
As dusk began to hover over the Black Hills we made our return, but not before stopping to visit another herd of American mustangs as well as the Curly Mustangs. The American herd yielded up a sweet surprise.
In the comfortable quiet of old friends, we wound our way back to the Visitor Centre, passed the heavy limbs of pine and multi-coloured stone, a gathering of mule deer camouflaged in the tall grasses and the silhouettes of wild horses, like sentinels, on the ridges overlooking the road. Maya and Tassy were now real, breathing presences to me. My hands and clothing were redolent with the warm scent of wild horses. And my soul was dancing with the spirit of the Sanctuary.
It is unnatural to bring a narrative to a close when its conclusion is, in fact, a beginning.
So I will let you imagine for yourself what is left unsaid, and give the last word to the wild horses of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary:
Imagine A Place photo images by Karla R. LaRive
“Winde Ya Ho” (Wind Spirit Drum / D.R.U.M. 2012)
Vocals by Windwalker
Shot on-location at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Hot Springs South Dakota USA.
A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM ABIGAIL:
As readers of THE VAULT know, this is a non-profit project of mine. Any advertising you see here benefits WORDPRESS. If you would like to show your appreciation for my work over the last 5 years, since THE VAULT first appeared, please consider a donation to the horses of The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and to the work of the remarkable Susan Watt and her volunteers, who are preserving a part of American history for you and your children. Or, explore the shop to find a unique gift for someone in your life who loves the spirit of horses. If you’re a teacher, consider having your class sponsor a mustang. If you choose to donate, please know that no donation is too small. And please remember to mention THE VAULT when you make your donation. Thank you.