Not far from my house in the high deserts of northern New Mexico is a large tract of land held by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s wide-open land on top of a plateau above the Galisteo River dam. Some years ago two horses were dumped there and left to fend for themselves. Nobody looks after them, but they seem to do pretty well. They have the Galisteo for water, a few cottonwoods for shade and several hundred acres of scrubby grass for grazing. Now unapproachable, the horses are not wild by birth, but made so by circumstance.
One January morning I was walking my dogs across the BLM tract, following a rutted path that snakes across the vast treeless plateau. As the four dogs and I came over a small rise, we found ourselves less than hundred yards away from the wild horses. We were downwind and both grazers startled when they saw us. I had seen the chestnut and palomino before off in the distance, but never so close. Now I could see the scruff of their red and cream winter coats and the snarls of tumbleweed in their tails.
The three older dogs and I stopped and stared at the horses, but they ignored us and focused on my puppy Dio, who had been racing on ahead. He was much closer to the horses than the rest of us, curious and oblivious to any danger. Worried, I whistled for him and at the sound, the horses charged.
In my experience most horses will run down a dog if they have a chance. My own childhood pony loved to harass any strange dog, cat or small child that dared enter her pasture. Some horses chase dogs just for fun and some will kill a dog if they catch it. These shared their land with a pack of coyotes and while no coyote could take down a healthy horse, these two evidently had a strong distaste for anything resembling a four-legged predator.
Little Dio took one look at the onrushing horses, turned and ran for me full tilt. My other dogs, having learned their loose horse lesson before, bunched close beside me. The horses galloped towards us, ears back, teeth bared, intent on running Dio down, but I could see he would make it before the horses caught him. I stooped low and clapped, keeping Dio’s attention, encouraging him to run fast and not look back. The panicked puppy reached us when the horses were about 15 yards away and once he joined us, I stood up straight, raised my hands to the horses, palms forward, fingers tense like claws and yelled “Hey!”
The charging animals stopped short as if I’d reached out and held them back. They didn’t stay still for long, snorting and tossing their heads, looking for weakness. I held my ground and kept my hands up. Staying close together, the horses began circling the dogs and I tightly, in hurried canters, eyes rolling, ears pinned back against their heads. I turned with them, hands still raised and talked to them softly. After a few passes, their ears relaxed and I felt their tension ease. I lowered my hands and the two of them came to a stop a short distance away and faced me. The whole dance had probably lasted no more than a minute or two.
I stood still for a minute, catching my breath, watching the horses. They were unkempt but beautiful, as wild horses always are. The chestnut took a step towards me and I raised my hands again, stopping him. I wanted to touch him, to run my fingers over his rough coat, but even more so, I wanted him to stay wild. Stepping forward I said loudly but evenly, “You two are lovely, but you’d better give us some space.” The horses took a few steps back together, side-by-side, in pace with my advance. I stopped and so did they, their eyes softer now, ears forward, watching and listening to me, more curious than aggressive or afraid.
Then one of the dogs whined, reminding me all four were still crowded around my feet. I waved them on ahead, keeping myself between the dogs and the horses. I faced the horses another moment to make sure they were going to let the dogs go, but they ignored the pack and kept watching me. I studied their blazed faces and long whiskers and watched recognition come into their eyes. I wondered if they were remembering a person they trusted long ago, before their wilding. Slowly, I lowered my hands, turned my back to them and walked away, continuing down the path towards home. As we headed across the open field, every few steps I glanced back, and each time the horses were still standing where I left them, still watching, still wild, letting us walk away.
Communicating with unruly horses is an artform that I began studying at an early age. I grew up in Strasburg, Pennsylvania in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. When I was twelve, I bought a pony, complete with cart and harness, at auction. An Amishman I knew gave me a quick driving lesson on the spot, told me to stick to back roads, and sent me home at the reins. My parents were shocked, of course. But I had taken riding lessons for years and knew how to handle a horse. I named the little red mare Saturday, put her up in a big stall in our big red barn and grazed her in circles in the backyard on a dog tie.
My pony, cart and I fit right in on Strasburg’s already rutted country roads and in time, Saturday and I drove up and down all of them. Once, in town, Saturday untied herself from a hitching post and set off on her own for home. An Amishman who recognized my rig and managed to catch her said she’d been following the rules of the road “like a proper pulling horse”.
At home, however, Saturday was not at all proper. Somebody in her past had been cruel to her and she had gone past the point of cowering and had learned to fight back. The first time I entered her roomy stall, she pinned her ears and charged. I spent weeks earning her trust, feeding her carrots and apples and her favorite treat: hard candy. I soon discovered that while Saturday feared space between us, she loved to be touched. I learned how to sidle up next to her shoulder, where she felt unbalanced between using her feet and her teeth, and to put my soft hands on her. After a few gentle touches, she’d follow me around the barn like a lamb.
For Christmas that year, my parents promised Saturday and I a fence and the following spring, I helped dig postholes all around our half-acre. Once she was loose, Saturday reverted back to her wild ways. Every time I left the house she’d whinny a greeting but as soon as I neared the fence she’d start pacing nervously and those ears would go stiff. Out in the field there was too much room for her to maneuver her feet and teeth so I couldn’t use my stall tricks to get near her. So instead, I plied her into coming to me. I would jump the fence far away from her and without looking her way begin walking slowly around the field.
I always brought a pocketful of hard candy—butterscotch, peppermint, fruity—any kind worked as long as it had a noisy wrapper. I’d walk around, ignoring my nervous pony and crinkle the candy wrappers. After a few minutes, enticed by the sound of the wrappers, Saturday would slowly sneak up behind me. If I ignored her for another minute or two, she nudge her nose against my back, begging for attention. Only then would I turn, sidle up to her neutral shoulder and say “Well hello, girl” and give her a piece of candy.
By the following summer, Saturday had learned to play tag. I could jump the fence, go right up to her, slap her playfully on the rump and run away. Saturday would run after me, beside me, ahead of me, delighted, as all horses are, to have somebody to run with. Then she’d bump me with her nose, whirl and take off, prancing showing off her high-kneed hackney gait. My neighbors found our games highly entertaining, so much so that one of the neighbor boys hopped the fence one day, hoping to play. Saturday nearly trampled him.
Saturday did mellow with age, but not before I got years of practice saving unsuspecting children and small animals from her hooves. By watching her ears and body language, I could read her moods and with small gestures and changes in my body positioning, I could control her. Nobody was ever seriously hurt – though she did leave a tiny hoof print in deep purple on my thigh once – and I treasured her wild side.
My next encounter with the wild horses came months later, in late fall, as the first licks of winter wind swept across the high desert. After spending the summer in Montana, I was back for another winter and my return to New Mexico had felt like coming home. My footpaths still lay waiting, radiating from my home across the desert and the wind still blew from the West every afternoon, carrying the familiar scent of dry air and junipers.
But not everything was the same. Over the summer somebody had abandoned a dozen or more horses on the BLM tract, and what was two strays had become a herd. None of my neighbors knew who had dumped the horses; nobody had seen a trailer come and go. But in a few short weeks the desert began to wear under all those hooves and most of the already struggling grass was cropped close. One night the herd broke through the BLM fence and pillaged my neighbor’s barn for hay and grain. Once they were loose, the horses began roaming, creating well worn paths up and down the mesas, plundering the prairie for grass and drinking stock ponds dry.
Calls to animal control were futile. With unemployment rates in New Mexico at an all time high the agency was already overrun with unwanted horses. Even if the herd could be caught, no small task in such open, rugged country, they would almost certainly be euthanized. My neighbors who’d lost hay, grain and precious water to the marauders were told to put up fences around their own properties. This land is zoned as rangeland and the old Wild West laws still apply: roaming animals must be fenced out; they are not required to be fenced in.
New Mexico is not the only place overrun with wild horses. Parts of California and Nevada are so beset, the federal government has taken to rounding them up with helicopters. The animals are run for miles – they have to be exhausted before they’ll go quietly – and led into chutes and onto trailers by tame Judas horses. Hundreds of horses die in the roundups each year. Many suffer horrible injuries. Young horses are often run off their feet, their delicate ankles reduced to shreds by their panicked poundings. The injured are shot and dragged onto slaughter trailers, in haste, before animal rights advocates with long lenses can get a shot of their ignoble deaths in the dust.
Those that survive are hardly the lucky ones. The majority are shipped to Kansas and Oklahoma, where more than 30,000 wild horses and burros languish on private ranches, awaiting rare adoption or common death. Having known no barriers but the sky their whole lives, the animals are reduced to milling in endless circles, enclosed by metal pipes. Family groups, with their carefully sorted hierarchies and politics are separated and remixed. Crowded into the corrals, they fight and panic and call for one another, for the range, for their freedom. They will never gallop to the horizons again. They are the symbols of the once wild American West, reduced to flightless birds in corralled cages.
Upon my return to the high desert, I heard all about the horses. At first my neighbors’ frustrated stories amused me. Oh, to live in a place where the biggest problem is a herd of wild horses! But then I saw what all those hooves were doing to the land and the desert, which had seemed so infinite, suddenly became much smaller. I had wanted to believe there was enough room out here for all of us, horses and dogs and coyotes and hares and people, but the chopped ground and suffering grass seemed to prove me wrong.
One day, out walking the dogs, I was traveling a hoof-chopped path up the mesa south of my house, when I had my first encounter with the herd. I came around a juniper tree and saw the horses ahead on the trail, strung out behind a familiar palomino. They were only a stone’s throw away, alert and agitated. The palomino, their leader, remained steady, searching the air for my scent, watching me intently as the others shifted nervously behind him, ready to bolt. My dogs were fanned out on either side of me, but they remained calm and quiet, waiting to follow my lead. I took one long look at the palomino, raised both hands to him said, “Stay”, and then swiftly cut off the path to the left, heading towards a neighbor’s house not far away.
I knew the Dunns weren’t home yet and that their one-room adobe was still boarded up, awaiting their return from a summer on the east coast, but I was hoping the skittish herd wouldn’t follow me there. I didn’t run, but I hurried, keeping all four dogs just ahead of me. As I approached the house, I stole a look back and my heart skipped. The palomino was following me, with the herd close behind. The dogs and I backed up onto the Dunn’s porch, protected by a few square feet of uneven wooden planks and a knee-high adobe wall. There we faced the herd, gathering ten yards away.
As the horses lined up facing me on either side of their leader I counted seventeen. They were noticeably colorful – paints and reds and appaloosas – showy, once valuable horses dumped out in the desert. Their coats were roughening, their ribs just barely showing, beginning to show signs of stress, of winter wear. We all stood and watched each other, the dogs the horses and I and in those moments we were the only creatures on Earth. In that remarkable calm, my nervousness gave way to clarity. I had wanted the horses to belong here. I had wanted them to be wild but seeing them all up close, I had to admit they weren’t. Like the dogs, these animals just wanted somebody to follow, a kind person to lead to them to food, to water, to safety. It broke my heart that I couldn’t help them.
I told the dogs to stay put and walked out slowly towards the herd, talking softly to the horses, holding my hands in front of me, at waist level, palms up, fingers curled slightly to show I had no weapons. A few of them wavered, and began backing away, but the palomino and two others, a paint and a chestnut, took a few curious steps in my direction. I stopped, dropped my eyes and my hands, turned my body slightly sideways and let them come forward. The three approached cautiously, blowing their worries out through their nostrils, ready to bolt should I make a fast move. I breathed evenly and spoke softly and slightly beckoned with my fingers. As they approached, I held out my hand for the brave paint to sniff. Stretching out his thin neck, he tested my skin and then softly lipped my fingers, looking for a handout. I stroked the soft skin of his nose and at my touch he lowered his head and blew a satisfied snort, telling the others I was okay.
One by one, I went around to the rest of the herd, stroking the tamer ones, giving the skittish ones a kind word from a few feet away. A couple followed me closely, pestering me for more attention, while others backed away nervously, preferring to remain untouched. I remembered my camera and snapped a few portraits. One chestnut, whom I now recognized as part of the pair from last winter, was curious about the camera and seemed to like the snap and whir of the shutter. I don’t know how long I spent with the horses, but by the end of our visit, they were searching for grass and milling about, calm and unconcerned to have me in their midst.
Back on the porch, the dogs lay quietly. I rejoined them, sat on the low porch wall, praised their calm cooperation and watched the horses. The camera curious chestnut started to approach again, but I held up one hand, palm out and stopped him. After a few minutes, the herd began wandering away, heads low, searching out the few blades of dry grass. As they left I got up quietly, jumped off the edge of the porch and retreated behind the house, out of sight. Before they could notice, the dogs and I reached the edge of the mesa and descended a steep, rocky path, one the horses would be reluctant to follow.
By December, the desert outside was cold and grey. The herd was still out there, somewhere, but I saw them rarely. A neighbor a few miles down the road was able to get reimbursed for buying a truckload of hay to feed the strays and I had heard they’d been hanging out over there, amassed together on the leeward side of a few sheets of plywood, bunched against the wind.
Nobody has any easy solutions for what to do with the horses come spring. Every now and then, especially on nice days, I catch myself daydreaming about keeping one or two for myself, corralling them inside my own fence, taming them to carry me bitless and bareback, but I know that plan is best left a fantasy. For the winter they’ll be warmer as a herd and come spring, I’ll be leaving New Mexico and I can’t take them with me.
More than anything, I want the horses to stay on the land. Out here, the desert stretches to the horizons, unbroken by fences. If feral horses don’t belong here, in all this space, they don’t belong anywhere and I don’t want to live in an America without wild horses. Some people say there are no such things as wild horses in this country. That even those born free are mere descendents of ranch stock, pioneer horses or Spanish cavalry. Those people have never watched horses run through open space or faced down oncoming hooves while out on a hike. These horses, born captive and set free, may not be truly wild, but this desert is a wilder place with them in it.
Click here to read about my experience attending a BLM wild mustang and burro auction in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My story Wilding Horses, about feral horses in New Mexico was just published in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2011 from Travelers’ Tales. Don’t worry about buying it; I don’t get any of the profits, but it’s one of my favorite stories and one I’m proud to have on the shelves.