By Thomas Mitchell
There is a uniquely Western thrill in witnessing a herd of wild mustangs galloping across a sagebrush-dotted hillside.
There is a concomitant melancholy to seeing acres of small corrals stretching across Palomino Valley near Reno, each filled with milling mustangs. These are the shaggy, skinny, sway-backed, pied, dappled and spotted unadoptables imprisoned by the Bureau of Land Management for the crime of overbreeding in the wild.
You get a sense of this contrast in the pages of rancher H. Alan Day’s new book, “The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs,” written with Lynn Wiese Sneyd. Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the book goes on sale this month. Day’s sister Sandra Day O’Connor penned a foreword for the book.
Back in the late 1980s at the suggestion of a fellow rancher Day persuaded the BLM and an assortment of Washington bureaucrats to let him run 1,500 head of wild horses on a ranch he had just purchased in South Dakota. At the time it was costing the BLM $2.65 a day per head to warehouse the surplus animals. Day calculated he could allow the horses to range over the large fenced grassy pastures of his 32,000-acre ranch near St. Francis, S.D., which he renamed Mustang Meadows Ranch, and charged the federal government only $1.15 a head per day.
Thus was born the nation’s first privately operated wild horse sanctuary.
The book recounts Day’s satisfying successes and depressing defeats in handling the untamed mustangs and the unpredictable and inexplicable federal bureaucracy.
“To prevent entire herds from starving, the BLM rounded up horses in a given area and moved them to holding facilities. Cowboys on horseback and in helicopters descended on unsuspecting mustangs. Sometimes the deafening choppers chased the horses for miles down canyons and over hills,” Day writes. “Older horses might be injured while frantically trying to escape. Mothers became separated from babies, families torn apart. Once gathered in the makeshift corrals, the horses were shipped to facilities around the country. The main sorting facility was located at Palomino Valley in Nevada.”
Day describes what he saw at Palomino Valley with unflinching detail but without blatant editorializing, letting the visuals speak for themselves as he witnesses frightened horses clamoring around the small corrals, chased into crowding chutes where a vet could vaccinate them. “At first I didn’t understand why the furrow would be right there, but then it dawned on me that the depression was from a horse being dragged out of the chute. And the only reason a horse would be dragged out is if it died.”
The vet confirmed his suspicion.
Day seemed most proud of what he called his gentling technique by which he slowly introduced the mustangs on his ranch to him and other cowboys on horseback to the point he was able to move the herd from spent pasture to fresh pasture usually without causing a stampede.
But wild horses and bureaucrats can turn on you when you least expect it.
Like the time two mustangs in unison broke from a herd and rammed the horse Alan Jr. was riding, toppling the horse and sending his son flying face first into the sandy loam. The son shook it off and continued the trek.
Like the time the local county attorney investigated him for animal cruelty when a couple of mustangs fell through thin ice and drowned.
Like the time the BLM told him to round up half his herd, but only the largest of them, so they could be shipped off for adoption. Day realized that the adoption fee at the time was $100, but the price of horsemeat had risen to 80 cents a pound. A thousand-pound horse, which supposedly had to be kept for a year though no one ever checked, could fetch $800 at the slaughterhouse.
After four years Day had to submit a new bid to keep the horses. He kept his bid at $1.15 a head a day, but an Oklahoma rancher bid $1.14. So, despite the thousands of dollars in shipping costs incurred by the taxpayers, the mustangs were shipped to Oklahoma and Day was out of the mustang sanctuary business five years after he started.
He eventually sold the South Dakota ranch to a Sioux tribe who’d gotten rich in the casino business.
Pick up a copy of “The Horse Lover” and take it for a bumpy ride.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at email@example.com. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.