"In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World"
Henry David Thoreau
Seven hundred wild horses run free on a sanctuary in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Some were rescued from a slaughter truck, some were given a second chance from having to live their lives in crowded, bone bare feed lots because they were too old, too ugly or too independent to be adopted. Some Choctaw Indian Ponies were also given to the sanctuary. Their bloodlines are purest of all the breeds in this country and to the Choctaw people they were a symbol of wealth and honor. The Choctaw Pony is considered to be very rare. Now, this small herd from Oklahoma get to live among the tall grasses and let the wind tangle up their manes in these Black Hills. Spanish Mustangs are sometimes seen high up on the ridge as the sun is sinking or drinking from the Cheyenne River that flows through the canyon down below.
Have you heard of Dayton O. Hyde? He's the man with a dream, the heart and the desire and a whole lot of determination to save these broken spirits. In 1988 he put a down payment on a sanctuary in the Black Hills and convinced the BLM to send him those unadoptable horses. That dream became a reality and today you can see those wild horses run free across endless prairies! They share their home of dark pine forests and rocky canyons with mule and white tail deer, coyote, cougar, elk, eagles, falcons and hundreds of wild turkeys. Since then, more rescue horses have been added to the bunch. There are Curly mustangs who needed a home and Dayton took them in, too. They all have a story, every single one of them. And now they are loved and cared for as they should be.
A cozy log sided cabin sits on the sanctuary overlooking a rusty yellow canyon and a frozen-over Cheyenne River. This would be our home for four days. No cell service, no internet connection or crowds. (Yay) We had 11,000 acres and wildlife to ourselves. There was a land line phone in the cabin, however, and that I was actually happy about. Here's why.
On Christmas morning we got a phone call from "the lead mare" of the sanctuary, asking us if we would like to go out on the 'feed truck'. Remember, these are rescued horses, and wild as can be, but they still need to eat. We had been invited to go feed the horses! Every morning Dave makes his rounds with hay and grain and special supplements for the older horses, and there we were, riding along in the feed truck on Christmas morning. Can you imagine! Plowing through wind and blowing snow we covered hundreds of acres of prairie pastures and four separate herds of horses, getting out now and then to stand alongside some hungry mustangs. In each group, there were always one or two older horses who needed some extra cake, some vitamin enriched grains, a pat on the neck, or a scritch on their forehead. All of them got enthusiastic praise and kind words, spoken through the wind and snow and ice and I wonder if they had ever heard before, a woman laugh with so much joy.
Feeding mustangs takes about four or five hours. It was quite a process and a lot of hard work but mostly it's a loving, daily routine and an experience more thrilling than I can ever describe. With the last buckets empty I watched a sad-eyed Josefina and 30 year old Henrietta move away from the truck. We were finished feeding all the pretty horses.
Custer State Park was coated in hoar frost. Bison wore it like armor. A million tufts of tall, rust colored grasses were frozen still while the prairie dog towns were bustling with friendly socializing. A herd of Pronghorn, the purest of the Plains animals, were clustered together in the middle of the road, easing their way along and casually licking salt from the ground. Being in no hurry whatsoever, it was a pleasure for us to witness these blessed beasts in such close proximity and surprised to see them less skittish only because their home is protected land. Slowly and silently we drove through the park. Strangely enough, the landscape felt closer to my heart than all the countless times I have spent in Yellowstone. I felt inspired, a feeling so powerful and yet vague. I thought for a moment I would never leave. I really and truly felt as if this is where I belong.
Early evening we started to make our way out of the park. It had begun to snow as we followed behind a wall of fog. A coyote crossed the road as we watched him disappear into the black forest. And then in the last shroud of fog we stopped the car. What stood before us was the most impressive and majestic stag in all the land! That Elk had antlers that touched the stars. His stance was tall and proud, an entity all his own. He watched us watch him. After a few brief moments, he swung his enormous neck and rack and walked away so dignified. What an honor.
Back in our little cabin on the Cheyenne River, we heated up leftover enchiladas, jabbered on and on about our day, drank hot tea and watched a John Wayne movie called The Cowboys. I stayed up late that night. But when 6:00 in morning came around, I was pulling on my boots, slurping a hot mug of coffee and leaning on the fence behind the cabin. It became a habit, leaning on that fence. Because, behind that fence were twelve little feisty foals. All of them Mustangs.