In 1980, my former husband, Bob, and I lived in California and were planning a horseback riding trip to the state of Nevada - our goal: to see wild horses running free on the open range.
Adventurer | H. Bonnie Matton
Velma was so gracious in quickly responding to our request of where we could go see the wild ones, she immediately got us in touch with Ada and Bruce Ackerman, long-time Pony Express Riders in the Reno area, having come from Oklahoma in the early 1930s. They, in turn, were kind enough to take us under their wings and show us where many of the Mustangs roamed in Northern Nevada.
The day finally came to begin our 'Great Adventure." In May of the same year, Bob and I - along with his Quarter Horse, "Tiny," my Morgan, "Danny Boy," and our German Shepherd, "Napoleon" - made up the members of our expedition as we took off for the great state of Nevada. We would be gone for ten days.
Camping gear, food, reference books, and camera equipment, all were tightly packed into every conceivable corner of our red Toyota Land Cruiser. Hay was tied on the fenders of our matching red horse trailer, as well as on the top of the trailer, and we hit the road looking like vagabonds on the move! We had been advised to bring horse feed with us so our horses wouldn't be eating much-needed forage the wild ones depending on.
We landed at the home of our new friends, arriving in Reno late afternoon. After a few hours rest, we got back on the road, following their truck to the campsite they had chosen for us. It was located in the Pine Nut Range - Herd Management Area (HMA) outside of Carson City, Nevada.
This was our first real introduction to high Nevada desert country, and we were more than pleasantly surprised. No tall Saguaro Cactus, like the ones in southern Nevada, stood waiting for us, but there was plenty of sagebrush, cheat grass and later on Pinon Pine and Juniper trees in the upper ranges of the HMA, plus a multiple array of different kinds of wild flowers.
We made our own picket line by attaching a long rope between two strong bushes, tying our horses close enough to each other so they were able to lie down comfortably if they wanted to, but couldn't get close enough to become entangled in their lead ropes.
The chance of seeing a band of wild horses is so exciting and there were good indications of some being in our vicinity. Ada described a telltale sign of the presence of a stallion in the area. She pointed to a large manure pile, called a 'stud pile,' left by the stallion. It's his way of marking his territory. When another stallion passes by, he too would stop and drop his manure on the same pile of manure, thus showing it was now his territory, and so on and so on. That stud pile can get pretty large, depending on how many times the two - or even more - stallions visited it!
The horses slowly descended down the hill into a valley and out of sight. Throughout our stay, we were to see the Blue Roan many times in this valley. If the area had a name, we couldn't find it on our map. So, as the old saying goes around these parts, "If it doesn't have a name, give it one!" And we did, from then on referring to it as, 'Afternoon Valley.'
Ada and Bruce were as excited as we were at spotting wild horse bands, even though they've been fortunate to have witnessed sightings like these many times over the years.
Suddenly, there they were again, trotting up a hill. But, after careful observation, we realized it was not the same band but a second one, moving out of the way of the first! Leading was a dark brown mare, along with one foal and two to three other horses - probably mares - being pushed by a lovely sorrel (a light shade of chestnut) stallion with flaxen mane and tail.
They were exceptionally beautiful, all with shiny coats, and appeared to be in very good health. I had read before our trip that wild horses living in this HMA were stunted and not very well built. This was proven wrong, time and time again, as every one of the horses we saw could attest to that fact. They looked like horses you only dream about - graceful yet strong with long manes and tails flowing in the wind.
The Ackersons left us just before sundown, returning the next day to show us some of the interesting sights in the area, this time bringing their horses with them.
When the arrived at our campsite, Ada told us about a lone sorrel filly (young female horse) close to the road on their way home. She did not appear to be frightened by their truck, and was still there the next morning. Later, we went back to the area and spotted her. Though she looked to be in good health and alert, she wouldn't leave that particular piece of ground.
She might have been a mare with a sick or injured foal hidden somewhere close by, choosing to stay with it rather than follow the band. More than likely, she was around two years of age and the stallion of the band had pushed her out. Sometimes this occurs with fillies if there are too many in his band to watch out for.
The filly was very curious but kept her distance. If we moved, she moved, and if we stopped, she stopped. When we got too close, she moved out a little further until Bob and I finally rode away.
When we turned to look at her, she had moved back to the original spot. She disappeared a few days later, and we never did find out the reason she seemed to be alone. If she were indeed by herself, undoubtedly another stallion would, in time, pick her up and eventually add her to his 'harem.'
Normally, a stallion will force two-year old stud colts (males) to leave his band as he doesn't want to have to compete with them. They sometimes try to steal a mare or two away from the stallion. Interestingly enough, this helps keep the particular bands from inbreeding.
Once a stud colt is pushed out, he usually joins forces with other young males, having protection in numbers. These are known by many as "Bachelor Bands." I often say they look like they need a mother or a wife! When a bachelor eventually is able to steal a mare or filly, he then leaves the band to start his own family.
Riding down a dusty trail, we were amazed at the array of many different kinds of wild flowers. It had been a wet winter and there were entire fields of bright yellow flowers, intermingled with purple-colored Lupine. I felt we were in paradise.
The various flowers had unbelievably vibrant colors. Indian Paintbrush was a deep fluorescent red, and my particular favorite was a delicate, paper-thin little pink flower with the appropriate name, 'Farewell-to-Spring.'
Bob got so tired getting on and off his horse to take photographs each time we found a different wild flower, by the end of the trip, he was actually hoping we wouldn't come across a new variety!
I looked up from the rainbow of colors and spotted a small band of horses near Slater's Mountain, a mining sight founded in 1896. The horses were grazing high up on the side of a hill. Though we could only study them using field glasses, the sight of seeing horses at all was such a privilege that distance hardly seemed a hindrance.
They were eating a tall, fibrous Bronco Grass, also known as Cheat Grass, a feathery close-to-the-ground kind of wild hay, similar in nutrition to Alfalfa hay. Both are quite nourishing. Horses, unlike livestock, will eat these grasses long after they go dry which helps to keep fires down to a minimum on range lands.
After returning to camp for a quick lunch, we again mounted our horses. Ada took us to a valley where she often sees Mustangs grazing. What a grand surprise awaited us.
We immediately spied a band of 10 to 12 horses. Bob again dismounted to sneak up for some camera shots. As we moved closer, we realized there was not one band, but at least three separate ones - approximately 8 to 10 horses in each - including a magnificent black stallion.
Ada and I watched Bob trying to get nearer, but the stallions had their scouts on the lookout and immediately spotted him. There was no panicking, only organized departure. Some of the horses did stay, continuing to graze while a few kept watch.
As he got closer, they started quietly moving out, each band going in a different direction. It was as though they had routes planned ahead for emergencies.
Most times, an older mare - or lead mare - will take to the lead when the band moves off, while the stallion followed behind to guard the safe escape of his harem, often pushing them along if he felt they were moving too slowly.
When the stallion wanted them to go at a faster pace, he'd lower his neck, extend his head out with ears flat back - and like a snake's movements - turn his head from side to side to get them to move at a faster pace.
They took a steady, smooth-moving pace up into the sagebrush, and it wasn't long before they were completely out of sight, leaving Bob on foot and quite a distance from where he'd left his horse!
The color variations of these animals were endless - strawberry roans, blue roans, blacks, palominos, grays, sorrels, buckskins, gruellas, pintos, many bays - every color one can imagine was represented.
We were aware of something in the air, even our horses were on alert status, for there were often long periods of time when neither made a sound.
Suddenly, we spotted a pinto band up a draw. There were scouts after all - wild horse scouts - standing at attention, staring in our direction and had obviously been aware of us long before we ever saw them. We tried to be as quiet as possible, but they moved off anyway.
It's as though they were able to disappear right into thin air - one minute they were there, the next completely out of our sight, probably not to reappear until they're sure we're well out of their territory.
We proceeded to set up a rough camp at the spring. After an early dinner, Bob and I sat gazing down at the lush meadow below us - hoping to see some horses coming to the creek bed for water. We waited patiently, enjoying the silence of dusk, and we weren't to be disappointed.
The Blue Roan once again made an appearance. He sniffed the air, searching for any signs of danger. Finding none, he moved his harem out of the shelter of the trees, to water. For a short time, he could let down his guard and relax, sure of his band's safety.
Often, his family would lie down to rest, but there was always a horse in the band standing guard in order to give an immediate warning for any signs of danger. Horses very seldom lay down for any length of time as their weight is too heavy on their stomach and intestines. When resting, they more often stand with one leg tipped at a time, taking the weight off of it.
To us, this band represented the countless, free-spirited horses that once roamed the Midwestern plains, but whose number have been reduced to just a portion of what there was in the 1800s.
Luckily, many of these animals had found safety in the rugged terrain of Nevada where they were able to take refuge.
How beautiful and peaceful the band looked, grazing in the early evening. Our horses were definitely aware of them and started snorting like stallions themselves. One of the 'scouts' saw ours, watched intently for a few moments, but evidently decided they were nothing to worry about and continued grazing peacefully.
Before dark, they moved up into a wash (gully) and out of sight. Our horses continued listening for them far into the night.
We completely encircled the hills to the north, riding through two different valleys. On rounding another hill, we saw five horses standing in the shade of a tree - a handsome brown and white pinto stallion with his band of four horses. This time we thought it best if we tie up our horses and quietly moved on foot down the grade, keeping ourselves well hidden in the trees.
Unfortunately, that was one of the last, good sightings of 'our' Blue Roan we were to have on our trip.
Thursday morning, we decided to explore yet another area in the HMA and scout some of the higher country. We hooked up our horse trailer and are trusty steeds jumped right in as usual.
As we passed Slater's Mountain, we were again struck by the isolation of the location. But, we felt no loneliness with such beauty surrounding us. Bob and I observed a number of horses up in those mountains. The wind was icy cold, which chilled us to the bone. We could tell the weather was changing.
We spotted yet again another band of wild ones. We slowly walked our horses up extremely rocky terrain to the top of a hill and stopped. The vista was one of great distances, covering wide-open valleys far below.
We were surprised to see lush, irrigated fields. Some of the land within the HMA is owned by American Indians and BLM livestock allotments are leased to various ranches, some leases originated as far back as the 1930s. An alkali lake sat on the bottom of one of the valleys, looking like an enormous mud puddle.
We could only observe other small bands that day through our binoculars. Their long tails were often touching the ground. It was easy to see where the name 'broomtail' originated from, as the early cowboys used to describe many of the Mustangs.
Even the yearlings had flowing manes and tails as they moved in the wind. I couldn't help but envision their ancestors running through these same hills centuries before.
Perhaps as the weather would soon become increasingly warmer, they were looking for a more tree-covered place to go settle for the hot summer months, grazing and watering in the early morning and evening. Remember, horses can easily travel 40 miles in a day - it's sometimes that far between watering holes.
Compared to cattle and sheep, which will stay around watering holes for long periods of time, horses will stop, drink, rest and move on. They are continually on the move as this is their best protection from predators, thus they seldom do damage to grazing areas in any one area.
We packed up camp, and left for our long drive home. It was definitely with heavy hearts and an understatement to say, we were very sorry to leave.
I soon realized this trip would be one of the highlights of my life and still is to this day. Little did I realize then, 33 years later, that I would be living in Dayton, Nevada. I had originally moved to Reno in 1987 and worked for a mining company for 12 years. When I relocated to Dayton in 1998, I could see from my new home, the Pine Nut Range HMA across the valley. I would soon become a wild horse advocate, spending the next 12 years helping to protect the wild ones in the HMA, as well as all over Nevada and the ten western states.
Life certainly does work in mysterious ways.