by Chad Hanson
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.
—Henry Beston, The Outermost House
As a kid I rode a pony with a painted coat. My family called her, “Daisy.” She could run faster than any of the horses within five miles of our house. She beat thoroughbreds. Arabians. Once, she outran a quarter horse. I loved that pony. I loved her right up until the point when I discovered motocross. After that, my attention to horses waned. I developed a crush on metal and plastic. I still live in a world of machines and technology, but I replaced the motorcycle with a mountain bike. It’s quieter. Until last spring, it had been three decades since I’d known a horse.
My wife and I had planned a weekend trip to the Hole-in-the-Wall region of Wyoming. It’s a landscape of red cliffs and mesas. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used to hide in the area, among the bluffs along the Middle Fork of the Powder River. In the time of Butch and Sundance, Wyoming enjoyed a shortage of lawmen. Plus, as far as hideouts go, this one is scenic.
On the highway west of Casper we run into rain. Then the rain turns into a full-throated storm. We find ourselves pressing into wind driven hail. I see a patch of blue sky on my left, so I ask, “Would you like to see the Red Desert?” I met Lynn in Tucson. She likes deserts. She says, “Sure. Go left. Look. There’s a road.” It doesn’t take long to escape the weather. Soon, we’re headed south with the sun beating through the windshield. As the dirt and vegetation dry, I begin to see horses. I assume that we’re on public land. I ask, “Who’s horses?” Then I point out that we are probably on public property. Lynn says, “I don’t know.” Then she looks at a map. After a moment she says, “We’re on a herd area, run by the Bureau of Land Management.” She says, “Those are wild horses.”
Wild Horses. Wild? Wild is one of my favorite adjectives. I didn’t know Lynn when she was young, but she grew up with horses, too. “Why don’t we stop?” she asks.
I dig my camera out of the backseat. Then I unfold a tripod, clean the surface of my most powerful lens, and we start to trek through the sagebrush. When we saw the horses from the car they were grazing, but when we start to hike they show signs of alertness. They don’t stop eating but they lift their heads to check our location. We push onward, closer to them. We shorten the distance until thirty feet stand between us. After that, they begin walking.
Through my telephoto lens I see their coats. Scrapes and scars mark the terrain between their shoulders and haunches. Manes jut in between their ears to cover up their eyes. In one case, a forehead sports a cluster of burrs. They form a gnarled hat of hair and dehydrated plants. In another instance, a dreadlock hangs from one of their necks. These are nobody’s horses. They’re scrappy. They are unkempt—and they’re beautiful.
In 1868, a man by the name of Peres stumbled onto the mouth of a cavern in the hills of northern Spain. He described the spot to an archeologist, Marcelino Sautuola, who returned with his daughter and a pair of oil lamps. Once they were inside, she noticed familiar shapes on the ceiling and walls, “Look. Animals.” They discovered the Altamira site. The cave hosts one of the oldest and most elaborate collections of rock art ever found. The images include examples of deer and bison, but the stars of the exhibit are horses. Altamira represents an early effort to capture the majesty of the world with a two-dimensional image: one of the first attempts at art. When human groups began to explore aesthetics, they did their best to mirror the form and essence of the horse.
As human beings, we’re inconsistent when it comes to our tastes. For example, historically, we saw mountains as landscapes to avoid. We thought of them as harsh. We assumed that they were barren and dangerous. We preferred the safety and order of gardens and neighborhoods. Today, we cherish mountain peaks. We paint them. We sing songs about them, and when we have to leave them, we begin to look for a way back. On another note, in our past, women used to wear the bodies of flamingos on their heads. I’m glad to say, today, we find that kind of fashion excessive. Desires change. That said, I have searched, and I cannot find a time when we did not see beauty in horses.
Lynn and I spend the morning trying to move in closer to the herd. I’m hoping to make a photo of their faces. We know better than to march up to them, however. We move ten feet toward them every few minutes. We talk in hushed tones, so they know that we are not two-legged cats trying to stalk up on them in silence. We do not walk in straight lines. We tack left and right to convince them that we’re just two friendly bipeds, out meandering on the prairie. It does not work. Each time we step closer the horses look up from the ground. They spot us. Then they readjust their position. After a long pursuit-in-slow-motion we are a half a mile from our car. I’m starting to get hungry, and it’s been too long since we drank any water. We decide to head back to the road. I untie the flannel shirt that I’ve been wearing on my waist, but before I put my arms into the sleeves I flap it to shake off the dust. I flick it down and then back up. When I do that, it makes a loud crack of a sound. Stampede.
Stampede. One moment the horses are grazing and the next they’re flying through the sage. No transition. When the sound of my shirt reaches their ears—the landscape shifts. The calm swells and troughs of the prairie roil into a storm of motion. The horses run away from us in the beginning. Then a band of four breaks to the right. They make a wide turn. We watch as they bend their route. They circle around until it appears that they are running back toward us.
One moment the horses are grazing and the next they’re flying through the sage. No transition. When the sound of my shirt reaches their ears—the landscape shifts. The calm swells and troughs of the prairie roil into a storm of motion. The horses run away from us in the beginning. Then a band of four breaks to the right. They make a wide turn. We watch as they bend their route. They circle around until it appears that they are running back toward us. Then it becomes clear that they are running toward us. I hear Lynn say, “Oh.” It’s not a word, however. It’s more like a sound. I’m speechless, too. I mutter, “
Then it becomes clear that they are running toward us. I hear Lynn say, “Oh.” It’s not a word, however. It’s more like a sound. I’m speechless, too. I mutter, “Uuugh?” Then I grab my wife and pull her beside me. We stand together behind the camera, which is perched on top of a tripod. It’s not a bunker, but it’s all we have. We’ve spent long parts of our lives in rugged places. We are educated when it comes to safety in the wilderness. We know what to do if we’re attacked by a black bear, or a grizzly, or a mountain lion. We’ve taken
We’ve spent long parts of our lives in rugged places. We are educated when it comes to safety in the wilderness. We know what to do if we’re attacked by a black bear, or a grizzly, or a mountain lion. We’ve taken time to practice, so we can act without having to think about what to do in the case of emergency. None of our training prepared us to protect ourselves from a stampede of wild horses, so we stand together, making sounds from behind an aluminum tripod. It is sad, but in a way, a little romantic. We can’t take our eyes off of the mustangs. Their legs churn the dry grasses. They kick up a storm of dust. Then they come to a halt. Ten feet away, the hooves of the lead horse dig in the dirt and they all stop. Dust clouds our view, but when it clears, the horses emerge: chests heaving, nostrils flared, and ears in fighting position.
We can’t take our eyes off of the mustangs. Their legs churn the dry grasses. They kick up a storm of dust. Then they come to a halt. Ten feet away, the hooves of the lead horse dig in the dirt and they all stop. Dust clouds our view, but when it clears, the horses emerge: chests heaving, nostrils flared, and ears in fighting position. The two of us turn into sculptures of ourselves. At
The two of us turn into sculptures of ourselves. At first I look ahead but even blinking feels like an act of aggression. I turn my eyes toward the ground. Then I realize that I am no longer breathing, so I remind myself to inhale. I hear Lynn trying to keep herself from crying. We stay this way for fifteen minutes. Maybe more. We’re stuck in a standoff, with fear and curiosity as glue, binding us to the horses. I whisper, “I’m going to make a picture.”
I whisper, “I’m going to make a picture.” Lynn says, “Yeah. Slowly. Don’t make any noises.”
Lynn says, “Yeah. Slowly. Don’t make any noises.”The camera makes a subtle beep as it brings the lens into focus. The sound attracts the horses’ attention. Their ears lock onto the black box at the top of the tripod. They look bothered, but then after a moment, they start to relax. The quiet clicks and chirps actually seem to put them at ease. I suspect the sounds make us seem safe—a pair of birds—more like chubby cranes than grizzlies.
The camera makes a subtle beep as it brings the lens into focus. The sound attracts the horses’ attention. Their ears lock onto the black box at the top of the tripod. They look bothered, but then after a moment, they start to relax. The quiet clicks and chirps actually seem to put them at ease. I suspect the sounds make us seem safe—a pair of birds—more like chubby cranes than grizzlies.
After I’ve made enough pictures, I look up from my viewfinder. I stand for several minutes, staring eye-to-eye at the “other.” The Sioux and the Cheyenne called them, “The Horse People.” This band’s leader is a male that we’ve seen often in the time since our first encounter. We guess that he’s an old stallion, spending his golden years roaming with a group of bachelors. His body is charcoal. A dark coat covers his back and shoulders but it breaks up along his neck. Under his throat, the color changes to a marbled spread of black and white. On his face, he wears a set of marks that give him luminosity. As I look into his eyes I am struck by the sense that I’m looking through time. It feels like I am looking into the eye of the Earth.*
Horses evolved on the North American continent. They evolved here, and nowhere else. They grazed alongside wooly mammoths. They ran from the threat of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. Paleontologists suggest that horses went extinct in this hemisphere during the last ice age. At least, that’s one story. The fossil record demonstrates that horses outlasted other species in the Pleistocene, and some evidence suggests that small bands may have even survived into the era of European conquest. Even so, it’s safe to assume that most of them migrated over the Bering land bridge into Asia.
Mongolians were the first to climb onto a horse’s back. From the steppes of the Himalayas, the animals traveled to Africa and Europe. Some took on stripes and turned into zebras. The herdsmen of the Mediterranean used others to launch war parties into Spain. Not to be outdone, the Spaniards also began to keep horses. Riding became an art. Finally, in the days of Christopher Columbus, horses were loaded on ships and returned to the homeland of their ancestors. The native people of the West have a saying, “The grass remembers the horses.” The tribes of the plains found spiritual partners in these animals, whose teeth and hooves evolved on American soil. In spite of their role on farms and in militaries, anyone who has witnessed a band of wild mustangs running can see that their bodies were carved by the elements of western states: prairie wind and wide open spaces. Compared to the other animals that we turned into pets or commodities, horses wear their domestication lightly. After a single generation born in freedom, they return to the patterns of behavior that served them since the Cenozoic. Like the offspring of
In spite of their role on farms and in militaries, anyone who has witnessed a band of wild mustangs running can see that their bodies were carved by the elements of western states: prairie wind and wide open spaces. Compared to the other animals that we turned into pets or commodities, horses wear their domestication lightly. After a single generation born in freedom, they return to the patterns of behavior that served them since the Cenozoic. Like the offspring of hatchery-raised salmon, born into rivers, they only know one state. The wild.
In a well-known passage, Henry David Thoreau suggested, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is one of the most enigmatic sentences in American letters. Speculations about what he meant abound in different directions, but most scholars agree that the hermit of Walden used these words to remind us that societies can take a toll on our better nature. In towns and cities our culture goes to work on us. We become domesticated. Our thoughts turn into reflections of popular, but often dubious beliefs.
Our culture limits our vision. Societies ask us to wear a set of blinders, much like those that we would place onto the eyes of a draft horse. Blinders curb what you see. They make it possible for us to look at human beings as if they are one dimensional. We tend to see ourselves as workers. In the past, our culture drove us to view others as slaves. When we look at the dry grasses of our prairies and deserts, too often, we dwindle what we see to that of a forage factory, a pasture for sheep and cattle or an economic entity, thought of in terms of animal-units-per-month. Thoreau would not have pictured the prairie that way. He saw a rich pallet of both humanity and nature, stretching from his feet toward the West.
At times, we rise above the tendency to shrink our thoughts on land, people, and animals down to the level of economics. For example, when we crafted legislation to protect wild horses, we stood up for aesthetic values and the moral case for conserving their habitat. Richard Nixon signed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971. Today, I hear the American mustang discussed as a nuisance. People describe them as pests or misfits. I do not take issue with the notion that they are misfits. They belong to another age—a time when the grasslands of this continent were still untamed. For that reason alone, we ought to appreciate wild horses. During a speech on civil rights, Martin Luther King junior joined Thoreau by placing faith in wildness. King said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Misfits. Those who don’t wear blinders. People who refuse to follow.
On some level, we understand what the wisest among us have tried to teach. In some ways we acknowledge the value of wildness. We admire those with a will strong enough to overcome the pressure to conform. The mustang serves as a mascot for one of the high schools in our hometown: Casper, Wyoming. Since we lack a professional football team, most of us cheer for the Denver Broncos, and every vehicle registered in the state bears a license plate emblazoned with an image of a bucking horse. In some sense we know the value and appeal of a rebel. We identify with the spirit of the mustang. We made the wild horse into a symbol of unbrokeness.
We also decreased the number of mustangs in the West from over two million to less than 56,000 in two generations. The state of Wyoming recently sued the Bureau of Land Management. If the state wins the lawsuit, the ruling will force the blm to further cut the number of wild horses within our borders. In addition, state representatives have proposed legislation that would lift our current ban on horse slaughter. John Fire Lame Deer, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, once told an interviewer, “When a people start killing off their own symbols they are in a bad way.”
After an hour, the horses in front of us turn their attention to one another. They start to nuzzle each other’s faces and necks. One of them looks like he is sleeping. Over time, in a landscape without any shelter, horses learned to lean on members of their families.
I fold the tripod and we begin to make our way toward the car. We haven’t even taken time to pick a place to camp. Our original plans would have put us on a creek a hundred miles to the north. After we walk several paces, I cannot help myself, I turn around. The horses have begun to follow us. They do not walk us all the way back to the road, but they follow us for fifty yards, and then they watch us leave.
Back home, Monday morning, I throw a leg over my mountain bike and start the usual commute to work. I begin on a well-worn path: two lefts and then on a right on the paved grid of our neighborhood. Before I reach the office I notice I am running early, so I jump the curb. Then I take off into the empty grassland at the edge of town.
Photo Wild Horses and Burros in Wyoming © Bureau of Land Management
Chad Hanson serves as Chair of the Department of Social & Cultural Studies at Casper College. His nonfiction titles include, Swimming with Trout (University of New Mexico Press, 2007) and Trout Streams of the Heart. He is also the author of two collections of poems: Patches of Light and This Human Shape. His recent awards include the Meadowhawk Prize and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council. Visit: www.chadhanson.org.