Authors: H. Alan Day
“A great American story, and an inspiring tale of vision, courage, and hard-won wisdom. It’s told with humor and grace and without pretension. And every reader is sure to find a horse to fall in love with in these pages.”
—Larry Watson, author of
“A definite read for all those who love horses. Day and Sneyd’s book is sure to become an instant wild-horse classic in the spirit of J. Frank Dobie.”
—J. Edward de Steiguer, author of
Wild Horses of the West
The Horse Lover
is a very good illustration of the real western part of our nation. Day, a successful rancher and businessman, is honest and forthright in dealings with neighbors, employees, business associates, and especially the federal government. I recommend this reading.”
—Dennis DeConcini, former U.S. senator from Arizona
“For every American who is stirred by the sight of wild mustangs running free, here’s the inspiring saga of a man who changed his life to make it a reality. A book that will stir the soul of every horse lover and leave every one of them cheering.”
—Allan J. Hamilton,
, author of
Zen Mind, Zen Horse
The Horse Lover
A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs
H. Alan Day
With Lynn Wiese Sneyd
Foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor
University of Nebraska Press | Lincoln and London
© 2014 by H. Alan Day
Some names in this account have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Cover photo © Joel Sartore/joelsartore.com.
All images courtesy of the author.
All rights reserved
Publication of this volume was assisted by a grant from the Friends of the University of Nebraska Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Day, H. Alan.
The horse lover: a cowboy’s quest to save the wild mustangs / H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd; foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor.
978-0-8032-5335-3 (cloth: alkaline paper)
1. Mustang—Conservation—South Dakota. 2. Wild horses—Conservation—South Dakota. 3. Day, H. Alan. 4. Cowboys—South Dakota—Biography. 5. Ranchers—South Dakota—Biography. 6. Wildlife conservationists—South Dakota—Biography. 7. Wild horses—Government policy—United States. 8. Mustang—Government policy—United States. 9. Ranch life—South Dakota. 10. South Dakota—Social life and customs. I. Sneyd, Lynn Wiese. II. O’Connor, Sandra Day, 1930–. III. Title.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
This book is dedicated to fellow horse lovers everywhere.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
— The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
— Winston Churchill
When my brother, Alan, told me that he had agreed to keep fifteen hundred wild mustangs on his South Dakota ranch, I thought he had temporarily lost his common sense. It sounded like a very challenging task and a great deal harder than raising cattle, which he knew how to do very well. Indeed, Alan had been a cattle rancher all his adult life. But Alan was very enthusiastic about the mustang project and about seeing whether he and the mustangs could adjust to each other. Alan likes a challenge and the project was certainly that.
For more than four hundred years, wild mustangs have existed in the region that is now the western United States. They fared well before the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 reduced their habitat. But even in the last century there were many pockets of public land in the West where they could live free, breed, and multiply. But the pressures of the multiple-use policy of the Bureau of Land Management and the restricted uses of national forest and national park lands meant that many of the wild mustangs would be captured, sold, or destroyed. The wild horse and burro law dictated that the Bureau of Land Management was to capture many of them and care for them until they could be adopted. Sadly, many of them were not suitable for adoption. This opened the way for the project Alan undertook.
It is impossible to see a herd of wild horses running free without feeling a surge of excitement and enthusiasm for their vigor, power, and beauty. To watch them run with their manes and tails flying in the wind is to experience a sense of the ultimate freedom of motion.
This book tells the story of the Mustang Meadows project in a way that enables the reader to see and feel that excitement and to glimpse what was and what might have been with these splendid animals.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Few books come to fruition without teamwork, and we were fortunate to gather and work with an exceptionally talented team. A special thank you to Sandra Day O’Connor for encouragement that began long before the first draft even emerged and continued throughout the writing process. Stuart Krichevsky’s guiding wisdom early on kept us focused on a story about horses, horses, horses. Matt Bokovoy of the University of Nebraska Press grabbed this project and, along with Martyn Beeny and the rest of the folks at that fine organization, poured unending energy, vision, and support into it. We also were blessed to have the eyes and editing talents of Liza Wiemer, Meg Files, Nancy Wiese, Marina Day, Debra Brenegan, and Margo Barnes. A warm thank you to Ann and Kevin McQuade for sharing their writing sanctuary. And finally, to our families, who endured the writing process from the sidelines and never stopped cheering us onward, our love and appreciation always.
The Horse Lover
A Sexy Find
They were out there somewhere. I scanned the horizon through the pickup’s bug-spattered windshield. To the right, sunlight reflected off a small stream trickling in and out of view down the mountainside and meandering near this stretch of back road. Maybe they had been here. I pulled off the gravel, dragging a plume of dust, set the parking brake, and grabbed my binoculars from the front passenger seat. Hot wind whistled past me and bumped against the brown hills. I scouted for tracks in the soft, wet soil next to the stream. Not finding a one, I dredged up more patience and focused the binoculars on a distant ridge. This was the fifth time I had gone through this exercise since leaving Reno at sunrise. Sooner or later, I’d find them.
I panned the ridge. Left to right, right to left across clumps of scrub cedar and outcroppings of rock. I was about to turn back when the slightest of movements caught my attention. There, at the top of the ridge, was what I had driven miles to see. I held my breath to keep the binoculars steady against the rush of adrenaline.
A herd of horses began to gather, first two, then three, four, eight, ten, possibly fifteen. The slant of the sun shadowed their colors. One of the horses stood apart from the others, presumably the lead stallion. I had a sense he was looking directly at me, sizing me up, deciding if I was friend or foe.
“Come on, big boy, come on down,” I said. “There’s plenty of water. Take a good long drink.”
The stallion turned his head as if listening. He looked at the herd for a moment, then took off at a gallop down the hill toward me, his family in tow. As the land leveled, he slowed and the other horses followed suit. They bowed their heads and began to graze on the scant clusters of grass. The stallion remained off to one side, ears alert and pointed, tail and mane blowing in the brisk breeze. Even though they were still half a mile away, I could count them now. Ten mares, four babies, and the stallion. All mustangs, all wild. Most were chestnut brown or black with black manes and tails. Two had solid golden coloring. The babies were light dusty brown, still too young to have grown into their colors. The smallest suckled on its mama, a thin sorrel mare with a large head. The stallion was jet black.
I watched, sometimes tucking the binoculars under my chin to give my arms a rest, though never moving more than a few slow inches at a time. I never had observed wild horses in their natural environment, yet I knew they were shy and skittish. They continued grazing their way down the last gentle slope of land toward the gurgling water. When they reached it, I felt like I had been awarded a gold medal for crossing the finish line of a strenuous race. I stood a quarter mile downstream from them. I wanted to hoot and holler in celebration but barely dared to breathe. Each horse took a long drink and splashed in the stream.
I remained still for who knows how long, twenty, thirty minutes, sweating under the Nevada summer sun. Finally I reached into the truck for a bottle of water. The movement triggered the stallion to give some sort of secret signal to the herd. Heads raised and whinnies floated in the air. The stallion took off running. Without hesitation, the horses turned in unison and gracefully followed him over a small hill. When I next spotted them, they were trotting over the ridge where they first had appeared. I focused the binoculars and saw the stallion stop on the crest of the ridge as if surveying whatever mysteries lay on the other side. His tail waved at me. In a blink, he disappeared from sight.
I stood in the cedar- and grass-scented wind, stood beneath the bowl of blue sky, no human or other vehicle in sight. A few hawks circled overhead. I wondered what the stallion had thought of my presence. I only knew what I thought of his.
I climbed in my truck and turned the key. The dream of two thousand wild mustangs running through long, thick prairie grass played across my mind. I turned toward Reno. The last thing in the truck’s wake of dust was a whoop that soared as high as the hawks.
Without the South Dakota ranch, the wild horses and I would never have gotten to know each other. That much is certain. The ranch found me in the early summer of 1988, before a single wild horse stepped into my peripheral vision. At the time, I owned and managed two ranches and needed a third one about as much as I needed a permanent migraine. That’s what I told Joe Nutter every time he pestered me to go see the old Arnold Ranch.
“But Alan,” Joe would say, “I know how important good land is to you and, by gosh, this is thirty-five thousand acres of mouthwatering prairie.” He was the consummate real estate agent. “It’s beautiful. Absolutely incredible. And has the potential to be so productive. You of all people could turn this place around.”
Every call. Beautiful. Incredible. Productive.
Joe wore me down like heels on a pair of cowboy boots. Finally, I said, “Goddamnit, Joe. I’ll go with you just to get you off my back.”
A few days later, I met him in the hamlet of Nenzel, Nebraska, population eighteen, and climbed in his pickup a bundle of grumbles. I hadn’t taken my first sip of Joe’s offered coffee when he turned off Highway 20 and headed north up a narrow dirt road.
“It’s five miles to the state line and another five to headquarters,” said Joe. He swung the wheel to skirt a pothole on the verge of becoming a crater. I quickly gave up drinking the coffee and concentrated on preventing my head from banging against the window. Joe pointed out a gnarled post, long divorced from a fence. “Welcome to South Dakota,” he announced. Three potholes later, we clacked over a cattle guard. “Here we are, on the ranch.” He looked at me for a reaction.
I couldn’t reply, much less move. I had been slammed with an acute case of déjà vu. Somehow I knew this godforsaken road, knew it swerved right before we swerved right, knew what lay around each bend before we made the turn. This was more than a fleeting feeling. It intensified with every bump. I looked out over rolling, grass-covered hills that felt like old friends ready to embrace me, pour me a drink, and sit me down to reminisce about the good old days and the adventures we shared. I saw familiar fence lines, smelled the sweetness of familiar meadows. Without looking at the car’s mileage, I knew we were nearing headquarters.
“Did you say there’s a creek on one side of the main house?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t say that,” said Joe, “but there is.” He gave me a quizzical side glance. “Have you been here before?”
“Not that I recall.” I turned toward the window, unnerved. Not being prone to these types of experiences, I figured any explanation would sound as woo-woo as it felt.
We drove over a culvert and crested a hill. A cluster of buildings and corrals spread out before us. At the center stood a boxy three-story colonial home, white with dark green shutters and shaded by thick elms. A faded red barn anchored one end of the compound. When the ranch was at its zenith, this immense structure would have been its nerve center. The road forked in front of the house and Joe turned left, drove another hundred yards, pulled into an open graveled area, and parked near a pickup and two tractors. I stepped into air alive with the scent of freshly cut grass and livestock.
“The corrals are over there,” said Joe, pointing past the tractors. “I believe there’s a big roping arena and four or five smaller corrals. We’ll check them out, but first let’s see if the Pitkins are home.”
We walked across an expanse of trim lawn. A tire swing hung from one of the elms and I gave it a friendly push. Joe knocked on the door. I swished the blades of grass back and forth with my boot and tuned in to the midday conversations of redwing blackbirds and meadowlarks. A sense of belonging washed over me, dissolving weights on my shoulders. I wanted to run and touch everything like a small child returning home from a long vacation. I couldn’t think beyond the moment; this was the only place in the world I needed to be.
“They must be gone,” he said. “Too bad. I was hoping you could meet John and Debbie. Wonderful people. John knows every inch of this place. He’s been managing it since Don Raymond fell in the bottle.”
“I’m sure we’ll meet at some point,” I said, running my hand over paint peeling from the clapboards. I backed up from the house, craned my neck, and examined what I could see of the chimney and roof. The tuck-pointing looked intact, though some of the shingles lay crooked.
Joe mimicked my view. “Big old house, huh? Nine bedrooms.”
“How old is it?”
“I think it dates back to the 1930s. Arnold and his wife had nine kids. Needed them to work the hundred thousand acres he owned back then. No wonder he became a local legend. After he died, the kids ended up selling off parcels of the land. Apparently none of them were big enough to fill his big shoes. Don Raymond bought thirty-five thousand acres.”
We walked to the back of the house. A guesthouse sat a stone’s throw away and just beyond was a doublewide trailer where Joe said Raymond lived until he filed for bankruptcy. What a shame he became an alcoholic. Having to sell this place must have added to whatever misery festered inside him. I would be heartbroken to lose such a treasure. The ranch charmed me, flirted with me as seductively as a starlet flirts with her fans. But I didn’t need to fall in love with it, because in some strange, inexplicable way, I already loved this ranch and had loved it forever.
We crossed the road near the trailer. A spring-fed creek pooled into a pond ringed with cattails and marsh grass. The water reflected the blue-and-white patchwork sky. A beaver had built a lodge on the far side and beyond its dwelling, a sea of prairie grass stretched out to a distant rise of hills. Its undulating surface mesmerized me and spoke of the land’s great potential.
“Let’s check out the rest of the place,” said Joe. I forced myself to turn and follow. We crunched down the road back to the main house then veered off toward a bunkhouse and a shop. Both looked weathered around the eaves, windows, and doorframes. The glass in one of the bunkhouse windows had cracked. On the other side of the buildings were the corrals. The roping arena had to be a good five hundred feet long. A corner gate opened into a series of smaller corrals. In the farthest, a black horse and a bay grazed on hay. They raised their heads and looked at us curiously but were too intent on eating to walk over to say hello. Some of the corral posts looked worn and the rub boards that protected livestock were almost nonexistent. The neglect didn’t deter me. Quite the opposite. I couldn’t stop thinking about ways to refurbish the headquarters.
We slid open the gate of the arena and walked a few yards to the entrance of the barn. What a majestic building. One of the first things I would do is restore its proud red. A flash of reality intercepted my vision. How was I going to buy this ranch and what in God’s name would I do with it besides fix it up?
“How you doing?” Joe asked. He looked at me oddly.
“Fine, just fine,” I said, stepping into the dim light of the barn and readjusting my poker face. Joe led the way down the row of twenty horse stalls, then climbed a ladder into an empty, dormant hay loft.
“Pitkin said they baled about three thousand acres of hay in the meadow last summer,” Joe said. In times past, this space would have been filled with loose hay, food for the workhorses.
Back outside, the sunlight glared bright. Joe suggested we drive over to the meadow on the south side of the ranch. The road went over Spring Creek and passed the pond. Joe slowed to allow a flock of wild turkeys to march across the gravel in front of us. A little farther on, the road turned left near a metal Quonset building.
“Don Raymond told me once that twenty vehicles could fit in there.” I mumbled that he probably was right. The building, however, seemed insignificant compared to the scene in front of me. Joe stopped the truck at the edge of the sea of grass that extended beyond the pond. I got out and walked in a few yards. The grass was so thick I barely could see my shoes. For any grazing animal or rancher, this was the gold coast.
“The meadow extends around the back of those hills,” Joe said, “and to the east. Then there’s about another twelve hundred acres to the north.” He dangled the carrot. “Do you want to go look over there? Or drive over to the Little White River? It snakes around for a good five miles through the ranch and is real pretty.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ve seen enough for today.” I didn’t add that it wasn’t necessary because on some level I knew those meadows and places and indeed, they were perfect, beautiful and fit for ownership. Maybe Joe was a good poker player and could read my face because he didn’t look perturbed. We got back in the truck and bounced back toward Highway 20. We passed the flock of wild turkeys, maybe twelve or fourteen, bobbling along the road in single file, heading out on some secret journey. At the gnarled post, Joe popped the question. “So what do you think?”
“Well, I gotta be honest. My rule of thumb is not to tangle with property on the brink of foreclosing. But this is one gorgeous ranch. Not sure what I would use it for.” But did it matter?