Still wild

 

Not far from my house in the high desert of northern New Mexico is a large tract of land run by the Bureau of Land Management. Some years ago, two horses were dumped there and left to fend for themselves. Nobody looks after them, but they seem to do pretty well. They have the Galisteo River for water, a few cottonwoods for shade and several hundred acres of scrubby grass. Now unapproachable, the horses are not wild by birth, but made so by circumstance.

One morning I was walking my four dogs, following a rutted path that snakes across the vast treeless plateau. As we came over a small rise, we found ourselves less than a hundred yards away from the now-wild horses. We were downwind, and both grazers startled when they saw us. I had seen the chestnut and palomino before off in the distance, but never so close. Now I could see the scruff of their red and cream winter coats and the snarls of tumbleweed in their tails.

The three older dogs and I all stopped and stared, but the horses ignored us and focused on my puppy, Dio, who had been racing on ahead. He was much closer to them than the rest of us, oblivious to any danger. Worried, I whistled for him. At the sound, the horses charged.

In my experience, most horses will run down a dog if they have a chance. My own childhood pony loved to harass any strange dog, cat or small child that dared enter her pasture. Some horses chase dogs just for fun, and some will kill a dog if they catch it. These two horses shared their land with a pack of coyotes. Although no coyote could take down a healthy horse, they evidently had a strong distaste for anything resembling a four-legged predator.

Little Dio took one look at the rushing horses, turned and ran back to me full-tilt. The other three dogs, having already learned their loose-horse lessons, bunched close behind me. The horses galloped towards us, ears back, teeth bared. I stooped low and clapped, encouraging Dio to run fast and not look back. The horses were about 15 yards away when the panicked puppy reached us. As soon as he did, I stood up straight and raised my hands, palms outward, facing the horses. My fingers were tensed like claws. At the top of my lungs, I yelled “Hey!”

The charging horses stopped short as if I’d reached out and physically yanked them back. They snorted and tossed their heads, looking for some sign of weakness. I held my ground and kept my hands up. The two horses began to circle us tightly in hurried canters, their eyes rolling and their ears pinned back. I turned with them, hands still raised, and spoke softly. After a few more passes, their ears relaxed, and I felt their tension ease. I lowered my hands, and the two animals came to a stop a short distance away, facing me. They had decided we were not a threat; the whole dance had probably lasted no more than a minute or two.

I stood still for a minute, catching my breath, watching the horses. They were unkempt but beautiful, as wild horses always are. The chestnut took a step towards me and I raised my hands again, stopping him. I wanted to touch him, to run my fingers over his rough coat, but even more than that, I wanted him to stay wild. So I stepped forward and said loudly but evenly, “You two are lovely, but you’d better give us some space.” The horses took a few steps back together, side-by-side, keeping pace with my advance. I stopped and so did they, their eyes softer now, ears pricked forward. They watched and listened to me, more curious than aggressive or afraid.

Then one of the dogs whined, reminding me that all four canines were still cowering around my feet. I waved the dogs on ahead, keeping between them and the horses. I faced the horses to make sure they were going to let the dogs go, but they ignored the pack and kept watching me. I studied their blazed faces and long whiskers -- and I watched recognition come into their eyes.
 
I wondered if they were remembering a person they trusted long ago, before they were abandoned to run wild. Slowly, I lowered my hands, and turned and walked away, down the path towards home. But every few steps I glanced back. Each time I did so, the horses were still there, standing where I left them, still watching and still wild, letting us walk away.
 
Mary Morton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and photographer in Cerrillos, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.