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.

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