Don't Fence Them In
"It's like the mother delivered her baby into my hands. I carried her home on my lap," says Nelson.
Three college interns volunteering at the sanctuary join us on the ride led by Nelson. Except for an occasional trot, the horses walk the tough, mountainous range where hardy purple, gold and white wildflowers manage to grow amid mounds of volcanic rock.
During the ride we climb 2,000 feet. All the while, in the distance, we can see the snowcapped Cascade Mountains, on the other side of which, beyond our line of sight, lies the Pacific Ocean. The only sign of civilization within views that stretch for miles: an occasional power line.
We're barely out of the paddock when a hare dashes across our path. A few minutes later a rattlesnake slithers in front of Nelson's horse, which remains calm and simply gives the snake wide berth. We see the bones of a colt; Nelson says a mountain lion that attacked two tame horses in her paddock probably killed it. The bones have been picked clean by turkey vultures, one of several raptors, including hawks and eagles, that share the sky over this land with 150 varieties of songbirds.
But we've come to see the wild horses and soon come upon a band of about 10 mares and a stallion. About half an hour later we spot two "bachelor" horses that hang out together. Only the strong get to mate, and the strongest take more than their fair share, gathering harems around them.
"They'll steal each others' mares if they get a chance," Nelson tells us. One burro apparently snuck into a harem one night. The mule that resulted from the affair was shunned by all the other horses. But the horses can also show great compassion, Nelson says. This spring, she tells us, she saw a harem without a stallion. Later, she found the stallion with a new colt and mare. He had apparently taken the risk of losing his harem by staying behind to help the baby and its mother.
We spot the black stallion and his band at the watering hole after several hours of riding under the hot sun. While our mounts rest and the mustangs warily keep their eye on us while drinking, we settle in the shade for lunch and talk.
"You can go to a Pony Express museum and see saddlebags and stirrups and such," says Nelson. "But the California mustang was the favorite mount of the Pony Express riders, and the progeny of those horses are still here. They're alive. I like to give people a feeling for that living history."
Nelson first came to know the wild horses in the early 1970s. She lived on remote Bureau of Land Management land for months and even years at a time, paid to catch wild horses the federal government considered excess. The land can support only a certain number of animals, and wild horses compete with range cattle raised by ranchers on federal land.
The horses Nelson caught back then were adopted out, until one year, when she was told that 80 mustangs no one wanted were going to be slaughtered. "I couldn't see that happen to these marvelous animals, so I said I'd take them." She kept them on ranchland lent by a supporter for a few years, until the BLM decided to replace her and use helicopter crews to round up mustangs they wanted to remove from federal land. Nelson was out of a job, and thus out of money for hay and grain for her charges.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company