Don't Fence Them In

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004

Awild black stallion with about 20 mares at his side rears his head and stares intently, his body stiff and alert, ears perked.

We rein our mounts and freeze in the saddle. For a few moments nothing stirs; it seems as if even the birds notice the encounter and settle to watch.

Suddenly the stallion makes a decision. With a great snort and a whinny he turns and races away, leading his mares in a whirl of dust and pounding hooves.

The morning encounter with wild horses is one of many on a two-day ride through the 5,000-acre Wild Horse Sanctuary in Northern California. But it is one of the most special moments, because once we dismount and sit quietly several yards from the edge of the watering hole, the stallion reconsiders his decision about us and returns. The mares follow. They wait until he decides it's safe to drink, then join him.

About 200 horses and 20 burros freely roam this wild, open land in Shingletown, Calif., about a three-hour drive north of Sacramento. Except for the foals born here, most of the wild horses have been rescued from dire circumstances. A nonprofit organization headed by 58-year-old Dianne Nelson provides them a natural home. Donations to keep the sanctuary going are subsidized by travelers like us, who sign on for two- or three-day riding trips -- on tame, well-trained horses -- through the sanctuary.

At stops along the ride, Nelson shares her knowledge and her love for the wild horses we've come to watch.

"I have the deepest admiration and respect for them," she says. "They're survivors. They're the resource the West grew up on." White settlers and Native Americans alike tamed many of the horses that first came to the American West on the ships of Spanish explorers beginning in the late 15th century. Over the centuries they mated with horses lost or released by the U.S. Cavalry, miners and ranchers.

"Their ancestors carried everyone around," says Nelson. "They brought the freight, the mail. They pulled the wagons and the plows. You name it, they did it."

The six guests who meet at Nelson's house on the edge of the sanctuary this Saturday morning in July range in age from 11 to 57. One New Jersey mother has brought her horse-loving daughter as a 13th birthday present. The girl is the only experienced rider. I ride every chance I get, which is a couple of hours about once or twice a year. I fear that at the end of a day of riding, someone will have to pry my feet from the stirrups and settle my bottom on a block of ice.

I'm assigned to Marco, a tall, regal gelding on permanent loan from a woman who didn't have time to ride him. Nelson's mount, Pathfinder, was a bottle-fed foal. The mother was a wild horse. When her colt was three days old, the mare approached Nelson's daughter and collapsed at her feet, dead of an infection.

"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.

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