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Getting up close with Nevada’s wild horses

Four members of the stallion Santiago's band: Lam, Margarita, Santana (born June 6, 2021), and Arrow. Four members of the stallion Santiago’s band: from left, Lam, Margarita, Santana (born June 6, 2021), and Arrow. | Photo by John T. Humphrey

The wide-eyed foal is all spindly legs and fuzzy ears, with a tail that swishes constantly. She stares. I stare. I don’t know what she’s thinking, but I’m spellbound, caught up in a moment I’d been waiting a lifetime to experience—seeing wild horses at home on the Western range.

The 2-week-old was named Chelsea Ann after a young girl in Nevada’s Carson Valley. Many of the wild horses in the Fish Springs herd are named in honor of real people who take the privilege seriously. They may never touch the horses, feed them, shelter them in their barns, or sit on their backs, but the horses are important to them. They rejoice in births and mourn deaths as if the horses were family members.

Posts on Fish Springs Wild Horse Alliance’s Facebook page (with more than 13,000 followers) and the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates (with about 61,500 followers) show the close human-horse ties in the valley’s small communities.

Three generations of wild horses: from left, Hayden, mother of Chelsea Ann (born May 28, 2021), and Scarlett, Hayden’s mother. | Photo by John T. Humphrey

The 4-legged Chelsea Ann turns to nurse from her mother, Hayden, while her grandmother, Scarlett, watches over them. On a nearby rise stands Carson, the herd stallion and father of both mother and foal. He cuts a noble figure against the backdrop of the Pine Nut Mountains, which are speckled with snow even in early June.

Up close and personal

I could have seen wild horses in a dozen Western states, but I chose Nevada. It’s home to more than half the country’s wild horse and burro population, including the Carson Valley bands (small family groups of wild horses with 3 to 12 or more members).

While some wild horses are descendants of escaped ranch horses, DNA tests have shown that the horses roaming the Carson Valley and Pine Nut Mountains are related to the Spanish Barbs brought here by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s.

Why does this make them special? The Spanish Barb was an ancient breed treasured by Europe’s royal horse farms. Thanks to the conquistadors, the breed became the foundation stock of America’s major breeds: Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Morgans, Quarter Horses, and Plantation Horses.

Photographer John T. Humphrey leads tours to view Nevada’s wild horses. | Photo by Dale Leatherman

Recently, I joined wildlife photographer John T. Humphrey, who escorts small groups into the high mountains to view these wild horses. When he stopped his truck near 2 bands of wild horses, my first reaction was open-mouthed respect.

With winter just giving way to spring, I did not expect to see sleek animals rippling with muscles. Sagebrush dotted the desert terrain around us. Little else looked edible, yet the horses were thriving. The show horses I’m used to back East wouldn’t last a week here.

As we watched, colts (young males) scuffled like teenagers, while mares and youngsters grazed the land and stallions stood sentinel over their bands. Like a parent pointing out their athlete on the field, Humphrey identified horses by name and shared tidbits about each.

After years of observing and photographing the horses, he knows each horse’s life story, as well as each band’s hierarchy. Humphrey’s photos and videos also reveal the depth of his connection to the horses: Among them are rare shots of a mare giving birth. 

“When a foal is born, the herd gathers around to shield it, so you can imagine my surprise when the horses did not crowd in to block my view,” Humphrey explains. “The stallion was watchful, but he knows me and was okay with me shooting photos. A telephoto lens is your best tool out here, so you can be unobtrusive. The horses are wild animals, with the same protective behaviors as other wildlife.”

Protecting the future

You don’t have to be an equestrian to appreciate an early morning visit to the wild horses of the Carson Valley: to smell the tangy aroma of sage, gaze at the mountain panoramas, and enjoy the peaceful setting. Horse lovers can appreciate the nuances of the horses’ family interactions, and anyone can marvel at the living history they represent.

During every stage of this country’s growth, from the Pony Express (which ran through this valley) to the World Wars, horses have played key roles. Even many of our cars—Mustangs, Broncos, Colts—bear their names.

Wild horses of the Carson Valley descended from the mounts of Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago. | Photo by John T. Humphrey

Horses have been a constant in my life. I never outgrew my “horse-crazy” phase. After college I plunged headlong into the horse business—training, showing, coaching, and, finally, writing about English equestrian sports and horse-related travel. I wrote about wild horses, too, but seeing them in the West eluded me until my visit to the Carson Valley.

The modern horse evolved in North America but migrated across a land bridge to Eurasia about 10,000 years ago, only to be reintroduced by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. So, are they “native” or “invasive”? It’s an ongoing debate.

In 1971, public outcry about the cruel and costly methods of controlling the animals prompted Congress to pass the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to help protect them. The legislation defined wild equines as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West . . . [that] enrich the lives of the American people.”

Since 1971, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has managed wild horses on millions of public acres that are also in demand for grazing cattle and sheep. That tug-of-war continues. So does the controversy over BLM methods of controlling horse populations, which include capturing them and selling them or offering them for adoption. (According to the BLM, more than 270,000 have gone to good homes.)

Alternatives, such as darting horses with contraceptive, can be done on the range without traumatizing horses. Private groups such as the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) are funding these measures to keep wild horses and burros out of the BLM’s roundup program. AWHC’s Communications Director Grace Kuhn says that AWHC “manages the largest human fertility control for wild, free-roaming horses in the world.”

The fate of the wild horses has drawn the attention of national news outlets, which is welcomed by wild horse advocates and tourism bureaus throughout the West. “There are few places where you can see these majestic creatures grazing and playing in such an expansive, wide-open, natural landscape,” says Jan Vandermade, executive director of Carson Valley Tourism. “The palpable sense of Old West culture lives on here.”

Info: A 3-hour tour for up to 4 people costs $300. (775) 800-3750.

A lifelong horse lover, Dale Leatherman showed jumping horses professionally before becoming a writer. She is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.

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