Features > Working Rigs
The Wild, Wild Horses
story & photos by Debbie Murphy
Experiencing What the Old West Was Really Like
How about a different sort of off-road adventure, one with a really unusual destination in mind that’s entirely mobile? We’re talking about chasing after herds of wild horses that roam free in the foothills of the White Mountains in eastern California and into Nevada.
The scrub-brush scenery and subjects of our trail ride stir up all sorts of images of the Old West. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Louis L’Amour, and High Noon’s Gary Cooper all come to mind. So as we set out in a convoy of modified pickup trucks, I’m singing “I wanna be a cowboy.” Never mind that this is the only part of the song I remember. We’ll make up appropriate lyrics as we roll down Hwy. 6 out of Bishop.
By now we’re on the eastern slope of the Whites on our way down into Fish Lake Valley. Have no ideas what the hill thing is called or if it even has a name — thought it was cool looking though.
Our guide is Jack Foster, a local farrier (somebody that shoes horses) who enjoys almost legendary status in the narrow valleys carved out by the Sierra, White and successive mountain ranges. Foster has been plying his trade in the area for nearly 20 years. He stumbled across his first wild horse herd on the way to the ranches in Fish Lake Valley.
“I was tired of taking the same road every month,” he explains. “So I started exploring different routes.” He’s been telling us about the herds for the last year, wrapped around other horse-related adventures that are an integral part of having him shoe or trim your horses. Foster keeps telling us he’s retired, but we keep calling him as much for the stories as the shoeing.
The universal sign that horses have been here. Was concerned I wouldn’t have impressive shots of the live dispensers of the universal sign, so I was shooting anything that moved, or didn’t. This is not a stud pile (mentioned in the story), simply a pile.
This is the stallion (there’s a universal sign for stallion, which you can’t see from this shot). When they’re moving, the stallion brings up the rear, lead mare in front. You can tell he’s the stallion, ‘cause he’s guarding his herd and there’s not a foal next to him.
So, what do you think Foster drives, what could be up to the challenge of tracking wild horse herds? It’s a 1980-something Toyota 4x4 mini pick-up with about 350,000 miles on it. His truck represents a couple of Toyotas, grafted into the original from salvage yards.
The second vehicle in the caravan is a late 1990’s Dodge Ram 4x4 carrying friends Mike and Paula. Mike and Foster are both second-generation horsemen. You know, the type that rode before they walked, etc., etc. The two of them together are the local version of Western theater.
The horse was the original four-foot drive vehicle that built the West, wearing down the rough sage to mark mountain passes, hauling trappers, settlers, miners, the whole cavalcade of pioneers that extended America to the Pacific Ocean. While the horse can’t be modified for enhanced ground clearance or extra traction, the creature’s natural survival skills get him into and out of pretty much anything the rough terrain hands out. That’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years of tottering along foot-wide mountain trails on a slightly deranged Arabian. I may not be able to change his gearing or upgrade his suspension, but the little devil wants to get home in one piece as much as I do.
We cruise through beautiful downtown Benton, closing in on the truck trail that leads to wild horse country. How did the herds get here? Horses came to North America in the late 15th century with the Spanish conquistadors. These original mustangs were augmented by domestic horses that escaped or were let loose by settlers and ranchers.
Trucks climbing up hills. Big Whoop. Maybe you readers can tilt the magazine so it looks steeper.
The Dodge Ram truckin’ along, trying to find our way around the roadus interruptus.
The herds flourish in areas with few natural predators. Mountain lions control some herd sizes, but cyclical drought is the species’ greatest predator, sucking the water out of streams and reducing forage to dried sticks.
Since the enactment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971, the herds, numbering close to 50,000, are protected. The Bureau of Land Management manages the herds, culling animals for adoption when the numbers exceed the ability of the land to support them. The adopted horses are chosen at random rather than removing the best of the herd from the diverse gene pool.
We’re at the turnoff, and I’m anticipating vast hordes of wild animals, right out of The Black Stallion, or maybe Return to Snowy River, to appear on the horizon. Then I find out it’s been about five years since Foster last went on this expedition. Oops, this just may turn out to be an off-road search for the Holy Grail.
But how could you not find a herd, with some 50,000 of them out there? Then Foster points to his right, “there’s a herd.” I squint across about a half-mile of rolling sage and spot them, a small band grazing against the hillside. We pull off the asphalt; I grab my camera and slowly, carefully creep toward them, clicking away as I go, trying not to look too predatory. This may be our only sighting and we’re not taking any chances.
I’m not sure what I expected mustangs in the wild to look like, but this little family unit was bigger, rounder and healthier than I’d anticipated. There’s no delicate refinement that you see in domestically bred horses, but they have their own efficient beauty — think the pre-1997 F-150 compared to the more stylish post-1997 models.
A lot of current horse training techniques are based on the horse’s natural instincts, how the foals interact with the mares, the dominance of the lead mare. Right now I can’t remember any of it. I just recall Foster’s story of catching the attention of a wild horse and holding his fist against his chest. As soon as the fist turned into a claw, the horse was ready for flight. I hope my camera doesn’t look like a claw.
This is the first herd we spotted along Hwy. 6, outside of Benton. I’m creeping up on them, shooting film like crazy ‘cause I’m afraid they’re going to take off, which they never did.
This grouping is a small band: the obligatory stallion, three mares and two foals. The stallion spots me and I can’t remember if I’m supposed to make eye contact, not that I can see his eyes. Apparently, with grazing territory so close to the blacktop, they’re used to tourists or somehow figured out I don’t have a predatory bone in my body. They stand and let themselves be photographed.
According to mustang-watchers, the wild horses instinctively don’t spook with the energy of their domestic brothers. Think about it, if your only defense is flight, you want to make sure you don’t waste a good sprint on a non-threatening person creeping through the sage with a camera, unlike my addled Arabian who spooks for the fun of it.
Back to the truck and down the dirt trail into the foothills of the Whites. This time we don’t see anything more equine than hoof prints and stud piles (horses mark their progress through the brush by defecating on top of the pile left by the last band, and so on and so on until there’s a major monument). There’s been a serious mining operation since the last time Foster took this route. The horse herd road disappears into a pit. Foster knows the general direction we have to go so we pick our way around the pit and up the scrub-studded hills.
This is the biggest herd, unfortunately they were a ways away and moving. Probably 15 or so total — stallion in the back, lead mare in the front and the harem in between. The lead mare pretty much determines where the herd goes, what it eats and the order in which it drinks (as it should be). It’s fair to say the horse herd is a matriarchal society, the stallion defends the herd and procreates, which all in all isn’t a bad life. The lead mare characteristics are present in domestic horses as well — we call them bitches. Interestingly enough, I think the tendency to be part of a bachelor band is identifiable in domestic geldings too.
The next siting is a small bachelor herd, another anomaly of wild horses that demonstrates the natural breeding program in the wild. The foals are protected within the herd for a year or two. When the young colts hit puberty, they form their own little stag party until they’re old enough or brave enough to start picking up fillies or challenge a stallion for his harem. The genetically inferior stallions are doomed to a life wandering the hills in the company of other bachelors. These bachelors are pretty blasé, they’ve got other things on their minds than worrying about a couple of pickup trucks.
We climb further into the foothills. The road hasn’t been traveled much, but that’s the beauty of the arid climate — there’s not enough rainfall to wash it out, except at a couple of dry-stream crossings that present only a minor challenge.
A feeble attempt at a beauty shot of Jack’s Toyota. Don’t ask me what the pink flower thing is... don’t know.
Foster spots a trail that winds down a canyon and realizes he’s found the road interrupted by the mining pit. We slide down the drainage and start back up a steep grade to about 6,000 feet, in sight of the pines. Off in the distance is a major herd and they’re on the move. We watch as they disappear behind a hill.
We swing the caravan around, back to a narrow dirt trail that looks like it will get us closer to the point where the herd will re-appear. Out comes the camera. Foster has the herd’s direction figured out and the horses re-appear, led by the alpha mare with the stallion riding drag. The adrenaline is pumping, the camera clicking. This has to be what it was like 100 years ago: no sight of civilization and watching more than a dozen horses lope into the mountains with a grace that almost makes your heart stop. We could follow, but they’re moving faster than we can and over terrain too fragile for 4x4s. They disappear up a far canyon, as if to prove their superiority over our horseless, 4WD carriages.
Progress of a little bachelor band. My guess is that these are young guys. Poses the question: Why did the bachelor cross the road? The bachelor bands are made up of colts who are getting up the nerve to go after the fillies, or old bachelor farts that never quite figured out an effective line to pick up the chicks.
We’re really, really close and trying to keep up with them.
I’m now ashamed I ever doubted Foster’s ability to find wild horse herds. I’ve had my glimpse of the Old West and it is grand. We roll around a bend and into the middle of another herd, smaller than the last one but very close. Back in the mountains, the herds aren’t as content to graze and watch us. This herd-a flashy stallion, three mares, two foals and two yearlings-considers us rolling, metal predators and quickly move away. Our luck holds, though, and they take the route of least resistance, our truck trail and we follow. I’m hanging out the window, photo composition be damned, just click the freakin’ shutter. We maintain enough speed to photograph them, but not enough to press them into panic. This trip has become a safari. We pull up and let the herd go; we’ve interfered enough.
The last leg of the trail is a gentle slope down into the misnamed Fish Lake Valley, a ranching community with no lake and fewer fish, to the east of the Whites. We head south, to Hwy. 168 and the return to the Owens Valley. There are a few scattered, small horse bands grazing near the two-lane blacktop. These horses are used to the light vehicle traffic and watch us with less curiosity than we watch them. But we’re sated-we’ve seen the 21st century amble along with the 19th and I can’t help remembering a childhood full of wild horse westerns that we’ve just revisited. Only this time, we’ve experienced the real thing.