In the Land of Wild Horses
Western Encounters takes you into the remotest Wyoming to ride with these spirited animals.
National Geographic Traveler
By Jessica Seigel
THE SCRUBBY desert landscape around us is so unchanging that it passes for a big event when a cloud drifts overhead, casting a rolling shadow over the endless flats. Then I see a horse skeleton, its bones bleached and scattered. I'm starting to feel bleached and scattered myself: After hours of trotting on horseback through southwestern Wyoming's high plains, my legs are painfully banged up, my mind blown from the relentless expanse of sage and dust.
I'm out on the trail in the desolate Red Desert with ten other riders, participating in an expedition with outfitter Western Encounters to see and ride with wild horses. The cashier lady at the general store in the little outpost town of Jeffrey City had wondered the day before about our plans to camp for a week in this remote territory. "Why'd you want to go out there?" she asked, adding that locals venture into the Red Desert only to tend cattle herds.
"To ride along with the wild horses," we replied.
"Them just horses that got free," she scoffed, summing up an old debate.
True, the wild horses we were seeking "got free" from settlers and ranchers who brought them out here; left to roam, these horses soon turned feral, forming small herds, usually of seven or eight animals --living vestiges of the Wild West. We were hoping to come across some of these wild herds and, with luck, ride among them.
Driving into the Green Mountain range from Lander our first day, we pulled off Route 287 at a gap where blacktop meets the prairie. All I could see was a dirt trail leading into high desert. Our three-person crew unloaded 14 horses from the trailers, then piled saddles on the dusty ground. Though an experienced English rider, I had never ridden Western, with its hefty horned saddles and low-slung stirrups. Clueless, I chose a saddle that looked like it would fit my butt. Our expedition leader, Skip Ashley-- who with his wife, Vivian, runs Western Encounters --then sized each of us up and selected our horses. I was assigned Nutmeg, a plucky, ranch-bred palomino. Jessica Wolfe, a Massachusetts psychologist and experienced horsewoman, would ride Sean, a tamed wild horse, and Robert Reece, a food importer from Ontario, was matched with a trim sorrel named Raddish.
I gingerly began saddling up, but when I lifted the bridle to Nutmeg's nose, he suddenly reared. Watchful wrangler Bruce Erlandson sauntered over to help me, the picture-book cowboy with his plaid shirt and walrus mustache. He slipped Nutmeg's bridle on in a seamless gesture, scolding "Don't be a big baby" (to the horse).
"Let's do it!" hollered Ashley, who is known for his spirited mounts, tough rides, and Old-West aura. Half Cherokee and tight-lipped under a gray- streaked beard, he often rides shirtless, silver spurs jangling on his boots.
We swung into our saddles and headed south-- into a spot like no other in North America: the Red Desert Basin, a 2.2-million-acre bowled plain that interrupts the Continental Divide ridge like a giant sinkhole. It is a place that the region's Native Americans called "God Ran Out of Mountains." A place so infrequently visited that my Wyoming map covers it with the state's seal.
My legs hung nearly straight in the stirrups, my rear pockets cradled in the saddle back. I felt a new freedom in riding Western style, and in the outrageous bounty of space before us. By late afternoon we spotted our base camp, pitched earlier by Ashley's advance crew. The circle of tepee-style tents looked like frail sailboats on a sea of dust, and I felt like a speck on the floor of the ocean --no flight of fancy, for this expanse once lay at the bottom of a great inland sea.
The sun dipped over the horizon as we sat down to a hardy supper of beef stew. The earth, bleached flat during the day, took on contour as a rose glow fell on distant buttes; the Red Desert at last reflected the color of its name. As night fell, my bearings inverted under a new landscape of countless stars.
Up early the next morning, we learned the routine that would become second nature during the six-day trip: Breakfast, pack a sandwich for lunch, then brush, water, and saddle the horses. When we asked Ashley where we were going that day, he said simply, "Over there," and pointed into more desolation. His large lead horse, Hawk, walked with such long strides that ours had to trot (bump, bump) to match its pace.
Our first full-day's ride felt like following a trail from nowhere to nowhere, but it had a point we little suspected. Ashley was running us around to help us figure out which of the expedition's two groups to join, hard-riding or easy. The hard-riding group would go for an all-out gallop that afternoon.
Was I weak, or strong?
My left calf was bruised from knee to ankle. You are weak, my inner voice whined, weak. I tentatively declared my choice: easy. Ashley's eyes narrowed under his weathered Stetson. "You come all the way out here and don't go on?" he prodded. The others had already chosen: seven easy, four hard. They waited for my final decision. "What if we see wild horses and you miss them?" he goaded.
That did the trick. I watched with some ambivalence as the "easy" group rode out of sight behind Erlandson. Turning, I just had time to see Ashley secure his mojo, a charm pouch worn according to native tradition, before he smiled slyly, legged Hawk, and shot off. We "strong" riders raced to follow.
I pulled my neckerchief up bandit-style against dirt flying from hooves ahead and shifted in the saddle until I found the rhythm where horse and rider move as one. Nutmeg tugged hard and I gave him the rein. Soon we were ahead of the pack, nose and muzzle to the wind.
We cantered for several miles, swooping through a steep pass, round a bend, up a ridge; I was riding like I had never ridden before. By the time we started heading back to camp-- a final six-mile jog-- we were desert-dusted, Medusa- haired, slack-tongued, glassy-eyed, and limp-limbed. As we approached the tepees, Ashley called a halt. Lifting his hat and smoothing his hair, he announced: " Everybody who rides with me has to look good going into camp." We immediately tucked in our shirts, arranged our neckerchiefs, straightened up, then cantered back in two-by-two formation, cavalry style. "Looking good," called out Jane Nachtrab, a horse owner from Ohio who had opted for the "easy" group. I sat tall and proud.
We were part of Ashley's show, following his rules, a code that he learned from some of the last of the real cowboys, he told us around the evening campfire. When he worked on the range here as a fatherless teenager, he said, those cowboys would say little, until some beginner's mistake left him unhorsed and flattened. Then they would drawl, "You ought not have done that."
By this point, my calves were dappled black and blue from riding without proper chaps, and I realized I needed to fix the situation fast. Spotting my suitcase, my mind's eye fell on the inside flap --a yard of canvas-covered foam with no use ever apparent to me before. Till now.
I got my Swiss Army knife, sliced the lining out, and sewed my own makeshift half-chaps with borrowed needle and thread; to strap them on, I tore plastic buckles from my suitcase and attached them. Nothing I've ever made, not even the linen dress for college graduation, pleased me as much.
I felt like a new woman the following morning--our third day. We left the flats to relocate to our next base camp, heading northeast for Crooks Mountain, actually a series of foothills named, with polite exaggeration, for the famous general who passed by on his way north to fight Indians in the late 1860s. "Trees!" exclaimed Meike Geller, a German teen traveling with her mother, at an up-to-now rare glimpse of green. Weaving through pine thickets, we passed two old tepee rings, circles of stones left by Indians. A dozen pronghorn antelope, legs ablurr, zipped into view, flashed their white hind quarters, and sprinted on. We rode up inclines and down into gullies, spotting some golden eagles, more pronghorn, and cattle --but no wild horses.
While we rode the ridges, our new tepee camp was being pitched in a valley. From afar it looked like an Indian village in a 19th-century photograph. Even the two outhouse tepees were picturesque. Once we got up close, though, I noticed another feature. Cow pies. Everywhere
Rebellion broke out on the next day's ride when Ashley announced that we would eat lunch on the barren banks of a water hole in unshaded midday sun. Facing the mutiny of his troops, he relented and led us to a nearby shady grove. Why not go here in the first place, we asked? Because, Skip explained, in pioneer days folks stopped and ate where their horses watered. Besides, he added, "Pain and suffering make other things better." I pondered the meaning of the word "authentic." How much of it, I wondered, is too much?
By this fourth day we had scoured the valleys and scanned the ridges for the legendary wild horses, but had caught only one tantalizing glimpse. Just when I was thinking I had reached desert overload, we stopped on a hilltop lookout-- and spotted a paint stallion urging forward two mares and a foal in the valley below. That afternoon's "hard" ride would head their way, into the desert where several herds often gather. Asked how far a ride that would be, Ashley answered: "As far and long as it takes."
One after another, my fellow expeditioners opted for easy. Only four of us mounted for the hard ride--all women. Thanking my lucky suitcase lining, I swung up onto Nutmeg and pulled out with the others, musing that we were like a little herd ourselves--alpha male Ashley and us mares.
The sky was big. The land was wide. We were small in the desert silence. All I could hear was our muffled hoofbeats, the creak of my stirrup leathers, and the rattle of plastic water bottles in my saddlebag. After an hour of slow trotting, we stopped to check out dark flecks in the distance. Through binoculars Ashley spotted about 20 black and chestnut horses grazing in a wide, shallow valley. Directing us to batten down the hatches-- secure saddlebags and anything else that might fly off --he whispered "They can smell us." The herds were grouping, possibly readying to run.
Silently, Ashley led us in a broad flanking motion, dipping in and out of subtle rises that were invisible from afar. As I began to lose all sense of direction, Nutmeg pricked up his ears and stepped up his trot. Out of nowhere from behind us, four black stallions dashed across our path. Ashley sped up, worried that these stallions would stampede the herds away.
"Single file," he yelled, and we fell in behind him, emerging over a crest just in time. The herds were still grouping about 50 feet to our left. Breaking into a canter, Ashley led us in a line parallel to the herds. Federal law forbids running directly at wild horses, but we didn't need or want to: They began running with us --really, with our horses --then loped onto a ridge and matched our pace from on high, silhouetted against a hazy sky. We were two herds-- one tame, one wild --running side-by-side according to the original herd instinct. In that moment I felt in my skin and bones every cliché ever written about the transcendent call of the wild.
Keeping my eye on the ridge, I could see one of the four young males start tussling with the herd's stallion. The two reared up hoof to hoof, nose to nose, a stance out of Wild West mythology. The young male soon backed down. Sleek and rippled, he and the other adolescent machos ran down the slope straight for us, buzzing across our path like teenagers on a thrill ride.
We cantered up out of the valley and dismounted on a high ridge to watch the four bachelor males, who in turn stopped to look at us. In the distance a herd of mares cantered away, pushed on by their stallion. A foal with an injured leg limped desperately behind, scrambling to keep up. "That one won't make it through winter," Ashley observed.
This harsh reality finally helped me understand Ashley's method. Though it had seemed unfair that our group's "easy" riders missed this ultimate experience, I now knew the kind of endurance riding the experience demanded. Ashley's prodding had pushed me to a place I had never reached despite years of riding--and I probably wouldn't have chosen it if I'd known what was in store. But now, along with dust in my pocket linings, I would carry this back home to the city: Grit, hard-fought and hard-won.
Jessica Seigel regularly rides in Central Park as a volunteer with the New York City Parks Department Mounted Patrol.