Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer had a very special experience with a band of wild horses — just days before they were rounded up by helicopter and forced apart.
A genuinely moving encounter with wild horses happened to me out on the northern end of the spectacular Simpson Mountains in the Onaqui Wild Horse Herd Management Area (HMA, Utah BLM) on July 3, 2021.
This was right after hundreds of wild horse advocates attended an enthusiastic rally at Utah’s Capitol building in Salt Lake City on July 2. Afterward many of us went right out to be with the awesome Onaqui mustangs, which the rally had tried to save from an impending helicopter roundup carried out by a BLM contractor.
This roundup took 435 of these beautiful and peaceful horses out of their legal and natural home, many bearing the distinguishing traits of Spanish Colonial Mustangs. All that remained were around 100 highly traumatized and disrupted horses to which were added about 100 horses from the roundup in an altered reproductive state, thus crippling their fitness and sense of wholeness and well-being.
Earlier in the late Spring and early Summer, I and others were dismayed to witness how BLM was allowing thousands of domestic sheep and considerable numbers of cattle to descend upon the Onaqui HMA to strip the vast majority of its most nutritious forage, especially grass. The experience I am about to recount occurred just days before this tragic roundup.
On the morning of Saturday, July 3, the sun rose bright and promising, though this unique and special day proved a real scorcher with temperatures soaring well over 110 degrees F. As the day progressed, vast shimmering heat waves arose from the desert floor and lent a magical effect to this remote place. Many of the advocates stayed with those wild horse bands lingering around the few water sources, whether ponds, or troughs, or meadowy springs, where the horses carried on their daily rituals of foraging, watering, mutual grooming and more dynamic social interactions.
But like my ancestor pioneers, as a “rugged individualist”, I heeded that still, small voice urging me to break from the crowd and seek the higher mountain slopes in hopes of coming upon some very special and hardy, though more recondite mustangs.
With my light yet sturdy hiking boots, I pursued a gnarly, diagonal route that wound up past some venerable Utah junipers and single-leafed pinyon pines, greyish-leafed rabbit and sage-brushes as well as colorful, lichen-covered rocks and boulders of fascinating hue. Ascending several hundred feet above the valley floor, I lingered in the shade of generous pinyons and junipers long enough to be still and attune myself to the many intercommunicating presences here. And as I napped, a special feeling of peace and serenity came over me, as though preparing me for some very special and long-awaited encounter.
Nearly an hour passed when suddenly I was jolted from my reverie and urged to continue to the next ridge to the west. Planting one foot and then the other, I stole forth observing many of the animate presences, whether animal or plant and in whatever form or activity they revealed themselves. And a gentle mountain breeze seemed to whisper to me that something special was about to happen. Within an hour, I came upon a clearing — a wind-blown knoll at a loftier and cooler elevation. Here I noticed a pair of sturdy statuesque mustangs peering intently at me. Their antenna-like ears were pricked forward toward me; and I discerned in their whole form and demeanor that they were highly evolved and attuned beings with extraordinary perceptions, ones capable of entering more subtle planes beyond the mere superficial. I got the feeling they had been anticipating my arrival for some time.
Respectfully, I lifted my unipod-mounted Nikon and snapped a few shots. They didn’t seem to mind, but carried on judiciously foraging amid sparse clump grasses on this northwesterly mountain slope. Little did I then realize they would be the ushers into one of the most significant encounters with wild, naturally living mustangs of my life. Just to the west, a few additional mustang bands came into view. Each band maintained its respectful distance from the other as they perched on the laterally sloped ridge displaying an amazing array of colors and physiques, postures and activities. As they stood looking at me, they quickened a sense of Nature’s wonderful balance and harmonious interconnection.
Carefully descending, I continued to focus upon these radiantly free-spirited mustangs, whose very name derives from the Spanish mostrenco for “unclaimed, or ownerless”. I stood still for long periods just appreciating being here and sending my respects to all these remarkable beings whose rightful home this was. Soon, the horses became more accepting — even welcoming of my presence. Remarkably, it did not take more than an hour for them to resume their foraging, grooming and resting behavior unperturbed. But among mustangs, excitement is a way of life. So, I was not entirely surprised when, suddenly, a proud, light-colored stallion ran swiftly to confront an equally proud, dark bay stallion on a rocky ridge to the east. A spectacular encounter ensued as the two stallions reared to energetically bite and pummel each other with their impressive teeth and lithe forelegs. I quickly discerned that this was not an all-out fight to the death, but rather a diplomatic coming to terms, a reconciliation while at the same time, a honing of prowess essential to keeping up their true vigor and that of their respective bands as well as the entire breeding population – the Onaqui herd as a whole.
I spent the afternoon hours just being with and becoming a part of this fascinating and memorable assemblage of naturally living horses. Their diverse interactions with the plants they inspected and nipped on and the animals who surrounded them, including birds who chased the insects they stirred up, as well as their interactions with each other – all conveyed a special harmony. This was both ancient and at the same time ever new and emerging, inspiring a sense of the great Continuum uniting all places … times … life forms … beings.
As the temperature rose well above 100F, quite a few of the horses sought the shade of the venerable junipers and pinyon pines that surrounded the clearing, some growing over 30 feet high. Some even went up a bit higher to take a stand beside the profusely branched, small-leafed mountain mahogany that grew in isolated thickets. These bushes provide critical food and shelter for mustangs, mule deer, birds and other creatures, especially during the winter. Soon one young band, in particular, caught my attention. It was led by a stout, burnished-golden brown stallion and a tall and graceful black mare. I approached them from downslope in order to get some pictures. I enjoy experimenting with close-up or panned-out shots, different angles and compositions. This is a learning process that teaches me not only about photography but the subjects themselves, which brings me to the crowning experience of my visit to the Onaqui mustangs.
Standing some 200-feet downslope, I focused on photographing this young and elegant band but was surprised when these horses began moseying toward me as if to say a friendly “Hello!” and “Thank you for coming! It’s so good to see you again!” Instead of threatening, their body language seemed harmonious and accepting of my presence, as if they appreciated me and my respect and appreciation of them – both in our own right.
The golden bay stallion nickered with a deep and reassuring tone and the elegant black mare likewise nickered, as if to say “I concur: you are most welcome here, Craig”.
But then occurred an experience that brought me to very tears. For this couple’s young, black yearling, who had been clinging rather closely to his dam, strode right up to me to gently place his muzzle onto my midribs then into my right hand as if to say: “Dear Craig, we really appreciate your being here with us this bright and special day. We genuinely value that you made the effort to come all this way from the western Great Basin in western Nevada, not just to attend the rally to save us from the impending cruel, unjustified roundup, but also to come here and be with us. Do you realize just how much this means to us? We love you, Craig, for who you are, regardless our seeming differences. For are we not all the same in essence?! And we know that you are doing what you can to defend our right to remain here in the wild-open spaces of the eastern Great Basin that is our home and has been for countless generations past. We share this same great inland basin ‘sea’ and are complemental, breathe the same reviving atmosphere, drink the same life-giving waters … both air and waters come and go both in the atmosphere as well as within the mysterious surface and underground ground waters. The Onaqui HMA is our legal home under the 50-year-old Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act that another friend: Wild Horse Annie [Velma Bronn Johnston] fought so hard and long with so many fellow compassionate people to realize. Surely this great effort cannot come to naught! You ‘two-leggeds’ [Native American term for humans] need to help us, for our enemies have become more selfish, greedy, blind and perverse than ever before. More dedicated to our undoing and destruction. Their bent is to drive us from our beautiful, natural homes where we just ask for a place to be ourselves and to carry on our age-old trajectory. We know you truly appreciate us and know that we are here for a good reason and have a great role to play in all precious life’s great unfolding. Our journey is related to yours, interwoven – imbued with great meaning and purpose. It’s a purpose-driven journey we share and it leads to all true self-realization in the unity of spirit. Just know this, dear friend, and know our meeting today has a wonderful reason.”
I believe I received this beautiful message from the very soul of this young-in-body but ancient-in-spirit horse, as from her caring sire and dam, as from all the couple dozen wild horses who were here with me on this scenic desert mountain on this very special day. One last day of relative peace and harmony, of these horses being themselves rather than being helicopter-driven into captivity. Today, such callous utilitarianism is putting the squeeze on every last wild and free, legal wild horse and burro herd and habitat that remains in the West. If the so-called “Path Forward” that the BLM and US Forest Service has adopted continues apace there would remain no place, no herd — no naturally living individual horse or burro left that is truly free and unaltered in the West. They would be either gone or reduced to crippled, thwarted, semi-domesticated remnants. This would be the exact opposite of what the unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act intended.
Soon too, it seems, would follow the absence of any human who truly appreciated the horses’ magnificent naturalness and freedom in the enhanced wild-horse or wild-burro-containing ecosystems. Departed into oblivion would be that inter-balanced variety of life forms and their inter-complementary relationships – and that precious freedom which is the very soul of the West. It would have been squeezed to death; not one truly wild horse or burro would be left in the land of the living but only the aftermath of an out-of-control unnatural and materialistically driven scheme.
This would signal the ultimate perversion of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that should be celebrating rather than lamenting what has happened to America’s last wild horses and burros today. It would be another dismal failure on the part of humanity, caving in to its own narcissism and insatiable materialism.
But it is not too late. We can prevent this drab scenario from happening. We can prevent the utter devastation of our precious Earth’s living community, or ecosystem. This has taken millions of years to establish and must include free-roaming, naturally integrated and genetically viable wild horses and burros along with their commensurate habitats. These are so indispensable to Life writ large.
We humans must realize that the true story of life concerns sentient beings who are fellow passengers on the awesome “ship of state” we call Earth. This seemingly lonely life-containing planet is not one to be hopelessly overwhelmed because of the thoughtlessness and greed of just one of her resident species.
We can surely learn to share the land and freedom with such magnificent, highly evolved neighbors as the horses and burros who have done so much for us and do so much for all of life on Earth. We not only surely can but we surely must.