DEATH STALKS OUR LAST WILD HORSES

Robert Cleland Christie January 23 1965

DEATH STALKS OUR LAST WILD HORSES

Robert Cleland Christie January 23 1965

"THERE ALWAYS be wild horses in the hills," said the ancient Indian at Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. “They too smart, too tough. Been here long time, like us Indians. Be here long time yet, no matter what government want.”

Later by the campfire after an incredibly exhausting all-day ride in pursuit of the wild horses which never appeared, I wondered whether the mustangs had been “too smart” to show themselves, or whether “what government want” — the virtual elimination of the wdld horses of Alberta — had come to pass.

Actually, a pitiful remnant survives of the myriads of mustangs — perhaps as many as two million — that ranged the west as recently as a century ago. Perhaps, as the old Indian insists, man’s relentless pursuit will never quite bring about this extinction. But it has already come agonizingly close.

How' many now are left? The number can only be guessed, for bands are small, scattered and shy. Perhaps two thousand today constitute Alberta’s total wild-horse population. They run in the eastern Rockies area, a high porch of hills rambling out from the base of the greater peaks. Here is to be found this continent’s last major remnant of the wild ones, though it is still reported from time to time that a handful, dropping down from some mesa, has been sighted on one of Nevada’s bitter sage-and-alkali flats. (There are wild horses in British Columbia, but they get even shorter shrift from officials of that province, who won’t even acknowledge they're really wild, refer to them as “just runaway and useless horses." (For more on the British Columbia wild-hörse situation, and the woman who is their dedicated defender, see page 33.)

The charges against Alberta's mustangs are: They compete for pasture with other wild game, notably the elk. Mustang appetite for seedling stocks interferes with forest regeneration. Above all, ranchers in search of cheap summer pasture to lease for the expanding beefcattle industry have insisted the horses must go, and the government sides w ith the grazers against the mustangs, to the extent of granting permits for roundups of the horses “in accordance with Section 136 of the Public Lands Act,” which provides penalties for using public grazing lands without paying for it. In the case of the wild horses, this penalty is seizure — and death in a dog-food factory.

It is true that wild horses have few characteristics that endear them to our over-organized economy. They do not take easily to breaking and domestic labor — in fact, they resist it even to the death. They are not the beautiful statuesque creatures that some wild-horse fiction paints them, either. “Guess you might say they ain’t much prettier than a wart,” a cowboy told me that first day of the hunt. “But don’t let that fool you. They’re savvy and feisty as all hell. Could you breed flint to rawhide, you'd have a mustang, mister."

Our roundup camp is in the high country whose streams, now low because of the season's lateness, answer to such names as Brazeau, C hungo and Blackstone, Ram. North Ram and Clearwater. Here Alberta westers close to British Columbia. On the second day we

are up at dawn. The first three or four miles we cover at a walk, the ground swelling higher as it steps tow-ard the ridges. No one speaks, but eight pairs of eyes are alert for horse-signs, however slight. Then abruptly reining up. the lead rider points down. Recent droppings freckle the ground for a short distance, evidence to the mustang-wise that the animals felt safe enough not to hurry. Prints of a number of unshod hoofs are distinctly half-mooned. “Beggars ambled through here less’n couple hours ago.'’

Plans are settled in five minutes. Circling back over ridges to the west, four riders wdll try to hit the band from the rear, fogging it in the direction of the corral on the flats. The others will be wingmen, positioning themselves off to either side of the run. Their job. always a tricky one, will be to see that the wild ones don't streak off, breaknecking it for escape up some draw or small ravine. Looping wide to get in position will mean hard riding over ground only a goat could say anything nice about. Rigs are again checked, cinches tugged tight. “Two, three hours should see us coming dowm," the roundup boss says. “And when we do, just none of you guys go to sleep. Keep pounding their tails toward the corral."

No one has a w'atch and so it is only a guess to say that nearly two hours go by before we angle out from the timber. Before us, a saucer of meadow w'ith good grass is tilted against a mountain’s stone wall. There is no sign of mustangs anywhere. The single evidence of life is an eagle lazily hanging in the sky like a cross.

A rider says quietly, “Grass like this, horses should be around.” His partners softly grunt assent. We rein back downwind, careful to put a blind of timber to our up-wind side as we move slowly and with caution to the meadow's farther side. The snick of a hoof against a loose stone sounds like a shot. Excitement enlarges everything. Even your mount feels it. It is like being seated on a spring too tightly coiled to hold much longer.

Then, just on the turn of a moment, there they are — a band of mustangs! They are grazing out from a tiny mirror or lake, cropping at the frost-tipped grass of early morning. You are surprised at how small they are. Not one of them weighs nine hundred pounds. Their forelocks, manes and tails are long and unkempt. Their colors make a wild rainbow — blacks, yellow-creams, bays, toasts, greys the shade of dust, paints, blues, roans. They don’t look like much in either the breeding or brains departments.

You are shortly to learn better, and each of them there will be your teacher. There is no time for a count, but the band must number twenty-five. A good one.

Some warning has already got through to them. A chunky stallion, feeding off by himself, suddenly throws up his head, snorts and rolls his eyes as he searches in every direction. His nostrils quiver as he tries the wind to sniff what it may tell him. He whirls in a nervous sidelong dance.

Apprehension at once affects the whole band. There are whickers of distress, and they quit grazing. Foals obediently crowd in close to

DEATH STALKS OUR LAST WILD HORSES

Robert Cleland Christie

They’re flint bred to rawhide, swift and canning, choosing death rather than capture. Once two million ranged the west.

Now only a few thousand remain, and their deadliest enemy is man. Here, in thundering breath-taking chase, is how the saga ends when

their mothers as the mares call them. The horses suspiciously nose the ground, blowing and lurching back from something they cannot discover.

The stallion’s snort trumpets out a second time, and then a third. No animal is more absolute among his kind than a wild stud, and this one is no exception. The way he talks horse to his troop would make a sergeant-major envious. They obediently bunch closer, their shoulder and flank muscles tightening to flick them on their way at his command.

The stallion is still trying to discover what the menace is when a quiet voice says, “Let’s go . . .’’

We leave the timber’s screen, breaking out on to the meadow at a spurred run. Yells make it sound like an Indian raid. It is like being shot from a war-bow7, the air making a chilly, arrowlike whistle in your ears. It is too late to announce you take yours without so much pepper.

The wild ones, making for a hole in the mountains, have already wheeled and are flashing in retreat as if each of them had eight legs instead of four. A couple of riders bullet across the meadow to head them back to the line of run. Hoofs crackle and snap as the band, led by an old mare w'ith a sagging belly, bend away from the threat. The stallion, placing himself at the rear, rips at the slowpokes with his teeth. They move still faster to get away from such sharp encouragement.

The bunch whirls off in all its colors, the youngest and gaw'kiest foal among them footing it as though he might be cousin to Northern Dancer. Though our own mounts put out everything they have, the fuzztails romp ahead over the abominable ground, gaining. They are going like something out of a rifle.

The hillsides, booby-trapped with timber, deadfalls and washouts, blur away under you in a fog of speed. It is like no other riding on earth. It is more like being slammed through space with a jackhammer for a seat.

The mustangs are interested only in getting away. I hey tumble down those hills with incredible grace and sure-footedness. The sun polishes their mixed colors as they whirl across breaks that occasionally open from the mountain trail. They run with their heads tossing high. If there is such a thing as a proud retreat, retreat with some glory, this is it.

The run, if anything, gets hairier. Stabbing down these ridges, plunging — like something dropped —to the treachery of gravelly streambeds, doesn't cause any worry as to how von will provide for your old age. Your concern is about what disaster the next moment may hold. The world lurches out from beneath you, the reins in your left hand glued there by sweat.

Afterward, when it is over, no explanations will be needed as to w7hy wild-horse runners are a breed apart, or why the average cowboy leaves such mounted lunacy to them.

The cutting wind claws tears from your eyes. / .continued overleaf

WILD HORSES continued / Through that mist, you see three or four head cut away from the main bunch and smash into the timber. Nothing can be done to bring them back without risking the loss of those that remain. They've made it to freedom.

The aged mare still hurtles at the head of the troop, the stallion — his tail flying like a banner — pushing the run. Wherever they’re going, it seems that at this rate they must arrive day before yesterday. Their pace neither slackens nor falters. No sign exists that they have sweated a hair.

Then an odd and unexpected thing happens. As we skid off the last ridge of any consequence, the mare seems to be taking her followers in the direction of the flats — and the catch corral. Luck, perhaps, but not all that lucky, for down there the mustangs can readily get to the kitchen for a fresh pot of trouble. With the last of the trees behind and no gut of trail to contain them, the animals will have open ground for new wiles and stratagems. What, you wonder, will they contrive? The wait for the answer to that is short.

They are still running hard, running with everything they have, running headlong and free. The stallion, his head high and swinging as he runs, uses his teeth whenever a spur is necessary. The broncs crowd along, still well ahead of us. As the knot of mustangs loosens out, riders fan to either side to prevent them / continued on page 32

continued on page 32

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Then it happens—the stallion whirls, whinnies and charges back through us

from splitting into fugitive handfuls. They pull together again — but not for long.

As the lead animals come abreast of a coulee twisting back to their range, the mare whinnies, spins to the right and, a dozen cayuses with her, dashes that way to escape. The renegades don't get far, for the draw is corked by a rider on wing, waiting there for just such a diversion. Yelling and flapping his Stetson, he drives the startled animals back to the main bunch.

The risks of losing the band now increase. The long downward slope is veined, almost as a leaf is, with draws and shallow passes. The broncs make for each exit as it offers itself. It is tiring, touchy riding. Determined and stubborn, the little cayuses never quit trying to get away. Ten furious miles haven't taken the sand out of them. They are held, but always by only a breath. This is their country and all there is to be known about it, they know.

The four riders earlier left on “point” are with us now, slamming along in the spirit of the thing, so that

the wild horses have twice as many pursuers eating their dust. They’re still hoofing up plenty of smoke. Should someone at this moment give you a cup of water, your throat would turn to mud.

There at last are the flats with the corral easily visible, its wing fences opening out like arms flung wide in welcome. If the broncs can now be pushed a little farther, just a little . . .

Then it happens as veteran mustangers have witnessed it happen many times before. Not eight hundred yards, not a half mile from the swungback corral gates, the stallion whirls, whinnies piercingly as he reverses direction without slackening his run, and speeds back with four of his obedient harem favorites at his tail.

The five come through us as fast and easily as a red-hot branding iron going through butter. Far from being played out, they continue to run as though that morning had been a rest or a tonic, or both. They storm back for the hills they call home. Nothing with a saddle could possibly stay in that little stud's track. It is a great getaway.

"The hell with him!” a frustrated rider shouts angrily. “His turn’ll

come!”

Blowing hard, wheezing like a choir of asthmatics, the horses we still have are whooped through the gates — sixteen head in all. The gates are quickly wrestled shut, the creak of their pole hinges the sound of freedom passing for creatures who need freedom really to live. Seeing them now, you don’t have to be married to a horse to be touched by something sad beyond expression. You reflect briefly on what a wretched career jailers must have.

Our wild prisoners are slow to quiet down. They spin and mill in terror. They circle in aimless dashes, sniffing and then rearing off from the solid, deep-sunk pine posts of the corral. Crazed with fright, trembling with panic, they spook and ghost first this way, then that. What kind of place, they seem to ask, is this?

They are reluctant to accept defeat, instinctively probing for a way out. One of them, with a short frenzied rush, tries to leap the high fence. His jump is too low. There is the sound of something living being crushed as his head collides with a post — the sound of flesh and bone being destroyed. He drops back, falls, and is still.

The riders look at one another,

grin, and then reach for their tobacco and papers. It has been a successful hunt. Look at what the corral holds and you can see for yourself, can’t you? Dogfood galore.

ALBERTA REQUIRES roundup applicants to meet certain conditions. For example, they must satisfy the provincial authorities they have enough feed on hand for all animals taken. Before a letter of authority (good for two years in a specified area) is issued, two character references must be furnnished — valentines that aren’t hard to get. All horses rounded up must

first be checked with the local forest superintendent before they can legally be disposed of.

Most are sold as canners at a miserable price. Contrary to what one might suppose, few of these horses are intractable enough to be worth anything as rodeo bucking stock: they are not innately vicious. Once broken, they make excellent packhorses — docile, willing and clever on their feet in the roughest country.

But the wild ones have really no wish to become respectable domestics. Instance after instance might be cited to show their preference for death rather than captivity. Many have destroyed themselves before submitting. Some simply refuse to eat, and slowly starve. Others have been known to drown themselves in as little as eighteen inches of water. At least one, knowing the danger it held, plunged to his death in a foul alkali bog, coughing and choking defiance to his pursuers as he sank. Starface, the famous dark bay stallion of the Cimarron, took his own life, smashing it out in a ninety-foot leap from a tower of rock to the river below.

Whatever the mustang's future, his past is a long one. As early as 1745. the explorer Peter Pond recorded an account of how the Dakota Sioux transformed wild stock into fleet buffalo-runners. July, in the ancient Cheyenne calendar, is “the moon of fat horses.” The “bold and intrepid" horses of the Saskatchewan country were commented on in Duncan M'Gillivray’s Journal of 1794-1795. Alexander Henry, in 1811, noted the great number of horses in the Peace River region, adding that such animals “can be bought here for a carrot of tobacco, which weighs about three pounds and costs in Canada four shillings." Idaho’s Cayuse Indians were so horse-rich that “cayuse” is today still a synonym for a western cow pony or unbroken stock.

If the wild horses, once the glory and spirit of the unspoiled west, go, a litany of place names will still be left — Wild Horse Butte. Wild Horse Flats, Wild Horse Creek, Wild Horse Desert, Wild Horse Plains, Wild Horse Ridge, Starface Bench . . . But what good are the names except as tombstones of a kind?

Character references or not. men alone remain the most fearful enemy the w'ild horse has — men, wellmounted and determined, who can track him with ease after the first fall of snow in the high country ridging up between Alberta and British Columbia. The mustang can deal with the big wolves that pack here, the mountain lion and the grizzly. These formidable predators bother him little. They are not fatal enemies. That grim distinction is reserved for nothing on four legs.

Even hardened horse-runners sometimes feel regret at ending a life intended to be lived freely in the sun. Still, the offensive continues, one whose end must be to break the mustang to slavery or else send him to a cannery.

The house of conservation has many mansions. Can there not be one for the wild horse? Or must his insurance against eventual extinction amount to no more than the old Indian's “too many, too tough”? ★