They’re beautiful beasts, often unwanted, maligned, exterminated or sold to butchers across the border. They survive a harsh environment that shifts from a sheet of snow in the winter to blistering heat in the summer. It’s a rugged, rocky place of sagebrush, scraggly trees and scant, brackish water. To me they’d always been something of a myth of the high desert near Reno, Nevada. I’d heard about them as fabled creatures of Americana like Pecos Bill; storied tales of the American West. A few years ago on a trip to Reno I decided to bail on the casinos and find the American mustang.
Leaving California on Highway 80 eastbound you drop from the Sierra Nevada down to Reno and the western edge of the Great Basin, a rocky, arid mass that covers much of Oregon, almost all of Nevada and touches the states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Its a coarse, hard and cruel land that embraces a unique harsh beauty.
It was the Great Basin that played a major role in the doom of the ill fated Donner Party. In 1846, this group of immigrants heading west made the tragic mistake of taking a new, untried and supposedly quicker route than the established Oregon Trail. It took them across the Great Basin and it was this vast ocean of sand, rock and sagebrush that swallowed up much of the Donner Party’s food, oxen, supplies and resolve. Anyone taking a drive across this arid land in the summer should take the time to imagine the same journey in covered wagons and having only scant knowledge of the route and no highway to follow.
We left Reno and drove due east for a few miles past the town of Sparks and then northeast into the Paiute Indian Reservation and the Pyramid Lake area. We continued to drive past the lake and along a section of the Truckee River without a single sighting and I started to believe that maybe the mustang was just myth – or at least reclusive.
Finally we spotted two bachelors on a hillside. They were some distance away and had we not been driving at a crawl keeping eyes peeled we might have missed them completely. Further down the road we spotted a few more horses grazing at a distance, all too far away to photograph. After a few more distant sightings we left the reservation and drove back on Highway 80 towards Sparks.
Just east of Sparks we exited into an area of a few square miles just off to the south of highway 80. Its where “civilization,” is making further inroads into the Great Basin. That is if you consider civilization to be vast warehouses and distribution centers for mega-retailers like Walmart and Petsmart to be civilization. This is a place where massive warehouses rise from the rocky ground like wide flat warts.
Between the warehouses are untouched patches of land where one can find families of wild horses grazing and ambling along, heads down, with no apparent destination. Just off the highway there is a watering hole (photos below) where the horses gather briefly to refresh before moving on. It was within these few square miles that we saw most of the mustangs that day.
During our initial visit Cora looked at the horses and felt a deep sorrow over their desolate appearance and harsh existence. “I want to feed them,” she said. While that’s a kind and noble gesture feeding these horses does more harm than good. Not being part of their natural diet, food left for the mustangs can sicken them.
You look at these horses and the land that they live on and while they are romanticized as a symbol of freedom you can’t avoid a feeling of sadness over seeing them, unbrushed and with tangles of sagebrush in their manes and tails, wandering the dry land without any apparent purpose or destination. They seem at times like doomed spirits and some of the loneliness that I felt for them was in knowing that historically the horse has been man’s partner.
The horse was a direct participant in America’s progress. The horse helped to build this land. It carried the pioneers. It hauled the goods. It carried the mail.
The horse was the unwilling combatant in our nation’s wars. It lay among the dead at White Plains in the Revolution, at Brandy Station in the Civil War and the Meuse-Argonne in World War One.
The horse carried the Plains Indians who rode with unmatched artistry; skilled horsemen who could launch an arrow at a buffalo while riding at full gallop seated on nothing more than a pelt cinched to the horse’s back. To the American Indian the horse was much more than a mode of transportation. Among the Sioux, the horse was powerful medicine, a supernatural being of great power. The Comanche have been lauded by some historians as the greatest and most proficient cavalry in history.
The horse is tied inextricably to the history and lore of America. A symbol of the American West the horse is part of America’s DNA.
Since that initial trip to see the mustangs every trip to Reno now includes an early morning drive to this area to observe and photograph the horses. While Cora sleeps in I get up before the sun and drive east. Most of the photos in this article were taken over several visits in both summer and winter.
Above and below: This big boy was laying peacefully near the side of a little used road. He watched me patiently as I photographed him. In the photo below he seems to be giving me a wary eye.
During each of my visits I approached the horses to a distance of about 20 yards. They kept an eye on me but my presence didn’t seem to bother them.
It often happens in America that national treasures both animate and inanimate fall victim to the reality of what has become the real American treasures; business, politics and above everything else – money. The American mustang horse has become a political football, in a battle between ranchers, miners, developers and bankers on one side and conservationists, scientists and advocates for the horses on the other. All agree that there is a problem of over population and there are valid points of view on each side. In the middle of all of this the government, in the form of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has tried feebly to manage the situation in a manner that usually falls somewhere between ham handed, incompetent and downright cruel.
The BLM in a model of cruel efficiency herds horses into collection areas through the use of helicopters that chase the horses for miles as shown in videos shown on the website of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
In 2013 a federal judge issued a restraining order halting a roundup operation in which a BLM chopper chased horses through a barbed wire fence.
An NBC report documented cases in which horses were herded into undersized pens where the panicked animals kicked and gouged each other or become ensnared in the bars of the pen itself. The same report documented the instance of a young colt that was chased for so long and so far by a helicopter that it literally ran its hooves off. It had to be put down. In the real world this type of behavior would have someone sitting in front of a judge facing a sentence for animal cruelty. In the bureaucratic world of the United States Government it’s just your tax dollars at work.
Once collected, family groups are separated with males, females and young horses sent to separate facilities. Some of the horses are put up for adoption. Others have allegedly found their way to the dinner table. In 2013 it was alleged that the BLM sold 1700 mustangs to a Colorado rancher for 10 dollars a head, who then turned and sold them to a Mexican slaughterhouse just over the border. In March of 2014 a small herd of horses was rounded up in Wyoming by the BLM and then turned over to the state which in turn sold them to a Canadian slaughterhouse.
Not surprisingly the Trump Administration, which can’t find its way towards compassion for humans much less horses has made things worse for the American mustang. Contradicting scientific studies that propose humane treatment and population control the Trump administration is weakening protection and essentially calling for the mass slaughter of wild horses and burros. Not surprising since the Trump administration has a habit of never letting science get in the way of various and sundry outrages that usually enrich business at the expense of nature, the environment or compassion.
It’s been two years since I’ve been to the Reno area. I plan to return soon so that I can take a another side trip to observe this living symbol of the American West in a land that’s a unique convergence of the bleak and the beautiful; the stark and the colorful.
My photo outings in mustang country haven’t been without some humorous moments. Driving past Sparks I’ve taken a number of different freeway exits always looking for something new to find and photograph. One afternoon while Cora was back at the casino feeding pennies to a slot machine I went eastbound to see what I could find.
A few miles past Sparks there was a nondescript exit signed, Mustang. Well, if the mission is to photograph mustangs then this must be the place. I took the exit and followed a narrow road that meandered downhill in twists and turns. I drove slowly craning my neck for a glimpse of a horse or something else that might catch my eye.
As the road drew towards it’s end I turned a corner and there in bright hot pink was a sign that told me I’d arrived at the World Famous Mustang Ranch (The Mustang Ranch is one of Nevada’s legal bordellos). I contemplated just going in for a drink to see what it was all about. Just a drink. Yeah….no. Knowing full well what it’s all about I went back to the casino to check on Cora to make sure she hadn’t lost the family fortune a penny at a time.