“I was moved to reach out to the horses and become an advocate…”
For the better part of five years, from about 1997-2002, I volunteered at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (BHWHS), working with a handful of other volunteers, BHWHS founder Dayton Hyde, and Program Director Susan Watt. My recollections mostly come from the work we did, and the meaning I was able to make of it. So let’s start there.
The first thing I did when I came to BHWHS one spring was help Dayton build new wire fence along the Sanctuary Road. That fence went up and down over the boulder strewn hills on the north side of the road for a mile before dropping down into headquarters. It was built well, allowing a deer to run through the strands, and cutting the contours across the swales between the hills.
Later on my own I’d go out checking and mending the boundary fence on foot, after going as far as I could in the truck or on the quad. I would step around newly blooming pasque flowers toting a few coils of used wire, a wire stretcher, and my fencing pliers, clips, and staples.
One afternoon when I had taken a female companion to the Sanctuary with me, Dayton realized the section of fence at the water gap on the Cheyenne River needed reset. Its sag would be an easy crossover for both horses and the Sanctuary’s cattle. My companion and I were to have some quality time that afternoon, but her idea of quality time did not start at the water gap. So I went out by myself and fixed it. Today we move at more distant ends of the same circles and are pleasant to each other.
Those days mending fence I would meet little bands of horses strung out across the Sanctuary range. That was pretty grand. I remember an inherent peacefulness and trust in our interactions, and the respect of each other’s presence. One shy band of several mares, yearlings, and foals spent warm afternoons swishing tails in the pine shade overlooking Hell Canyon, and sometimes they would share their shade with me. That’s when I understood on a level beyond words the additional importance and joy there was in good fence and the work that went into it.
The Sanctuary is also a working cattle ranch, with a regular cow works at headquarters, a pride in its herd, and an agricultural tax status. It manages wild horses and cattle effectively on 13,000 acres. One late winter or early spring I was up close and personal at 6 a.m. weaning, vaccinating, castrating, branding, and pest treating cows and calves. The night before, I had forgotten to turn off the water in one of the stock tanks after a long day of bringing cattle in. So that morning I volunteered to be in the pens on foot for the sorting, in the resulting mud. No one of the friends, family, and neighbors who had gathered for the work protested. Except all the heifers, mother cows, and their calves did. Up close and personal.
The years I was at the Sanctuary horses were gathered to wean the young and do any necessary doctoring in the herd. Those years we did it with gates and drift fences, over several days at a time, with horses at a walk mostly. On the occasion that a tie-back at a gate would come undone, or horses would turn and walk or trot away from a drift fence, the stories Dayton was quietly telling to pass the time or the philosophy of conservation he would offer at a whisper inside the pickup would suddenly explode into a multi-decibel cowboy blue streak unrepeatable even on RT’s blog. But not at the horses; for them there would be tomorrow, or the next day. And with never even a thought of a helicopter. When it was time to run, the horses played with the quad and pickup and 4 Runner a little, making circles around us before their gallop to headquarters.
This article gives you a mere taste of how Dayton and Susan preserve a horse herd on a daily basis. It doesn’t describe the tipi circles by the river hundreds of years old seen from the Sanctuary cliffs. Or the way just a few people can take what they know is right in their heart, and make it work. But even then I could see something else. For the horses, living in our country long before us, long before those tipi rings by the Cheyenne were there, long before that river even had a name, we still weren’t quite making it right. Between realizing that, my love of ranch work, and what Dayton and Susan did and continue to do, I was moved to reach out to the horses and become an advocate. I know that as long as there are horses in the wild, this work will never be done. Perhaps after reading this, you know it too.
Monday, December 9, 2013
- The Last Cowboy – Dayton O. Hyde’s Last Great Battle | Indiegogo (hippies4horses.wordpress.com)
- Ginger Kathrens on Wild Horse Wednesdays radio show on Dec. 11th! (ppjg.me)
- BLM must reconsider its policies on wild horses (blogs.denverpost.com)