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Horse Latitudes

by Deanne Stillman

Part I:  The Horses Return

They must have known they were coming home for nothing else can explain their survival and perhaps only that knowledge deep in their cells sustained them.  Horses are animals of prey and they like the wide open and therefore to be constrained on the decks in the hot sun or between decks without light or means of escape for two or three months would have overloaded their circuits.  Threats hung in the air and everything was new and strange.  Where once they smelled land and grass and legumes, they now would smell salt air mixed with the galleon stench; where once they heard the sounds of their own hooves on the fields of Europe, they now heard the uneasy creak of wood as the giant brigantines hove through walls of water; where once they were calmed by the nuzzling and grooming of their band and family members in each other’s manes and necks, they now were held in place with slings and hoists, touched and reassured not by their own kind but by the men who were in charge of making sure they had safe passage.

Nevada mustangs at Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue in Lancaster, California.
  Nevada mustangs at Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue in Lancaster, California.
Photo by Mark Lamonica.

These were the horses which carried Spain to victory in the New World.  During the years of the conquest, thousands of them were shipped across the Atlantic.  More than half died on the way. Sometimes when rations ran low they were killed for food.  Sometimes the ships sank in hurricanes, taking the horses to a howling and watery grave, along with slaves who had been kidnapped from Africa and chained to each other in the ships’ galleys.  Often the ships became becalmed mid-ways; between 30 to 35 degrees north and south of the equator, the barometric pressure would increase and the hot dry breezes called the westerlies would stop blowing.  The procession of proud, defiant galleons would come to a halt, mired in the tropics for endless days, their massive sails limp in the blistering sun, and the cargo—man and animal alike—slowly going mad. 

It was time to lighten the load.  The horses were removed from their slings and taken abovedecks. At long last they saw light and could move freely, although were still hobbled by their weak legs, and they probably faltered as the conquistadors urged them to the gangplank.  Perhaps as they faltered they took in the sweep of the peripheries with their big satellite eyes and then gazed across the seas where an albatross was passing, following it all the way to the equator and beyond, and as their eyes swept the horizon they may have experienced a vestigial sense memory of the wide-open space in the New World where they once roamed before it had a name. Perhaps they felt that strange tingling of hot, dry no-wind that raises the hack on all living creatures and makes the neurons crackle and the ganglia dance as sea monsters and dolphin pods and vast armies of seaweed growing from canyons whose rims were the ocean floor encircled the brigantines and waited.  Perhaps, as they drank in the air—for the last time—they never felt more alive.  And then they were spooked down the plank by thirsty, desperate men who cursed loudly and waved things to scare them, and they skidded down the gangway shrieking in fear, thrown to the seas so the armada could catch the wind.
And as the sea was swallowing them, the ships would rise in the water, lighter now, and the sails would again furl with the crackling air and the procession would leave the region that sailors came to call the “horse latitudes.”  Of course, not all the horses were jettisoned on those terrible crossings and perhaps the ones that were passed over when the men went belowdecks to make their grisly selection sensed—in the way that all animals have a homing instinct and generation after generation make their way back to their ancestral turf—that they would soon be home, back on the continent that spawned them, thirteen-thousand years after they dispersed and mysteriously disappeared from their birthplace.  In fact, it must have been more than a sensation or a feeling, it was a kind of certainty that ran through their bones, down through their legs and into the ground they would soon churn up as they headed for the range, yes, they had to know, for how else to explain the ease and speed with which they adapted to the American desert?

Sixteen horses came with Hernando Cortes and the record tells us that they perished during the early years of the conquest. And so too the 350 that followed later with Hernando de Soto.  But there’s a legend that says otherwise.  It says that a foal was born en route to Mexico from Spain and that she survived, escaping at some unknown time, running towards her prehistoric ancestors on the North American continent, over mountains and across valleys and canyons and rivers, through cloudbursts and duststorms and days of no water, left to carry on by jaguars and wolves and snakes, perhaps aided by animal spirits, particularly chattering birds that urged the foal onward as she grew older, eventually finding her own kind—six horses that are said to have escaped the de Soto campaign and moved westward.  This small band, too, had traveled great distances, across wetlands and then into the parched flats just beyond the Rio Grande, like the foal, getting a reprieve from predators, or perhaps not appealing to them for reasons that we do not know, drawing ever closer to the American West, possibly sensing in their bones and marrow that one of their own was waiting for them, needed their kinship, and it was in the Sonoran Desert possibly, or the Mojave, that one day the six happened upon the one, drinking at a depression in a canyon rock, or grazing on some rabbitbrush, and then they exchanged some information and headed for freedom, El Norte, their home.

Part II:  Hoofbeats on the Prairie

Wild horses at Misfits Flat, Nevada, sonamed for the movie The Misfits filmed there.
Wild horses at Misfits Flat, Nevada, so named for the movie The Misfits filmed there.
Photo by Willis Lamm.

Shortly after their return to the New World, horses began moving into the deserts and plains like a fast-moving secret.  They partnered up quickly with Native Americans, players taking to the script with astonishing ease.  From the Apache and Comanche to the Zuni to the Hopi to the Navajo to the Ute to the Shoshone, the Flathead, Crow and Nez Perce, from the Arapaho to the Ponca, the Cheyenne, the Sioux to the Mandan, the Ojibway and beyond, they allied with tribe after tribe—perhaps not in that exact order—but the deed was done and by the early 1700s, it was as if their kind had never disappeared from their native turf.

Among the many tribes that acquired the mustang, it was the Plains Indians who became the centaurs of the American frontier. They called the horse sunkan wakan—sacred or mysterious dog. “Dog” because it became the new pack animal, replacing the smaller, coyote-wolf cross breed that had served the Indian for thousands of years.  And “sacred” because it was much more than a carrier of goods; it was a hunter, a warrior, wealth and prestige; it was medicine, it was magic, and above all, it was allied with the Thunder Beings who lived in the west, where rain begins. 

A few years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the horse came to a young Lakota boy named Black Elk in a vision.  He later recounted his vision to the poet John Neihardt, who wrote it down and preserved it for the ages.  As Black Elk lay in bed with a fever, he told the white man, two men with flaming spears commanded him to follow them into a cloud.  The cloud took them away to a white plain with snowy hills and mountains in the distance.  Black Elk could hear whispers in the stillness and then the men said, “Behold him, the being with four legs!”  Black Elk looked and there was a bay horse.  It said, “Behold me!  My life history you shall know!” 

The bay horse wheeled to where the sun goes down and said, “Behold them!  Their history you shall know!”  Now there were twelve black horses standing abreast, with necklaces of buffalo hooves, manes of lightning, and nostrils that breathed thunder.  Then the bay horse wheeled to the north and said, “Behold!” and there were twelve white horses abreast.  Their manes were flowing like a winter wind and their nostrils roared, and white geese circled all around and above them.  Then the bay wheeled to the east where the sun always shines, and there were twelve sorrel horses abreast, with necklaces of elk’s teeth and eyes that glimmered like the daybreak star and manes of morning light.  And then the bay wheeled to the south and there were twelve buckskins abreast, with horns on their heads and manes that lived and grew like trees and grasses. 

When Black Elk had seen all the horses, the bay told him not to fear, the horses were going to take him to meet the Grandfathers, and then they went into formation by color, standing behind the bay.  The bay whinnied in each of the four directions.  In the western sky there was a storm of plunging horses of all colors, shaking the world with thunder and neighing back.  In the north, there was a mighty wind of horses of all colors, all neighing in response.  In the east, the sky filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails on horses of all colors, calling back.  And when the bay called to the south, there were many happy horses of all colors, nickering across the sky. 

Lakota shaman Black Elk in the Black Hills of South Dakota, circa 1939.
  Lakota shaman Black Elk in the Black Hills of South Dakota, circa 1939.
Photo by W. Ben Hunt.

“See how your horses all come dancing!” the bay said, and then, “Hurry!”  Black Elk walked side by side with the bay, followed by the other horses, marching in teams of four and by color and then suddenly changing into all the animals and birds of the world and vanishing back into the four directions of their origin. 

Then there came a cloud that turned into a teepee and Black Elk walked through its rainbow door, facing six men older than the hills and the stars.  He was flanked by the two men with the flaming spears, and the horses from each of their quarters reappeared and now looked in.  The elders told Black Elk not to fear and the horses neighed encouragement and then Black Elk realized that the elders were not men at all but the Powers of the World.  When the sixth Grandfather—the Spirit of the Earth—had spoken, the council concluded and Black Elk followed the old man out of the teepee through the rainbow door and then he was on the bay horse.  The bay paused before the horses of the west, east, south, and north, neighing to each as before, and the horses neighed once again in response, falling in line behind Black Elk by color, now with riders.

As the procession marched, it was followed by his people at different points in time until the marching animals grew restless and a Voice said, “Behold your nation, and remember what your six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties.”  When Black Elk looked, he saw black clouds gathering and women weeping and in the west there was a horse that was all skin and bones.  He passed an herb over the horse and it neighed and got up, now a big, shiny black stallion, the chief of all horses.
When he snorted it was a flash of lightning and his eyes were like the sunset star.  He dashed to the four directions and neighed and the whites and sorrels and buckskins answered his call, rejoicing in their fleetness and strength.  Then the universe was silent and the great black stallion sang a song:

My horses, prancing they are coming.
My horses, neighing they are coming;
Prancing they are coming.
All over the universe they come.
They will dance; may you behold them.
A horse nation, they will dance.
May you behold them.

The stallion’s voice was not loud, but filled the universe.  It was so beautiful that nothing anywhere could keep from dancing.  The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the water in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air—all danced together to the music of the stallion’s song.

When Black Elk returned to his bed, the fever was gone.  Later, when he awoke, he  danced the vision for his tribe in a grand re-enactment of the knowledge he had received, calling on horses and riders to assemble in the formation he had witnessed during his fever dream.  As the Horse Nation had danced in the spirit world, so too did it dance on Earth, and about ten years later, it would dance yet again, on the greasy grass, where all visions—white and red—were converging. “The frontier is closed,” proclaimed historian Frederick Jackson Turner after the buffalo and Native Americans were gone and the army had seized or killed thousands of Indian ponies.  But many endured and were roaming the West and a new war was soon underway.  It is a war without end and in modern times plays out most fiercely in the high deserts of Nevada, where the mustang has gone, like many misfits, to hide. 

Part III:  The Luckiest Horse in Reno

December, 1998

When the men approached, the black foal might have been nursing.  Or she might have been on her side, giving her wobbly legs a rest, leaning into her mother under the starry desert sky.  The band of wild horses had only recently returned to this patch of scrub; the land had been stripped bare of forage by hordes of roaming cattle and it was only in the past year that some edible plants—their seeds dropped here by migratory birds who knows when—began to green up the hills and provide nourishment for the critters which brought us all westward ho.  At the sound of the vehicle, the band—all 35 horses—prepared to move and did move at once, for horses are animals of prey and so their withers twitched, their ears stiffened, their perfect, unshod hooves dug into the scrub for traction and then they began to run.  The black foal might have taken a second or two longer than the others to rise.  Perhaps the mare, already upright, bolted instantly, turning her head to see if the foal had followed.  The headlights of the vehicle appeared atop a rise.  The men were shouting and then there was another bright light—it trained from the vehicle across the sunken bajada and it swept the sands, illuminating the wild and running four-legged spirits as their legs stretched in full perfect extension, flashing across their hides which were dun and paint and bay, making a living mural in 3-D in which the American story—all of it—was frozen here forever, in the desert as it always is, as bullets hissed from atop the vehicle through the patches of juniper and into the wild horses of the old frontier.  It was Christmas.  Two-thousand years earlier, Christ had been born in a stable.

Bugz and Spirit at Wild Horse Spirit in Carson City, Nevada.
Rescued wild horses Bugz and Spirit at Wild Horse Spirit in Carson City, Nevada.
Photo by Betty Lee Kelly.

Two months later on a cold and sunny afternoon, a woman was hiking in the mountains outside of Reno.  She saw a dark foal lying down in the sagebrush, not able to get up.  A bachelor stallion had been watching from a distance and now came over and nibbled at the foal’s neck.  She tried to get up but couldn’t and the stallion rejoined his little band.  The hiker called for help.  A vet arrived and could find no injuries.  As it grew dark, a trailer was pulled across the washes and gulleys until it approached the filly, about a hundred yards away and down hill. 

The stars were particularly bright that night and helped the rescue party, equipped only with flashlights, lumber across the sands and up the rocky rise where the filly was down.  Four men lifted her onto a platform and carried her down the hill and into the trailer.  “She was a carcass with a winter coat,” said a rescuer.  She was covered with ticks and parasites, weak and anemic.  She was six months old.  Two days later, at a sanctuary near Carson City called Wild Horse Spirit, two women helped her stand.  But she kept falling.  Over the weeks, they nourished her and she grew strong and regained muscle and she began to walk without falling down.  But she was nervous, not skittish like a lot of horses are, especially wild ones, but distracted, preoccupied, perhaps even haunted. 

Because of her location when rescued, which was near Rattlesnake Mountain, and because she was starving, her rescuers reasoned that she had been a nursing foal who had recently lost her mother.  Without mother’s milk, a foal can last for a while in the wilderness, sometimes as long as a couple of months.  And because a band of bachelor stallions had been nearby when she was found, her rescuers figured that they had taken her in, looking after her until they could no more, standing guard as she lay down in the brush to die.  “Something made me stop,” the hiker who found the filly would later say.  As it turned out, the filly was the lone survivor of the Christmas massacre and they called her Bugz.

At about 1 p.m. on December 27, the phone rang at Wild Horse Spirit in Carson City. Washoe County Animal Control officer DeDe Monroe was calling Betty Lee Kelly (no relation to the hiker) and Bobbi Royle at their sanctuary for injured and abused mustangs. The sanctuary is about halfway between Reno and Carson, past the fast food joints with the keno machines, past the various strip malls, in the rural zone on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas where civilization trails off into high desert. 

 In 1986, while living in a subdivision outside Reno called Hidden Valley, the two women had their first contact with wild horses when the animals would come down from the Virginia Range and wander the yards of residents, occasionally even foaling in a carefully landscaped garden, to the delight of some who were thrilled at their sight and the dismay of others, who did not want the animals trampling their flowers or dropping manure on their lawns.  Sometimes the horses would even range across local streets and highways.  Inevitably accidents occurred and cars were damaged and people were injured and horses died.

It was during those years that Bobbi and Betty, now in their sixties, began to take care of the mustangs who ranged into suburbia looking for food and water, and as they were beginning to learn the ways of wild horses, they also noticed that the local wild horse population was being picked off by people with guns.  Of course they had heard about such things for a long time—you can’t live in Nevada and not hear the stories.  Perhaps you’re in a bar in Elko and someone makes a reference to some mustangs he had just run down or maybe you’re on one of the university campuses and a biologist just in from the range reports that he saw a couple of wild horse carcasses with their ears cut off or maybe you’re a teenager at a local school and you hear some kids talking about going out into the desert to waste critters.

Inmates on mustanges at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada.
  Inmates on mustangs at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada.
Photo by Cindy Lawrence.

It’s not news and yet to those who aren’t content with such things, it’s disturbing, and so one day, while driving on a dirt road outside Hidden Valley, the one that takes you right past wagon wheel tracks said to have been made by the Donner Party, Bobbi spotted a boy on a bike with a rifle across the handle bars and she stopped and asked him what he was doing.  “Going out to shoot,” he said.  “You’re not planning to shoot wild horses, are you?” she asked. He shrugged and said, “I’m goin’ out to shoot,” and then pedaled away.  Bobbi floored her truck and sent a swath of dirt across the boy’s path.  From her rear view mirror, she watched as the boy with the rifle across his handle bars continued up into the hills where the mustangs made their home. 

“We have a report that there’s a wounded horse in Rattlesnake Canyon,” animal control said when Betty picked up the phone two days after Christmas years later.  “At least two others are dead.  Can you come?”  Betty ran out to tell Bobbi, who was in the corral with Art Majeski, then 74, an ex-Marine who had fought on Guam in World War II, later worked as a ranch hand around Nevada, had seen how some cattlemen treated mustangs on the range and didn’t like it.  Like the two women, he had the healthy and weathered look of those whose passions cause them to spend a lot of time outside.  He had never married and when he retired, he devoted his life to taking care of wild horses.  Now, Bobbi and Art immediately grabbed lead ropes and halters while Betty ran to their big Dodge pickup with her camera and video camcorder. Art remained at the sanctuary with the 22 resident mustangs and the women drove quickly from Washoe Valley across the icy roads towards Reno.  With Betty at the wheel, Bobbi called their vet on the cell, hoping that she could meet them at the scene.  As it turned out, the vet was on a call, treating another horse, and it was agreed that once the wounded horse’s condition was assessed, Bobbi and Betty would call her again. 

Once at Mira Loma Park in Reno, the women met up with two vehicles—Washoe County Animal Control and Washoe County Sheriff’s Department —and followed them to the south end of Hidden Valley, their old neighborhood, a development that prided itself on holiday decorations, now festooned with elaborate Christmas displays, competing with other neighborhoods in its celebration of the Yuletide season, and so well-known for its exuberance at this time of year that there’s often so much traffic that you can’t get out of your driveway. “When we lived there,” Bobbi told me when during one of my visits, “we had a neighbor who had accidentally killed a friend in a hunting accident.  He felt so guilty that he put up huge displays in honor of his friend at Christmas time.  The displays got bigger every year, with Santa, the manger, the three wise men, everything.  One year, I heard he had a $7,000 electric bill.”  With the neighborhood lights twinkling behind them, the caravan stopped to pick up Craig Kelly, the hiker who had discovered the horses. 

He led the way to the scene, heading south up Mira Loma Road where a few years earlier Bobbi had confronted the boy on his bike, away from the holiday cheer, past the Sage Hill Gun Club, the road fading at this point from the relatively smooth and well-travelled gravelly dirt into an old and rugged path, then turning left onto another desert road and heading east past a power station.  Because of recent snows, the road was slippery and washed out.  The two Washoe County vehicles had now fallen behind but Bobbi and Betty continued to follow Kelly, onto the upper power line road, deeper into the piñon and juniper mountain terrain, past a dry lake bed way down below on the right. 

Having witnessed far too many crimes against wild horses, Bobbi and Betty didn’t hold out much hope that saving the mustangs was possible, although they were always trying—lobbying local politicians, passing out leaflets, compiling mountains of research, writing impassioned letters to the editor whenever there was an article that portrayed a wild horse round-up as colorful and exciting, sometimes, with their uncompromised views, offending wild horse advocates who chose a more mild-mannered route.  Now, as they headed into the range, they were once again about to come face-to-face with the dark heart of the thing they had been fighting for years—a crime so horrific that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were about to pose the big question.  Exactly what is going on in Nevada?  What is America doing to its wild horses? 

Fortunately, Betty had brought her video camera.  Bobbi’s cell phone was ringing but the connections kept cutting out. In a few minutes, Kelly stopped at two large electrical towers.  Bobbi and Betty got out and Bobbi followed him to the wounded and thrashing horse he had seen earlier—not a colt but a filly as it turned out—and Betty began to videotape the scene, now spotting a dead stallion.  The filly was light bay, lying on the left side of the dirt road if you were heading to the nearby small town of Lockwood. Her head was facing the west, towards the land of the Thunder Beings.  “Her back legs were totally paralyzed from what appeared to be wounds to the lower back area,” Betty, a pediatrician, later told me.  “There were dried body fluids on her body.  She was able to use her head, neck, and front legs normally but not her back legs at all.  There was a large pile of manure at her tail.  She had dug a hole with her front legs repeatedly trying to get up, but couldn’t.  I estimated that she had been there for a day or so, unable to move.  She was about six or seven months old.”

An ill-fated roundup at Nevada's Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in 2006.
An ill-fated roundup at Nevada's Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in 2006.
Photo by Flora Steffan.

While waiting for officials to arrive, Betty continued to tape the scene, coming across two more dead horses under a juniper tree—a nursing, brown mare, and her bay filly, also about 6 or 7 months old.  Both horses would soon be referred to in the record as #9 and #10.  “The filly had a clean bullet hole in the shoulder area,” Betty said later.  “I saw dried body fluids from the wound down the outside of her front left leg almost to the hoof.”  About five minutes later, Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Daryl Spratley arrived, along with two animal control officers. Spratley was one of those local people who liked seeing wild horses on the outskirts of town, especially early in the morning, on his way to work, when he could look up into the foothills and see them grazing, or perhaps just moving on down the road.

There was nothing to be done for the wounded filly.  Knowing that it’s difficult to kill a horse, even with a shot to the head in what passes for the right spot, Betty and Bobbi considered picking her up and taking her to the vet’s to be euthanized with an injection.  With her back legs paralyzed and her small size, the group could have carried her to their truck.  But the consensus was that such a move would not be practical. “Would a handgun be appropriate?” Spratley asked.  Betty said yes.  He radio’d for permission, then shot the filly in the head.  The shot was a bit low, Betty told Spratley after noticing a slight tremor, and he shot her again.  She stirred no more.  A day or two later, she came to be known in the record as #8.  Betty and Bobbi named her Hope.

From that point on, things only got worse.  On the right side of the road, once again heading toward Lockwood, Betty spotted another dead horse, a stallion, lying on his left side, with what she described as an obvious exit wound from his right chest area and another wound on the right side of his neck.  “There’s another horse over here,” Craig Kelly said, pointing to the left of the dirt road, just off a jeep trail.  Bobbi got there first in the truck.  “Jesus,” Bobbi said, and then Betty arrived and started taping.  There was a dark bay colt, about 4 to 6 months old, lying on its right side, facing south toward Hidden Valley. He had been sprayed around the mouth, nostrils, genitals, and rectum with a strange white substance.  But there was an additional mutilation—a crude white circle had been painted across and around his left eye, as if someone could not take his gaze.  The act recalled the anguished and soulful eye of Moby Dick, and how it had beckoned Ahab, and how it remained open as he went down with the tormented captain and his harpoons.  And it spoke of Equus, the British play about a boy who blinded six horses with a spike.  The play was based on a series of actual late 20th century incidents in the English countryside.  “Is it possible,” a character asked, “for a horse at a certain moment to add its sufferings together, and turn them into grief?”

After Betty recorded the sight, she spotted something on the main dirt road.  It was a fire extinguisher’s tag, and it was later determined that the colt had been mutilated with flame retardant.  Betty videotaped the tag and handed it to Spratley. By then the sun was sinking and the temperature had dropped to 28 degrees.  Throughout the day, a stallion had been standing at the edge of the kill zone, watching Betty, Bobbi, and the investigators as they found each dead horse.  Now as everyone headed to their vehicles and the last rays of the sun vanished, the stallion trotted on down the road. 

“His family had been wiped out,” Betty recalled later, “but we still didn’t know how bad it was.”  Bobbi and Betty headed in the opposite direction from the way they had entered the range—in the dark, and with the winter conditions, it was a bit easier, though even with headlights, the drive down the steep and winding road was treacherous.  “We crept down one muddy portion inch by inch,” Betty recounted.  On the way down from the mountains, they were stopped by Officer Spratley.  He told them that two more dead horses had been found.

The next day additional investigators began to arrive at the scene.  As they walked through Lagomarsino Canyon and across the adjacent area known as Devil’s Flat, they discovered more dead horses.  They too had been shot and there were spent casings everywhere.  Many of the horses had been shot in the gut, which meant that they had died slowly and in great pain, wandering here and there for a day or two until they collapsed and died.  On the third day of the investigation, the number of dead horses had grown from 6 to 25.  Piles of bullet casings were found within shooting distance of many of the horses—it was as if someone or some people had been playing “horse golf,” a prosecutor later theorized, or that perhaps the three men who had been charged had actually made several trips to the canyon, given the time frame, beginning a day or two before Christmas, or on Christmas Eve, or Christmas itself, or that unknown others had been in the canyon during the holidays, waging their own shooting spree. 

 In the annals of modern American history, 1998 had been a particularly violent year. In May, Kip Kinkel whacked his parents, then shot up his Oregon high school, killing two students and wounding 25, kicking off an ongoing wave of school shootings.  In October, Matthew Shepard was found stabbed to death and tied to a fence in Wyoming, like an unwanted coyote.  Now, on December 30 at 6 p.m., Betty Kelly’s video was broadcast on the CBS evening news.  The terrible story from Nevada went out to the world, burying the year in a hail of gunfire and the wails and moans of frightened and dying horses.

Author Deanne Stillman with Bugz, the mustang that survived the 1998 massacre outside Reno, Nevada.
  Author Deanne Stillman with Bugz, the mustang that survived the 1998 massacre outside Reno, Nevada.
Photo by Betty Lee Kelly.

I met Bugz in 1999 when she was about eight months old and have visited her many times.  During a recent visit, she was on her way to the hospital for surgery on her right front leg, which she had been having trouble with since her arrival at Wild Horse Spirit, due to lack of nourishment as a foal.  Now she had a check, or crooked, ligament, which needed to be repaired lest she develop further and perhaps life-threatening problems. 

While doctors operated on Bugz, Betty and Bobbi paced the waiting room for hours, and even after word came that the operation was over and Bugz was coming out of anesthesia, they continued to pace.  The hours after surgery are touch-and-go for a horse—if they fall while getting up after an operation, they could re-injure a leg or hurt another one and then they might have to be destroyed.  But late in the day, Bugz shook off the narcotic and stood up just fine. 

A few days later, she went home to Carson City.  As soon as she came out of the trailer, she was greeted by her buddy Mona, a sweet little brown mustang with a BLM freeze brand who had been abandoned by previous owners and picked up by animal control somewhere in the desert.  Mona trotted to the rail of a corral and called out a welcoming sound. Bugz whinnied back and then went to her stall for dinner.

She’ll spend the rest of her years with 27 other wild horses who live at the three-acre sanctuary.  Some of the horses have been there for years, such as Sparky, who was captured by Reno Animal Control after they harried him across busy McCarran Boulevard in Reno when he wandered in off the range; others are recent arrivals, such as Cinnamon, who had been culled from the wilderness by the Bureau of Land Management and was headed for auction and then either adoption, slaughter, or life in a government sanctuary in Oklahoma, but the BLM hands couldn’t get her into the loading truck, “even with electric prods,” Bobbi told me.

Bobbi and Betty live in a house adjacent to the corrals and stalls, along with several rescued dogs and cats.  Their house is big and comfortable but can barely accommodate all the horse stuff—art, books, files, and so on—that the women have acquired over the years.  From early in the morning until late in the evening, Bobbi takes care of the horses along with 24-year-old Mandy McNitt, a neighbor who found refuge from her strict family at Wild Horse Spirit.  Art Majeski doesn’t come by much any more, although he did recently hire a pilot to fly over the Virginia Range to see how many horses were there.  He counted 68, a number that is far below the state’s estimated 500, and if accurate, would make their days numbered. 

At Wild Horse Spirit, Bobbi and Mandy carry on, feeding and watering the horses twice a day, and spending the rest of their time mucking out stalls, grooming them, checking them for ailments, taking them to the vet, making repairs around the stalls and corrals, and finding additional time to hold garage sales so they can raise money for feed and equipment.  When their work outside is finished, they sit down with Betty and watch the horses on monitors from the living room, because some of them are recovering from injuries or wounds.  Late at night, Betty is often online, informing a circuit of people of the latest news in the ongoing battle to save wild horses, and Bobbi is organizing the next day’s work.  “Can I call you back?” Bobbi said one recent evening when someone called to chat.  “I got two colicky horses I’m trying to get into a trailer.” 

A few days later, Betty and I drove out to Lagomarsino Canyon to pay respects, see how it had changed since the massacre, how it felt, seven years later.  It was spring time and here and there, the stands of sage were puffy with rain and fragrant. A visitor to the site can know part of the story, just as a visitor to Gettysburg or the Little Big Horn battlefield can bear witness but not fully.  But here there are no texts to guide us; no oral histories passed down across time; just skulls and the cages of ribs and shins and intact hooves and manes and tails right where the wild horses were felled, forever preserved in the dry air of the Great Basin which birthed Nevada—mosh pit of America—godforsaken treasure chest of a state which lures big and small spenders alike with five-cent slots and high-roller events and hollow spectacles and all-night pawn and—yes!—“wild horses, just like in the Old West!” says the travel literature: “See them roam free just like they oughtta be!”

Wild horses in Nevada.
Wild horses in Nevada.
Photo courtesy Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“This is horse #1,” Betty said as we walked the site, the one who had prompted the first call from animal control.  She and Bobbi named her Hope.  “She had probably been here for a day or two.” As she continued, it was like a prayer, and I knew it well.  Silently, I recited it with her.  “She was lying in the sand.  She had dug a small hole with her front legs, intermittently trying to get up.”  After awhile, we came across the horse known in the Nevada court system as #4.  Like the others, Bobby and Betty had given him a name.  He was Alvin—the one with the mutilated eye.  “There was a stallion watching us that day,” Betty said, “just standing at the perimeter as we found each dead horse.  When the sun went down and we got in our cars, he trotted on down the road.  His family had been wiped out but we still didn’t know how bad it was.” 

As I wandered through the cemetery, I saw that someone or something, maybe a coyote or perhaps the weather, had moved a few of the large stones in the cross under a juniper tree that Betty had made on the one-year anniversary.  To calm myself, I decided the stones must have been disturbed by a natural force—a person who wanted to make a statement would have wrecked the shrine.  But then I noticed something new: an empty box of Winchester cartridges, lodged between the branches of a nearby tree.  Winchester—the gun that won the West, the ammo that brought it to its knees—now back as a reminder, placed intentionally and possibly by the people who killed the horses.

“I think it’s time to go,” I said.  As we walked back to the pickup, a few horses walked down from a rise.  Since the massacre, Betty said that she had not seen any in the canyon, and she had visited it several times a year, as a kind of a groundskeeper for the kill site.  On my few visits, I had not seen any horses either, nor had I seen hoofprints, which made me think that horses had been avoiding the area because in the desert, things last for a very long time.  The horses that approached were brown with black manes—the scruffy and beautiful Nevada horses that nobody asks for at adoption centers, preferring palominos and paints.  We stopped in our tracks and watched them and they watched us back.  After awhile, we bid them farewell.  As we headed down the mountain, I turned for one more look.  They were walking across the boneyard towards the stone cross, reclaiming their home.

A few hours later, at the Southwest Airline lounge in the Reno airport, I overheard one of those conversations that explained a lot of things, a refrain really, the chorus of a song that we all know.  It had to do with the civic religion of the country, our gleeful worship of personal rights.  Someone was talking loudly, in the way that only certain big people do in case you should happen to miss them, a big man with a big gut, well over six feet, in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, on his cell phone.  “Oh man,” he says, “I can’t believe this.  They confiscated my ammo, I had a clip inside the steel toe of my belt and they actually made me leave it at the security gate.”  He’s two seats over and in a cell phone trance, the Second Amendment with a boarding pass.  “I told them I was working security at one of the casinos but they made me leave it anyway,” he says. “Can you believe that?  But hey I applied for a concealed carry and I should have it next week.  Hey, did you hear Al is in trouble?  Yeah, lawyers have been called and a grand jury is in session.  Looks like indictments are coming…Hey, I almost had me some last night.  It was just there waiting for me.  It’ll be there when I get back.  You know, I like Reno.  I like this whole friggin’ state.”


Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. She writes for Rolling Stone, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, and her books include the cult classic Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, recently published in a new, updated edition (Angel City Press), with a foreword by T. Jefferson Parker and preface by Charles Bowden, and Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango (University of Arizona Press).

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This excerpt is from Deanne Stillman's book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), which has received acclaim in the Atlantic Monthly, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Economist, Tucson Weekly, Billings Gazette, Seattle Times, and elsewhere. It has also been listed as a "Best Book 2008" by the Los Angeles Times. It is reprinted with permission.

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West



The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign

Horse Rescue of America

International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros

Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue

National Wild Horse and Burro Program, U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Nevada's Wild Horses and Burros, U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Wild Horse Roundups

Wild Horse Spirit, Ltd. Wild Horse Rescue



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