The mid-morning sun is simmering over northeast Nevada as 20 or so mustangs – a dusty haze of caramel, chocolate and hazelnut – thunder along, hooves pounding. Driving them are two cowboys in Stetsons, checked shirts and spurs. Behind soar the magnificent snow-capped Ruby Mountains. It’s an exhilarating welcome to Mustang Monument, an eco ranch and wild horse sanctuary which opens this weekend 160 miles west of Salt Lake City.
Around 2,000 mustangs roam this 600,000-acre ranch, which is being opened up to tourists by Madeleine Pickens, a glamorous and feisty animal welfare activist (as well as the widow of Gulfstream Aerospace founder Allen Paulson and former wife of Texan oil billionaire T Boone Pickens). Her goal is to allow visitors to witness the wild horses running free – a spectacle she considers North America’s equivalent of Africa’s great wildebeest migration – and in doing so to raise awareness of the complicated issues surrounding their survival.
But it isn’t just about watching from afar. A few of the horses have been domesticated, and these are the ones that cowboys Clay Nannini and Marcus Morrison are herding across the plains and into a pen. They spin their lassos through the air with hypnotic rhythm, throwing the loops over two liquorice stallions for us to ride. The friction between frantic equine energy and focused human calm crackles.
They lead the horses out and we saddle up; the weathered western saddles are veritable armchairs compared with their European counterparts, with vast seats, double girths with barbed-wire embroidery, engraved metal badges, low-hanging stirrups so capacious they seem like buckets and a butch front saddle horn. My heart is hammering in anticipation as we head out to begin our day’s trekking, east across the desert scrub to the base of Spruce Mountain.
The path up is rocky, dusty and lined with mountain mahogany, pinyon pine, the charred remains of lightning-struck trees and low shrubs dotted with tiny yellow, blue, pink and purple flowers. Riding out like this feels like the only way to see pioneer country; the sun on my skin, a cool breeze, the dust on my tongue, a glorious smell of grass, with the horses’ steady clop virtually the only sound.
Nannini, the ranch manager, cuts a dashing figure as he leads us through the wilderness. He explains that mustang protection is unpopular with some ranchers because the horses eat grass that could otherwise be used for raising cows: “If your livelihood depends on cattle, you’re kinda not fond of wild horses.” But, as mustangs have few natural predators, there’s no simple solution to the potential overpopulation if they are left entirely alone. “Kill ’em or leave ’em, neither is right,” he drawls.
As we approach the summit of Spruce Mountain we stop just below the snow line, where Pickens and her director of operations Monty Heath (a former Navy Seal) greet us with a picnic. It’s a feast of two-hands-to-hold sandwiches, cheese, homemade biscuits, squash-and-caper coleslaw and lemon water. We swing off our horses, tether them to shaded trees and collapse in the sun.
“The government has the whole system buffaloed,” Pickens complains. The mustangs are protected by law and live on “rangelands” managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. But the herds can grow rapidly, and to prevent overpopulation, the authorities remove thousands of animals each year, often rounding them up by helicopter. These horses are held in corrals and pastures, with some eventually being “adopted” by private owners. A century ago there were around 2m mustangs; today around 40,000 horses roam wild, fewer than the 47,000 currently held in corrals and pastures. Pickens and fellow campaigners argue mustang numbers should be controlled by castrating the stallions, rather than removing the animals from their natural habitat.
“Ultimately, tourism is the messenger for this story,” she says. And since “people want to see nice things, not tragedy”, here, guests can ride out to see the wild horses while immersing themselves in wild west culture. Complementing the adventure is eco-luxe accommodation; 10 wooden guest cottages and 10 colourfully hand-painted luxury tepees, each complete with king-size beds, deep leather armchairs, chic armoires, colourful artisan-woven rugs and cushions.
After lunch we jump back on the horses and explore a cluster of dilapidated wooden houses, their collapsed ceilings and splintered walls the architectural skeletons of a ghost town whose 1,200 inhabitants mined the hills for gold, silver, then tungsten, from the 1850s to the 1940s.
The route down is off-path, though rough terrain that’s steep in parts. I lean back in the saddle to an angle that makes my pulse race but my horse nimbly picks through the dry brush. The trees open out to gently undulating grasses. Hawks fly above and the wind picks up.
Back at the ranch, it’s time for a lasso, or “roping”, lesson. The dipping sun casts a dusty golden light over the herd of mustang grazing about half a mile ahead. It turns out I’m a lasso whizz (not bad for a north London Jewish girl), looping the cow horns on my second attempt and keeping up a healthy hit rate, thanks to Nannini’s patient teaching. I should probably mention that the “cow” is a bale of hay with plastic horns stuck on it. And that I’m on my feet about two metres away – in front of the bar, in fact, after two pre-dinner cocktails. It’s an urban cowgirl’s dream come true.
Dinner is a sumptuous four courses in an intimate tepee lit with solar lanterns, followed by a performance of the victory and chicken dances by two Native Americans from South Carolina’s Lumbee tribe.
Afterwards, they talk us through their regalia, from feathered bustles to beaded cuffs and ankle bells. It feels slightly at odds with the working ranch (which also has 672 cattle) but Pickens says she is keen to paint the whole picture of the wild west, and the two men, buoyed with enthusiasm for her project, seem eager cultural envoys.
The following morning I head out at sunrise alone, for a 10-mile run round the ranch. I jog past a group of mustang, which raise their heads and look at me inquisitively. All my boxed-in city-life stresses seem to escape into the vast expanse of land.
I hear bells and a wagon pulled by two piebald carthorses draws up beside me, laden with bales of hay. I jump on and we head towards the herd. Small groups, leaner and smaller than the domesticated horses we rode yesterday, approach as we push off bales for them to feed on. Some are skittish and excitable, others curious, others aloof, maintaining their distance. We stop and soak up the sunrise hymn of braying, whinnying and stamping.
After breakfast we head off in the pick-up to explore more of the ranch, wending into the hills, on rough tracks, through the Black Forest, past Latham canyon, over pockets of snow and through flat plains of sage and rabbit brush, Indian rye and grasses.
Despite the problems of mustang overpopulation, over the several-hour safari we see no wild horses. Nannini says that later in the season, when he gets to know the horses’ watering habits, he can bring guests to springs where the horses will come at the same time every day, in small groups mindful of each others’ routine. By way of distraction from our disappointment on this occasion, he points out the California Trail, which blazes through the plains.
Another gourmet picnic awaits us at the foot of the Pequop mountains, the table overlooking the Goshute valley, more than 20 miles wide. It’s almost impossible to compute such an expanse – like gazing out to sea. Mozart plays on an iPod – it’s kind of weird but rather wonderful.
In the distance we spot the mustang, and watch as they charge in fragmented groups through the tall crested wheatgrass, running as they were born to run: fiercely and instinctively. We see two four-month-old foals, buckskin and bay, desperate to keep up.
Pickens reports that the herd have been “vandalised” – a rogue stallion let into the castrated group by a disgruntled opponent to her project. But she doesn’t play the victim; it’s simply another of the knocks from which she picks herself up, dusts herself down and carries on.
After dinner on my last night, we gather around the firepit and swap stories. Slowly, guests peel off, but the cowboys herd a handful to the bar, with its stools-cum-saddles, and towards the Blackjack table. The Patrón tequila comes out and the chips are laid, recklessly. I stumble back to my tepee through the chilly night bleary eyed, my path moonlit.
Beatrice Hodgkin was a guest of Steppes Travel (steppestravel.com), which offers a four-night stay from £1,395 per person including all meals and drinks, and most excursions
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