Dayton, Nevada. Its fame lies in being one of the first settlements of the gold rush in the west. It also formed the backdrop to the film The Misfits: Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach rounding up mustangs, while Marilyn Monroe goes along for the ride. The area is now known as The Misfits Flat.
I’d long wanted to photograph wild horses but the subject is so laden with symbolism I’d been cautious about approaching it. After making an earlier series of portraits of the horses used in burial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia – pictures shot in the dark, confined spaces of their stables at night – it felt right to seek out horses that were still roaming free. But wild horses are now surrounded by human boundaries as their habitat overlaps with, and infringes upon, those who live near them.
This became clear to me when visiting the area around Carson City, where unemployment is high and many homes have been lost to foreclosure and abandoned. Even so, the human presence is still expanding. During the five months I was working in the area, Highway 50, between Stagecoach and Silver Springs, was being widened because of increasing traffic. A tunnel was under construction, as were fences alongside the road, since horses often cross and are sometimes killed by passing traffic.
Though I found wild horses in the nearby mountains and hills with the help of locals, usually I ran into them in the residential areas around Dayton and Stagecoach, making their way through gardens and scrapyards, grazing and feeding on the trees between the mobile homes. There were moments when a horse would stop and just stand still. I’d spend hours observing them, as they did me. Later I might find the same horses at a different time and location and they would be unapproachable, wild. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go near.
Somehow they prevail, though the circumstances are far from perfect. The weather drives them out of the mountains in search of water and food. People feed them, especially in winter, although it is forbidden by law. An old grey stallion, battle-scarred and toothless, lived in the front yard of one of the homes. Foals are born into this changing landscape where the horses are increasingly the focus of discussions between advocates, the state and other involved parties, each with an agenda for their future.
From time to time the horses are rounded up because there are too many, or they get too close and people complain. Some end up at the Carson City Correctional Facility, where they are part of a programme that teams them up with inmates from the low-security section of the prison.
The men learn how to break the horses and how to train them. Many have never ridden a horse before – they have to establish a mutual trust in order to succeed. They care for the horses for three months, after which the horses are usually auctioned off to families looking for a good riding horse, or ranchers. Mustangs, the animals of Spanish descent, have a charismatic presence. They seem genuinely unaltered by people. Even when I saw them after three months of training they retained their distinct characteristics.
It is becoming increasingly rare that animals live free from us. Wild animals and people are bound to meet each other on ever more shared territories, their habitat seemingly overlapping ours, just as we set foot in theirs, long ago.
‘The Widest Prairies’, by Charlotte Dumas, is published by Oodee on November 12, £42.
More information and details of book signings during Paris Photo (Nov 14-17) at oodee.net