The Call of the Wild Horses
It all dates from those summers alone in the high desert, me lying on my belly and watching wild horses with my binoculars for hours at a time. Straining to see in the moonlight, striving to fathom mustang ways, I knew instinctively I had chanced upon something important but could not know that it would shape my life. In 1948 I was a boy of thirteen learning the language of horses.
In the wilderness of Nevada, the soil is silky and cool to the touch at dawn, and at midday will burn your skin. My summer vigils were marked off by the heat of the day and the cold of the night and a profound sense of solitude. It felt right to be there under those vast skies on that dove-gray moonscape in the company of wild and wary horses. I remember, especially, a dun mare with a dark stripe along her back and zebra stripes above her knees. Clearly the matriarch of the herd, she was disciplining an unruly young colt who had been roughing up foals and mares. I vividly recall how she squared up to him, her eyes on his eyes, her spine rigid, her head pointed arrowlike at the adolescent. No longer full of himself, he knew exactly what she meant. Three hundred yards from the herd, the outcast would know by her body position when he could return to the fold. If she faced him, he could not. If she showed him part of her body's long axis, he could begin to consider it. Before her act of forgiveness had to come signs of his penitence. The signals he gave back to her--the seeking of forgiveness--would later be fundamental to a technique I would develop to introduce young horses gently to saddle and rider. It was the mustangs who taught me their silent body grammar, and the dun mare was my first teacher.
I grew up in Salinas, California, where wild horses were annually put to other uses. In 1948, the Wild Horse Race was a featured part of the Salinas Rodeo. And because I lived in a house on the rodeo grounds (or competition grounds, as I called it) where my parents ran a riding school, rodeo was part of our lives. Normally, wild horses were cheap and plentiful. Doc Leach, a short, bespectacled man who was our dentist and also president of the association that governed the competition grounds, would have called the usual people and said, in effect, Come on, folks, I need a hundred and fifty mustangs to be delivered to Salinas by July the first and it would happen. But with horsemeat used so extensively during the war, mustang numbers had dwindled significantly, and by 1947 the herds in northern California, Nevada, and southern Oregon had diminished by as much as two-thirds, with the horses now located almost exclusively in Nevada. That year Doc Leach's calls had fallen on deaf ears. What mustangs? the Nevada ranchers had countered. You come up here and see if you can get them yourself. The wild horse race was usually no race at all but a kind of maniacal musical chairs played with mustangs, but that year the Salinas Rodeo Association had to scrape together what they could find, and so it was a fairly tame wild horse race, with too few horses and too many old ones to put on the show required.
The following year I saw an opportunity to provide Doc Leach with a service that would both salvage the reputation of the wild horse race and save the lives of a hundred or more horses. I was only thirteen; he might not listen. But I was driven by both a fierce young entrepreneurial spirit and my love of the horses. In previous years, after the rodeo, the mustangs were sent to Crows Landing to be slaughtered for dog food. If I could somehow make them worth more than that...
What if, I proposed to Doc Leach, I go to Nevada and get the mustangs? Doc Leach's eyebrows popped up above his glasses. How you going to do that, walk? No, I've made a lot of friends from trips to horse shows there. I know I can ask for help from the Campbell Ranch. Bill Dorrance, a remarkable horseman in his mid-fifties who would become my mentor, had contacts at the ranch and would make the arrangements. Ralph and Vivian Carter, good horse people and friends of the family, had business to conduct near there and had agreed to help. Finally, I had a truck driver lined up. Good for you, Doc Leach came back, a hint of mockery in his voice. I was, after all, little more than a boy. I'd ride up to the ranges with some of the day hands from the Campbell Ranch, and I bet I could secure one hundred and fifty head. Head of what? Chickens or horses? He had a sophisticated sense of humour. Strong and healthy mustangs, Dr. Leach. I explained to him that my younger brother, Larry, and I could care for them at the competition grounds until the rodeo was held. They'll be ready on the spot, with the pair of us on hand to see they're all right. Doc Leach shifted his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other and blinked a couple of times. That meant he was cogitating. Finally he asked, What's in it for you? I was thinking, sir, that after the rodeo Larry and I could break in the mustangs and maybe have an auction sale, so they'd be worth more than Crows bait. That was the euphemism for animals taken to Crows Landing for slaughter. This year, I told him, he would not have to send any animals to the abattoir. There'd definitely be more than a few that would go through the sale ring ridden by my brother or myself and maybe provide someone with a useful mount, sir. He was still cogitating, so I went on. And perhaps the rodeo association could show a profit at the end of the day, more than the slaughter value anyway. Doc Leach weighed the arrangement, turning it over in his mind. He was like the buyer of a used car, kicking the tires and looking for the hidden defect. When he could find none, he agreed.
Use of this excerpt from The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright© 1997 by Monty Roberts
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