Helping these Icons thrive... history and destruction.
Up until about 10 million years ago, horses (and their ancestors) roamed over 60 percent of the present day continental United States. From that time until about 10,000 years ago, with their migration North into Canada, and across the ice bridge into Russia, and South into Central and South America, their numbers here dwindled to just a few small, scattered herds. We stayed relatively "horseless" until sometime around the 1500s when horses were reintroduced to North America by the Spanish and English. It is these horses and their descendants that gave life to the iconic roaming herds of the Wild West.
But, with Man's encroachment on their territory through his self-proclaimed Manifest Destiny...
The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.John O'Sullivan, 1845
...the wild horse has been crowded into ever smaller parcels of land. And whenever an entity is forced into too small an area, whether that entity be man or beast, that area becomes over-burdened and decimated, ultimately resulting in land that is devoid of sustenance for even the smallest band of creatures. We've seen it with cattle over-grazing as well as with human consumption. Too much stress on an ecosystem will cause that ecosystem to fail.
And it's this stress on the horses' ecosystem, with Man taking it over for farming and habitation, and horse populations too large for their remaining lands to support, that caused the Federal Government to step in and take measures to begin reducing their population. Thousands of undernourished and weak horses were removed from their herds and sent to processing plants for feed, cosmetics, and industrial supplies. Over time, the populations were culled even further to include perfectly healthy horses -- partly as a means to reduce the stress on the land, and partly to keep up with the increasing demand for horse-based products.
The emotional part of this tale is beautifully told by John Huston's The Misfits, starring Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe. Mostly character-driven, the movie does a great job of depicting the desperation of the wild horse as two down-on-their-luck wranglers (Gable and Clift) try to make a few bucks rounding up the last of the ill-fated mustang herds.
As horse lovers began to recognize the plight of this vanishing icon, they began to foster these horses and set aside land of their own so that the Wild Mustang could once again roam strong and free. Diane Nelson's Wild Horse Sanctuary is one of these places.
A rocky, tree-lined and scrub covered 5000 acres of Mustang paradise located in Shingletown, CA, the Sanctuary sits at the bottom of a sloping hillside that will test the limits of any hiker in the summer, but becomes a virtual garden of eden in the spring. This small patch of land is where over 300 wild, feral, rescued and donated North American Mustangs call home.
I spent 3 days camping in the woods near their tiny, drought-stricken watering hole, hoping to get some candid shots and compelling video footage of these magnificent animals in what, these days, passes for their natural habitat.
And, even though 5000 acres is a lot of land, it is nowhere near enough for 300 horses to survive on without help. Horses are migratory grazers, just like bison or elk. When they strip an area of food, they must move on to the next area of abundance. When they strip that one bare, they move on to the next. And by the time they come back to where they started (having given it time to reseed and sprout anew), that area is once again lush with food. But with most of today's lands fenced off or developed, these animals can't migrate like they once did, and they are forced to subsist on lands that can never have time to regenerate. So, they must be fed or they must die.
And, Diane has chosen to feed them -- as have many rescue workers who have taken on this tremendous task of saving these beautiful animals. In order to keep their interaction with humans to a minimum, and thus help them retain their wild characteristics, hay is dropped off at various locations for the horses to come eat at their leisure. Without this hay, the horses would literally starve, as they've already eaten and trampled virtually every bit of food naturally available to them on the limited property.
It's far from a perfect world for the horses, but with all the competition for space from developers, farmers, and the American Way of Life, it's the best that anyone at this moment in time can do.
Three days in the WILD... photographing Wild Mustangs!
Wild... It's all in how you look at it. Does it remove you from the convenience of the local Kwik-e-Mart? Do you have to pack in everything you'll need to survive? Does your cel phone stop getting reception past a certain point? If you "fall down go boom" will anyone come to your rescue?
It doesn't matter if you're only a mile or so from a road. If your goal is to rough it without help, then for all practical purposes, you're in the wilderness.
Now, to be honest, I did have to leave the "wilderness" at one point and tend to some domestic errands in town. But, it wasn't to go get a burger or to take a nap in the air conditioning. No, it was an urgent, quick errand, and the remaining 90% of my time was spent with the horses... in the wilderness. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!
And, I'll admit, my stay with these incredible creatures was both exhausting and exhilarating. It's hot out there. And dry. But the horses made it all worthwhile.
On my first day, Diane took a few moments and showed me how to get around the property on a photocopy of a topographic map she had. We had a little bit of difficulty finding the correct streambed on the map, but once it was located, I was off to find the watering hole. According to the map, the watering hole was only about a mile from the road, so it shouldn't be too difficult to just strap on my full complement of gear and set up camp all in one trip.
Well, I still managed to follow the wrong streambed (it being dry season, there were several from which to choose), and take the wrong turn on the path (I went left when I should have gone right), and I soon found myself almost to the far edge of the property almost 3 miles from where I needed to be. After having lugged 100lbs of camera and camping gear 2 miles in and another mile up the hillside, I picked a spot, dropped the gear, and scouted the territory around me hoping to find signs of the watering hole.
Another mile of hiking through dusty, rocky terrain and all kinds of scratchy scrub and manzanita, I neared the top of the ridge and still wasn't anywhere close to water. Fortunately, I brought plenty with me. Having reached a nearly impassable stretch of dense foliage, I retraced my steps and made my way back down the ridge toward the road where I parked the car.
I was exhausted. I began my hike around 9:30am and it was now after 2pm. My legs were trembling from carrying so much weight, and my spirits were crushed because I couldn't find such an "easy to find" watering hole.
I had totally given up on my idea to camp and track the wild mustangs, and was about 10 minutes from the car, when I saw an angel.
No, I wasn't hallucinating. On her way to the watering hole to change out the memory cards in her cameras was National Geographic photographer, Melissa Farlow. She was there on assignment, and had heard I was there to photograph for my Vanishing America project. (Word does get around!) Boy, was I glad to see her!
She told me we were very close to the watering hole, and she had me put down my gear and follow her. And, she was right. Not more than 100 yards from where I stood was the dried creek bed. The correct one this time! And another 100 yards beyond that was the triple set of shallow pools, fed by a trickle of a mountain stream where the wild horses went to drink.
From there on, I was in my element. I set up camp amongst a grove of trees on the east side of the creekbed, far enough away from the watering hole so as not to spook the horses when they came by for a drink.
I set up two video cameras in varying strategic (and hidden) locations to get footage of the bands coming in and out of the area, and I took to various hiding spots with my still cameras to get the best vantage point for some great horse portraits.
It was a lot of work to do on my own, but for now, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Now, Wild Horses are a skittish bunch, and even though these guys were used to seeing humans occasionally, they were no exception. Any move I made could send them running off in another direction, ruining any chance I had of getting a decent shot. And, sometimes I wasn't the only one to send them running. Since the horses tended to group themselves into small bands of anywhere from 3 to 15, the arrival of another band could be enough to cause them to turn tail and head for the hills.
But, through patience, persistence, and keeping an ear out for the sound of hoof on rock, I managed to have at least one camera in the right place at the right time, and came away with some successful shots. And, even though some of the shots are just "documentary" and don't meet the high standards I have for my artwork, they are great images nonetheless. This image, for instance, of the horse that had had just about enough of the heat was fortunately captured both as a still and as hi-def video. And, he was doing exactly what I had wanted to do since I'd arrived -- go for a swim!
Unfortunately, there wasn't enough water for me to take a dip. There was just enough for the horses to come by for a drink and then mosey back to wherever they came from so they could attend to whatever business horses have to attend to.
It's a little surreal when all you see are full-grown horses. But on occasion, I was fortunate enough to see a momma with her little foal. Life out on the Sanctuary is protected, but it's tough. And it's real. And these horses are living life just like they had for millions of years... playing, fighting, mating, and having babies. And, the babies are as healthy and playful as anyone would expect a foal to be. But, they're obedient, too. They know that they'd better not get too far away from mom and dad, lest they become lost, or worse yet, lunch for a hungry mountain lion.
All in all, it was a tiring, but wonderful experience. And, although much of what I've come back with is documentary, I've learned a lot about how to photograph horses in the wild. Granted, the herds in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming may be more difficult to track, much less get close enough to for pictures, but I at least have an idea of how to approach them -- and, more importantly, how to set up the next shoot so that I can obtain some truly great images.