Answering the call of the West
Mustangs running free and wild is a sight that brings tears to Linda Dombeck. “I feel so privileged when I see a herd of wild horses on the open range,” she said. “It’s really quite a thrill.”
But horses have always done that to Linda. As a child growing up in Hayward she couldn’t get enough of the big draft horses her neighbors raised. “I was always over there petting them,” she said. “My hero’s growing up were Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry and their horses Trigger, Buttermilk and Champion. I was just born loving horses.”
That love has never diminished. Big or small, buckskin or roan, it doesn’t matter to this determined horse lover who has made several trips to observe wild mustangs on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (PMWHR) that spans parts of Wyoming and Montana. “It was on my bucket list to go there and see these horses for myself,” said Linda. “I wanted to see horses wild and after doing some research I decided this was the place to go.”
Linda made her first trip there in 2007. That year, her husband, Jerry, decided to do a little hunting out West and Linda tagged along, thinking it would be a good time to do a some exploring. “The kids were grown and out of the nest so I decided it was time to fulfill my dream of seeing wild horses,” she said.
As with any adventure, Linda wasn’t quite sure what she would find, but was determined to stay until she saw a wild horse. “I decided the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range would be my choice mostly because I was intrigued by the information about the range, the horses and their story,” said Linda.
And the story of these animals is a fascinating one indeed. Many of the mustangs on this range have had genetic testing and it’s been determined these animals are descendants of the horses that carried seventeenth century colonial Spanish explorers. The ancestors of the Pryor Mountain mustangs were sturdy and intelligent Spanish barb horses that proved their value when conquistadors explored the Americas. It is hypothesized these mustangs eventually made their way to the Pryor Mountain Range by the Crow Indians who also saw the value of this animal to their way of life. In fact, parts of the Crow Nation reservation remains home to these wild mustangs even today.
Another factor that makes these animals so unique is their coloring. Many are grulla, which is a bluish-gray color and a lot of the mustangs display a dorsal stripe down their back and faint zebra-like stripes on their legs. These colors and markings are consistent with horses whose origins began in Spain.
But despite their beauty and uniqueness, the Pryor Mountain wild mustangs have always had to fight for their survival. The habitat they occupy is fraught with dangers. One of their natural enemies is the cougar and the mountainous and rocky nature of their environment results in many of these horses succumbing to falls and broken legs, which is a death knell for a wild horse. However, their fiercest foe has always been man.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a federal agency that determines how many horses the range environment can sustain. In addition, the government leases out many acres in this part of the country to ranchers who graze their cattle here. Some of these ranchers consider wild horses in direct competition for forage and see them only as pests that should taken off the landscape. There are also numerous wildlife species in this area including bear, antelope and deer, drawing sportsman from all over the country. Arguments have been made by several sporting groups that the horses decimate the landscape for these wild creatures reducing hunting opportunities and in turn revenues.
But there have also been champions for these horses and it has been through their efforts that the 150 or so animals that roam the 38,000-acre Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (PMWHR) remain a viable and free herd. The PMWHR was mapped in 1968 by Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. It was a ground breaking move and established the first ever wild horse range in the United States. Establishing this land was one of many efforts to preserve the wild mustangs on Pryor Mountain and even preceded the writing of the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. However, the BLM is once again considering a “round-up” of some of the wild mustangs in 2012 citing 150 horses on this acreage is too many, so these horses continue to fight for their freedom.
Today there is a Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center where visitors can view displays and artifacts about the wild horses on this range. It is a starting point for those wishing to actually see a wild horse in person. Staff at the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center keep tabs on this herd, often naming the horses of certain bands. These particular horses become favorites with the staff and soon enough to the many visitors who come to find out more about this part of America’s heritage.
The center was the first place Linda headed when she made her way to Wyoming on 2007. She learned where the horses were likely to be observed and then, alone, took off to explore this vast country. Her patience paid off. “The first time I saw wild horses here I felt like my dreams were coming true,” she said. “It was really a very inspirational moment for me.”
On that first visit Linda was lucky enough to see many wild horses and she started taking photos. She came to know some of the horses by name and developed a fierce interest in their habits and family groups. She keeps track of her new found equine friends through blogs by the director of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center and since that first fateful trip has returned twice, once in 2009 and then in 2011.
Borrowing her husband’s truck she packed up a few belongings, her camera and headed west, this time sleeping on the range in the back of the truck and wandering far and wide, always on the lookout for her beloved wild friends. To date she has almost 3,000 beautiful photos of these animals that fill half a dozen albums. “Many times I look through my pictures,” she said. “I wonder all the time about the horses and looking at my photos makes me feel close to them.”
Linda hopes once again to make the journey back to the Pryor Mountain range to see her wild friends this summer, but the predicted jump in gas prices and other obligations have her unsure. She is grateful though, that she has gotten a chance to observe these wild creatures, and watching them wandering on their range, free and wild, has always been a thrill. “Those horses will always be a part of who I am,” she said. “They’ll always have a very special place in my heart.”
Editor’s note: Linda will be giving a presentation on the Pryor Mountain wild mustangs at the Oneida County Center on Aging on Monday, Feb. 20 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and then again from 6 to 7:30 p.m. To learn more about the Pryor Mountain wild mustangs, visit pryormustangs.org.
Associate Editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at [email protected].