As I followed a semi-load of wild horses on Route 80 we made the familiar turn off into Wells, Nevada. As we passed the Loves gas station, where we met the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in the bitter cold of dawn during the Antelope roundup, I was flooded with memories of all that was seen. Each trap site with it’s intricacies of “access no access,” each conversation, each band that was fractured, each face came back to me in detail.
The semi turned down a dusty dirt road. This time the driver came to a slow stop. I could hear the animals settle. He then proceeded down the graded dirt path at a crawl, mindful of the precious load he carried. I began to cry.
My experience has been to drive roads in much worse shape at speeds that make you hold your breath for the safety of the lives inside the container.
Yet the horses onboard were headed to Mustang Monument, Madeleine Picken’s Mustang Sanctuary run through her organization Saving America’s Mustangs.
That sanctuary has raised no less controversy than the Wild Horse issue itself. But that was not what today was “all about.”
For the last two weeks I rose in the middle of the night to meet the driver at a “feedlot turned way station” in Fallon. Each dawn I documented the loading of animals that had been saved from certain death. My lens captured the faces of the mares and their babies as they left the confines of that dusty old feedlot and boarded the truck.
The faces belonged to Pauite horses that had gone to a slaughter auction last Christmas. If wild horses are prejudicially referred to as “desert rats,” the Pauite horses are considered no more than fleas on those rats. These reservation horses are regularly sent to kill with little to no hope. They are not managed under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, but are legally shipped off under the jurisdiction of tribal authority.
The truck slowly backed up to a chute at the makeshift roundpen of hay bales.
An excited woman met me and crawled with me to the top of the pen to document the off loading of these horses headed home.
The woman was Madeleine Pickens. In her hand she held a small camcorder. She observed the offloading of each horse that warily left that metal container. Her voice into her camera demonstrated concern as she made sure that each mare matched up with each foal. Foals that had been born in a dusty feedlot that would soon run in the open range for the first time.
The last few horses were reluctant to leave the container. The others began to munch on the bales of hay that made up the pen. Laughter and pleasant conversation filled the air and joined the sounds of the horses calling to those already home in the field beyond the gate.
The moment had arrived. The moment of “Freedom.” The moment the “fleas on rats” are given the greatest kindness a human could show them. A chance to run in the open range. A chance to live as bands. A chance to live and die with freedom and dignity in the normal course of what they are.
Ranch manager, Clay Nannini, walked to the gate and removed the chain. The gates opened…
It took but a brief moment for the horses to recognize the opportunity.
I cannot describe in words the sensation of “wrong turned right” that flooded my senses. The emaciated, abused, disregarded souls ran to join the others. The babies that I had seen born in that feedlot ran free. The beautiful Spruce Mountain in the background bore witness with us of what I can only describe as “dignity returned.”
Ms. Pickens climbed the rail, opened her arms and declared “I own you now, no one will ever hurt you again.”
That familiar promise. How many horse owners have made that promise as they bring home a horse from auction or one they found in a bad situation? The scale was much bigger, yet the promise hung in the air with undeniable truth.
After checking in to the roadside Motel I laid down on the bed, still in my clothing. My life still an uncertain path, roundups beginning again in mere days. The Court case still dominating my life. The issues surrounding our horses still unresolved. But I slept.
I slept like I haven’t slept in months.
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