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Observing the Human Link With Wild Horses : 19 Students Ride Into High Country to Spy on Mustangs

Times Staff Writer

They came to spy on wild horses, rarely seen by city dwellers. They expected to have their sympathies swayed by the sight of the free-ranging beasts and by accounts of the animals’ struggles to survive despite human interference.

But in the end, the 19 men and women who rode horseback into the high country to participate in UC Santa Barbara’s recent Extension course, “Mustangs--A Living Legacy,” were won over to the horses’ cause by observing the friendship between a man and a wild animal.

Untamed and Starving

When former Glendale resident Dave Dohnel adopted a mustang from the federal Bureau of Land Management five months ago, the horse was untamed and starving. Christened Modoc after the county where he was trapped, the young horse was so thin that sitting astride him would have felt like perching on a fence rail, Dohnel, currently of Bishop, said. When Dohnel tried to bring the horse a feed bucket, Modoc struck out with his forefeet. “The human scent was like a mountain lion to him,” Dohnel observed.

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Dohnel tied Modoc outside the door of the trailer where he was living and proceeded over the next months to win the animal’s trust. Today, Dohnel and Modoc are partners. Throughout the four-day pack trip in search of wild mustangs, Dohnel was as attentive to Modoc as a mother with an infant. He’d peel a stray blade of grass from the mustang’s lip, drag his fingers through the horse’s tail to loosen dead hairs. Dohnel’s hands were constantly soothing Modoc.

The mustang, in turn, carried Dohnel through loose rocks, sand and thigh-high brush without ever stumbling. So recently wild himself, Modoc was usually first among the group of pack animals and humans to spot the wild horses, signaling Dohnel with the arch of his neck.

Not one person in the group--they were, for the most part horse owners and horse lovers--escaped thinking that someday they too might befriend a wild horse.

Environmental purists might argue that wild animals should be preserved for their own sake and not for their usefulness to humans. The organizer of the Extension trip, Herb London, trapped mustangs about 20 years ago and has purchased wild horses from the BLM to supplement the stock he uses in his business, the Rock Creek Pack Station. London believes the wild horse population can be looked upon as a reserve of trail-worthy animals, there for ranchers and packers to draw from.

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Herds of wild horses began roaming the West in the late 1800s when Spanish missionaries released some of the Barb horses they had imported from Spain. The fine-boned Barbs later mixed with stockier draft horses set loose by ranchers and miners in the early 1900s. Modern mustangs range from nearly pure-blooded Spanish Barbs to huskier mixed-breed horses. Those observed by Extension class members weighed from 600 to 800 pounds, still much more compact than the pack horses that weigh 1,000 pounds and up.

As the herd sizes increased, they were preyed upon by “mustangers” who captured, broke and sold the animals, and by another sort of entrepreneur who rounded up the horses and sold them to slaughterhouses. Some ranchers were glad to see the horses go, viewing them as competition for the rangeland used by their cattle.

With the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the government stepped in to manage wild horses. Because officials felt that the ranges were not sufficient to feed both domestic cattle and the existing numbers of wild horses, they implemented a trapping program to reduce herd size. Beginning in 1973, wild horses and burros rounded up by the BLM were offered to the public through an Adopt-a-Horse program. However, there were more horses than the number of people who were able and willing to adopt and tame them.

As a result, thousands of wild horses are being maintained in pens by the government at what some say is an unreasonable cost to taxpayers. In California, there are currently 600 penned wild horses; each animal costs $2 a day to maintain, according to William Kennedy, chief of the branch of biological resources of the BLM in California. (There are about 52,000 wild horses in the West, with 4,000 of those in California, Kennedy said.)

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The capture and confinement of the horses bothers men like London who believe “a horse should either be free or be working.” London and his guides argue that the range northwest of Bishop (only one of several wild horse ranges remaining in California) can support many more wild horses than are being allowed. Former horse trapper Bill Hyzer said that 20 years ago there were 1,000 wild horses in the area. Today, due to government reduction efforts, there are as few as 78, he said. He, along with others on the trip, believes that this area should be named a wild horse sanctuary.

Popular Excursions

Last year, London got the idea that he might influence the wild horses’ future by taking people to see them. As far as anyone knows, no one has before attempted to bring groups of city people to the ranges of the wild horse. Excursions (the cost of the trip through UCSB Extension was $350) last summer and this spring proved popular; Rock Creek Pack Station has more wild mustang trips slated for next year.

The men guiding the groups know where to look. Fred Willis said that he spent many of his childhood days wandering these same ranges on a mustang roped and tamed by his older brother. Willis and the mustang, named Sally, used to follow herds of wild horses for hours, letting them lead him to their favorite watering holes.

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Willis, 27, said he doesn’t mind letting strangers in on his boyhood secrets. “You can’t fight it (what he feels is mismanagement of the mustangs) all by yourself,” he said. “So I’m glad to bring people back here.”

The mustang hoof prints were smaller and rounder than those of the pack horses. Wild horse tracks could be seen running crosswise to the path where extension students rode. The mustangs clearly preferred their own overgrown trails to the wide dirt roads made by men.

The group had been following the meandering tracks for about an hour, when Dohnel, riding ahead, signaled to the riders to dismount. They were nearing McBride Spring, a favorite wild-animal watering hole. Looking into an enormous valley enclosed by bluffs, Dohnel had spotted three wild horses wriggling on their backs in the dust--an act that serves as a morning bath for a horse.

There were three more mustangs on a nearby ridge, hiding among the squat pinon pines. The students slipped quietly off their horses and untied their lead lines, letting them dangle in the dirt. As agreed upon earlier at camp, the students stood behind their pack animals. The idea was to have the horse scent mask the smell of humans, Dohnel said.

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A couple of the riders removed their cowboy hats, thinking the white flash of a hat might give the group away. The wild horses scrutinized the domestic horses, apparently unaware there was an entire extension class watching them.

Guide Fred Willis rode around behind the knoll and spooked the family of horses out of the trees. They came thundering down into the valley--a buckskin stud, a bay mare, two young black studs and a foal, probably about 3 weeks old.

“Here comes a fight,” Dohnel whispered. The two black studs reared up on their back legs and paired off for a dust-churning skirmish.

The class members were to find through observation that younger stallions who have yet to acquire status can be as cantankerous as kids in the back seat of a station wagon on a long trip. They’ll tussle several times an hour, then--as quickly as it started and with no apparent resolution--the battle will be over and the two will act like brothers again.

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Wild horse life seems to involve endless jockeying for the privilege of belonging to a group. The stallions are always on the move, either protecting their positions of dominance, or challenging others for access to their mares. The successful ones may acquire two or three mares and a couple of foals--a harem.

Then there are those who lose more battles than they win. Dohnel pointed out what looked like two white boulders on a far hillside. A stallion too young to have won a harem and an aging stallion who had been banished by a younger male, they were a pair of mustangs Dohnel had dubbed Whitey and Pops on an earlier trip. Although the two were more likely to be enemies than allies in the natural wild horse social order, they had defied convention and were traveling together simply for companionship, Dohnel said.

Wild horses often are seen blazing across rocky ranges at a full-out “mustang trot,” as the gait is called. Their sure-footedness is one ability that makes them so valuable to pack station owner Herb London. “You could drink a cup of coffee on a mustang’s back on a steep hillside and not spill a drop,” London said.

Throughout the four days of riding, students were regaled with wilderness panoramas reaching hundreds of miles. At times, the Sierra and White mountain ranges and the Nevada desert all were visible at one time.

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On the ride back to camp, the class came upon a foal about the same age as the one they had just watched running with its family. It had been dead no longer than a couple of days. Buzzards were circling overhead, impatient for the riders to move on and leave them to their meal.

Willis said the animal probably was not the victim of the wild horse’s No. 1 predator, the mountain lion. If a mountain lion had attacked the foal, it would have buried its kill, Willis said. The baby horse might simply have tripped, he speculated, since to trip and break a leg in this harsh environment is a death sentence.

A light rain tapped on the tarp covering the camp kitchen just before dinner time. Three coffee pots simmered on the wood stove. Joseph Duvernay of Compton set aside the Louis L’Amour Western novel he’d been reading and recalled the first time he saw a wild horse.

Currently an AT&T; installer, Duvernay was at the time working in Reno. Instead of gambling after work, he said, he’d go horseback riding in the surrounding country. It was there that he first came upon a band of unfenced mustangs. Ever since, he’s been determined to learn more about the animals. He’s been riding the domestic version since he was a child; his grandfather was a blacksmith in New Orleans.

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“Seeing them out there today--I just feel like they should exist,” Duvernay said.

Suzanne Patur, a 29-year-old graduate student in anthropology, added, “I just can’t imagine not having them around. It would really be unfortunate if the wild horse went the way of the buffalo. But I think there’s a lot more horse lovers than buffalo lovers--so maybe we’ve got a chance.”

London is convinced that the fate of the wild horse rests with city people, most of whom will never see a mustang. Proving his point, there were plenty of urban types among the group. Lucy Grossman, a production assistant at 20th Century Fox, does most of her riding in Griffith Park; Jane Randall markets micrographics and rides the plush trails of the Palos Verdes peninsula on weekends. There were four nurses from Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, one of whom had never ridden a horse before.

The nurses rode out late one afternoon to gather firewood. Former mustanger Bill Hyzer led them to an overlook where they stopped to sample a view of wild horse country. “As far as you could see, there were no fences,” Lynn Berrien, 59, said. “As far as you could see, there was no gate to open. I’ve never been in a place like that before.”

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On the last day, the group broke camp (elevation about 7,200 feet) and rode down into the valley.

There wasn’t a lot of talking during the van ride back to Bishop where the students had left their cars. Storm clouds clotted over the White Mountains; a line of smoke rose from a small brush fire ignited by lightning. Everyone was looking out the van windows.

Stan Roberts, whose wife, Karen, keeps an adopted wild mustang at their home in Los Olivos, commented that after being on the trail for four days, he just couldn’t seem to stop scanning the sagebrush for movement, expecting to see a wild horse.

It almost verified the opinion of the wife of one of the old-time mustangers: “Once you chase the wild mustang,” she once observed to Herb London, “you’re worthless for anything else.”

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