Sometimes, you just have to pursue your lifelong dreams. And so in early May 2014, my wife, Sheila, grabbed her camera in one hand and me in the other, and we headed west, toward the elusive bands of wild mustangs she’d longed to visit since she was a kid.
After driving 1,000 miles from Iowa, we arrived at the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Area, a dozen miles east of Cody, Wyoming. The protected area consists of 172 square miles of mountainous desert, crisscrossed by dry creek beds and small cliffs, inhabited primarily by scrub brush, prickly pear cactus, antelope, huge jackrabbits---and more than 100 wild horses.
Slowly we cruised the highway that forms the southern border of the range, not knowing what to expect. We stopped every so often to scan the vast, rugged terrain with our binoculars, but mile after frustrating mile rolled by with no luck. Had we driven so far only to come up empty-handed?
Finally, in early afternoon, we spotted a cluster of tiny specks far up a slope in front of a butte, easily three miles away. With the binoculars we confirmed it was a herd of more than 50 horses. We drove another half mile to a designated parking area and pulled on our hiking boots.
We quickly realized this was not going to be an easy walk. We’d have to cross a 40-foot drop down to a small stream, then negotiate a long, rising slope to the base of the butte. After sliding down the steep embankment, we discovered that the stream, which appeared shallow from above, was actually two to three feet deep. So we hiked until we found a spot narrow enough for us to jump across while lugging a pack of cameras. Climbing the opposite embankment, still hidden below the rim, we wondered whether the mustangs would still be there by the time we arrived.
Once we were back in view of the butte, we stopped to plan our approach. Rather than walking directly toward the herd from the south, we decided to angle toward the west, which would take us on a path that would pass by the horses about a quarter mile to the east. That, we hoped, would be close enough to get decent pictures without spooking them.
It was a great plan, but as so often happens, it had little to do with what actually happened. As we closed to within a mile of our quarry, to our surprise we startled a few bachelors grazing apart from the main herd. Alerted to our presence, these lone sentinels stared at us, statue-like, heads high, ears pointed, and nostrils flared into the wind. Then, rather than running away as we expected, a gray stallion suddenly galloped straight toward us.
Before coming to Wyoming, I had read up on what to do if attacked by a grizzly bear. And I knew that the range rules clearly state visitors are never to approach within 100 yards of a wild mustang. But none of that reading had prepared me for this: I’d never heard of anyone being attacked by a stallion, and the guidebook didn’t specify what to do if it was the horse who violated the rules.
My heart pounded in my chest. I looked at Sheila, and she at me, and we watched wide-eyed as the stallion bore down on us, dirt flying from pounding hooves.
Finally, about 20 yards away, the stallion veered to the right and ran past us. Behind him followed another stallion, and then another, each curving by on the same path, until they all stopped just 20 yards away.
They were powerful. They were beautiful. They had passed so close.
Scarcely able to believe this was actually happening, Sheila and I stood back-to-back, she working her camera on the stallions while I watched the main herd to the north, now alerted to our presence.
Once they were content we were not a threat, the nearby stallions dropped their heads to graze. Rather than startle them again by moving off, Sheila and I sat down right where we were to watch and wait. As the stallions continued grazing, the herd to the north, which stretched almost a quarter mile wide, slowly grazed its way toward us. Within an hour, we had horses on all sides---bands of mares and stallions and the bachelors.
Pawing at the dirt, the stallions pranced, snorting challenges to each other. Dust billowed as bachelors jockeyed for position, darting in and out, trying to cut mares from other stallions’ harems. Suddenly, one set of stallions after another reared in battle, ground pounding, dirt flying, hooves flailing, lunging with vicious bites. The skirmishes were short-lived, but we witnessed several where both victor and vanquished were left bloodied.
It almost seemed as if the herd had crossed the miles of sagebrush just to place us as guests of honor in the front row of their spring performance. But then, as quickly as it began, the show was over. With the sun sinking rapidly toward the horizon, the herd slowly continued on, leaving us behind. We packed our cameras and began the long trek back to our car, marveling at our good fortune.
At dinner that night we pored over the pictures, reliving every moment. As we talked, Sheila asked a prophetic question: She wondered aloud about the fate of stallions severely injured in battle.
We were to find out the next morning.
Driving back to the range, we followed an old dirt trail, miles from where we had seen the herd the day before. Scanning the ridges with binoculars, we spied a lone black-and-white pinto, miles from any other horses. He was probably about three-quarters of a mile off the trail, and we decided to hike in for a closer look.
He saw us almost immediately; we were certain he would bolt. Instead, however, he stood his ground and watched as we again approached at an angle, to avoid scaring him. But once we were close enough, we could see through the binoculars why he hadn’t fled. He had a severe limp, and his ribs showed clearly. The horses we’d seen the day before were all strong and healthy.
When we got within about 100 yards, Sheila zoomed in on the horse with her telephoto lens. What she saw alarmed her. The stallion’s right front knee was swollen and yellow fluid flowed from it. His right back leg was badly gashed and looked even worse. His testicles appeared swollen, a telltale sign of infection.
We had stumbled upon one of the defeated warriors that Sheila had spoken of the night before. I climbed a nearby hillside and sat down to watch as Sheila, a veterinary technician by trade, settled in to take pictures of the stallion and his wounds. As he grazed, he slowly limped toward---not away from---her. For over an hour, he closed the distance between them.
Clearly, he had been in many battles---his rump was covered with scars from years of fighting. But his last battle had left him so severely injured that it was a struggle simply to cover ground to graze. As he methodically closed the distance, Sheila reassured him with her soft voice as her camera clicked. Undoubtedly, he could smell her scent in the breeze.
Finally, Sheila got up. A tear was in her eye as she turned to leave her wounded warrior behind. As we hiked away, the stallion continued to watch us. It seemed as if he was reluctant to see us go, too.
When we got back to Cody, Sheila called the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to report the injured stallion. In this and other conversations with the BLM and local wild horse enthusiasts, we discovered his name: Tecumseh. He was a 10-year-old who once had his own band of mares but had recently lost them to another stallion. The clash had left him with the wounds we witnessed.
The BLM assured us that they were watching Tecumseh closely. To her dismay, Sheila was told they would not administer antibiotics, even though it was clear he was fighting infection. Tears again filled her eyes when they wrote matter-of-factly in an email that if he worsened, they would be forced to put him down. However, they remained confident he would recover with the new grass of spring.
Our vacation over, we had to leave both Wyoming and Tecumseh behind. On the long drive home, I could tell Sheila’s thoughts were no longer with me but instead with the injured stallion.
She remained in touch with the BLM, and she was delighted to hear that Tecumseh was regaining his strength, and by midsummer, he returned to the main herd to join a band of bachelors. Sheila set her sights on a return visit, and in early October, we were back on the range. As fate would have it, on our first morning back, we spotted a small band of bachelors a short hike from the trail. Among them was a fit and healthy Tecumseh.
We approached the stallions from upwind. I am certain Tecumseh recognized Sheila’s familiar scent---while we were still some distance away, he lifted his head and acted as if he recognized an old friend, moving confidently toward her. Sheila spent the day basking in the glory of the unusually warm autumn sun, waves of golden grass bending in the breeze, taking more photos of Tecumseh and his new band of brothers.
She was truly in heaven. Her lifelong dream had finally come true.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, August 2015.