A half-hour after leaving the Wild Horse Sanctuary’s homebase, our group of 12 adventurers found what we were looking for: wild horses. We had come to the Sanctuary, near Redding, from Southern California, San Francisco, Oregon and Washington. And with 300 horses spread on the Sanctuary’s 5,000 acres, and three-days of trail riding ahead, I thought it would have taken longer. But there they were, about 100 head, and as mixed in colors as a New England landscape in the fall. Duns, grullos, palominos, buckskins, plus every shade of gray, bay and chesnut imaginable. I was surprised to come upon them so easily, and struck that they looked a lot like “regular” horses.
The attraction? Hay, of course.
The Sanctuary’s founder Dianne Nelson and its many volunteers and supporters are exceedingly grateful for the 5,000 acres these horses have to roam and graze on. Approximately half of the land is owned by the non-profit organization and the rest is accessible via lease and/or permission of friendly neighbors. But, the rocky, hilly, clay terrain is not fertile ground for grasses and thus the Sanctuary needs to provide hay, typically 10 months of the year. It would be a lot cheaper if the land could support the horses itself, but a positive trade-off is this chance to see these horses easily and up close.
The trail ride I went on in early October was one of many two- and three-day treks staged by the Sanctuary in 2007. The excursions have become increasingly popular in the last few years, thanks in large part to great press including stories in the Los Angeles Times and a 2005 feature on Huell Howser’s California’s Gold TV show. For visitors, the trips are a great chance to learn about and observe wild horses and the very reasonable fee ($425 for a three-day ride) goes toward the Sanctuary’s considerable expenses.
We watched and photographed the hay-munching horses to our heart’s content. The brood included many babies who would be made available at the Sanctuary’s annual adoption. The Sanctuary’s capacity is about 300 horses, and the auctions are its primary means of population control. The 2007 auction was staged in late October, and 26 foals were placed with happy owners.
After we’d had our fill of watching the horses eating, we got on with the heart of the ride. A ridge of about 3,000 feet in elevation awaited us in the distance as we set out through rocky, shrubby terrain.
I had described myself as an experienced, but currently out of practice, english rider. Assigned to a super-calm palomino gelding named Bailey, I was advised several times to lay off my horse’s face. And I was happy to do that as Bailey carefully negotiated his way through dry streambeds and along super skinny single tracks zig-zagging up the hill. I was warned that Bailey wasn’t fond of horses getting too close behind, yet that didn’t stop him at all from crowding the guy in front. All the horses were steady-Eddies and there was not a single scary skirmish.
The backgrounds of my fellow trail riders were as diverse as our geographic locations. We ranged from two guys who neither owned horses nor rode regularly, to three San Diego trail riding buddies who most often trailered their own horses to various adventures.
After a few hours in the saddle, we tied our steeds to trees and enjoyed sack lunches of sandwiches and fruit. The weather was warm but not hot and the skies clear blue all day. Our fit horses didn’t even break a sweat during the hard work of ascending the ridge, and en route we had crystal clear views of Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, both of which were still covered in snow.
Camp was reached about 4 in the afternoon, after a total of five hours of riding. Another herd of wild horses greeted us, waiting for their dinner to be delivered in the middle of a small lakebed, which was dry this time of year. Simple, two-person cabins stood close by the shore of what is normally the lake, giving us all a front row seat to watch the horses nip, nudge and nuzzle their way through their meal. There were some dust-ups between the head stallion and younger challengers. A lone foal, an adorable palomino, frolicked with anybody he could engage, and an old, skinny mare came close enough to our cookhouse cocktail hour to eat the corn husks we laid on the ground for her.
A barbecued steak dinner with beans, biscuits and a big salad was delicious and plentiful. We topped it of with cheesecake and campfire chat and most of us were tucked in bed and warm on a chilly night by 9 p.m.
We got off to a leisurely start on Sunday, and spent the day exploring wild horse trails and heading for watering holes where we hoped to find some of the more wild members of the Sanctuary’s herd. We saw huge “stallion piles” of manure that marked a territory, and once heard distant whinnies, but we didn’t encounter any of the horses that opted to fend for themselves food-wise. A few of the watering holes were completely dry, thus reducing our chances of finding these independent souls. Nonetheless, it was great to be riding out in such remote territory.
After another day of five hours total saddle time, we were treated to another great dinner, this time accompanied by campfire songs. The friendly and excellent guitar player/singer was just one of the hundreds of volunteers that make the Sanctuary’s work possible.
A Wild Ride
Founded in 1978 by Dianne and a partner, the Sanctuary has only one paid employee. Dianne and her husband Ted live in a historic home in the Sanctuary’s base, which is Shingletown, about 30 miles from both Redding and Red Bluff. It all began when Dianne and a friend stepped up to take responsibility for 80 horses who did not find homes in a BLM round-up of wild horses in Modoc County. They were living at a holding facility in Tule Lake and on track to be destroyed. Since then, building and maintaining the Wild Horse Sanctuary has been Dianne’s life mission.
It’s been a wild ride. Managing the herd and the land are forever intertwined endeavors. Although Dianne yearns to say yes to every request to take on a wild horse in need, she knows too well that the land can only sustain a certain number.
Securing 5,000 acres has been a huge accomplishment for the Sanctuary. With a stick in the dirt to detail the big pieces of Sanctuary-owned land and bordering parcels, Ted explained a complicated set of events and circumstances, stretched over many years, that led to the WHS’s current access to 5,000 acres.
The highlight of the story was the James Family Foundation’s purchase, in 2002, of 1,023 acres, which the San Francisco charity then titled to the Sanctuary in 2003. In the same year, another benefactor bought 2,300 acres, but in July of 2004, had to put those up for sale on an Internet auction. The Sanctuary tried to raise funds to buy the land, and was ultimately relieved when only 180 of those acres sold. Today, the Nelsons are confident that the Sanctuary’s wild horses can graze and roam on 5,000 acres into the foreseeable future.
The Sanctuary’s educational and advocacy efforts have been instrumental in preserving wild horses. It has also been a leader in promoting contraception as a means of keeping herds at maintainable levels. In 2005, the Sanctuary worked with UC Davis in a study on the long-lasting, single dose immunocontraceptive vaccine, PZP. Funding for this ongoing project remains among the Sanctuary’s top priorities.
Do Fence Me In
Dianne says fencing is the Sanctuary’s most urgent need as it enters its 30th year of existence. The ability to rotate the herd from one part of the property to another would maximize the amount of forage the land can produce, thus reducing the quantity of hay needed. As with almost any project, fencing these remote rugged acres will require huge amounts of volunteer labor, but if the past is any indicator, the Sanctuary will pull it off. Many times on our ride, Dianne and several volunteers commented on the remarkable tendency for people to show up when needed: usually by prior arrangement, but sometimes out of the blue when the needs were greatest.
Looking at the big picture of wild horses in America, Dianne sadly notes the “increasing trend of habitat and population destruction continues for creatures great and small.” In her long tenure in the field, “the outlook for our wild equine friends currently on public lands has not improved.” That makes support of any kind and advocacy all the more important. “Let your elected officials know you want wild horses to remain free on the public lands,” Dianne urges. “That’s as important today as it was decades ago.”
On a brighter note, Dianne says it’s nice that, after many years of feeling like the Lone Ranger on the wild horse front, “It’s wonderful to see so many new organizations following our lead and offering a home and hope for wild horses and burros.” The need for more such places, however, grows every day.
A full schedule of two- and three-day trail rides runs April through October of this year. Visit www.wildhorsesanctuary.org or call 530-335-2241 for more information and to get involved.
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