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Home Travel OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley Spending a Weekend With Wild Mustangs

The Wild Horse Sanctuary in California

Spending a Weekend With Wild Mustangs

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My horse sensed them first. We were riding up a wash to a line cabin in the Nevada high desert, under a full moon that bathed the world in silvery light, when the horses whinnied and snorted.

I was out inspecting watering tanks and fences on a ranch. Up ahead in the gray shadows a stallion gathered his mares and foals and headed up the rise, hooves barely audible on the rocky soil. Keeping their distance from man and civilization, mustangs provide an echo of the Old West in ways like nothing else can.

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Hunted almost to extinction at one time, the American wild mustang is the descendant of those Spanish horses that so quickly changed the West before the barbed wire arrived. Conquistadores, Native Americans, charros and cowboys depended on these horses for everything.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and to another, even more dramatic encounter with wild mustangs. Elizabeth and I woke from a restful sleep as the sounds burbled through the dawn's charcoal-gray light like a melody.

"Was that a whinny?" we whispered almost together. In the silent mountain air, the gentle trill sounded again, followed by hoof beats.

"The wild horses are right outside our cabin," I said softly. "Let's see."

Shaking out our boots and hurriedly putting them on, we threw on jackets and tiptoed to the plank door of the cabin. We both looked toward a rustling in the chaparral. From around the side of the cabin strolled a bay mare, heading toward the pasture in front.

Within minutes, five more horses arrived and started grazing. They only moved away when the sun crested the top of the mountain and flooded the meadow with light and heat.

We were spending a weekend with the mustangs at a remarkable place that is dedicated to saving this symbol of the West.

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This early morning equine encounter was just one of the surprises awaiting us at northern California's Wild Horse Sanctuary. Now in its 29th year, some 300 untamed mustangs and burros that might otherwise have been slaughtered roam these 5,000 acres near Shingletown.

To help support the sanctuary, which is located about 30 miles east of the town of Redding, founder Dianne Nelson and her husband, Ted, offer two- and three-day trail rides. The rides cover country accessible only on the trails the mustangs use. Some are unbelievably rocky and steep, but the experience of riding the range inhabited by these animals is a never-to-be-forgotten experience for city slickers and weekend wranglers alike.

At a time when government policies about mustangs on Western rangeland remain controversial, the sanctuary provides a way for visitors to put the mustangs in the context of the land. If you are interested in the West and its history, a weekend there is special indeed.

The Wild Horse Sanctuary is open to the public for wild horse viewing on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and there is no cost to look. Donations, however, are accepted.

The sanctuary does offer two- and three-day trail rides from late April through early October. Rides begin at around $400 and include overnights and cowboy cooking. There are also programs for sponsoring or adopting a wild horse. You can support their efforts by making a donation; see their web site for details. For more information call (530) 335-2241; or visit
www.wildhorsesanctuary.org .

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