With Ken Martin at the wheel we’re headed to the badlands, looking for the “Wild Bunch.” Twenty miles east of Cody, Wyoming we’re surrounded by the Red Paint Mountains that look brushed with scarlet paint.
The McCullough Peaks wild horse range is home to roughly 200 mustangs that roam a rugged and mysterious 110,000-acre refuge along with bands of pronghorn antelope, coyotes and prairie dogs.
Mustangs have long been a been romantic symbol of the American West-- their manes and tails flying as they gallop over the dusty plains, answering to no-one. Wyoming is home to the second largest (behind Nevada) wild horse population.
They lead an exhilarating but perilous existence. The climate can be brutal, mountain lions and other predators stalk the young, and their dependence on public grazing lands for sustenance often puts them in competition with livestock interests.
Blood sample studies have determined a direct link to the horses brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. How did they get here? Some attribute them to the Lewis and Clark expedition whose horses either escaped or were stolen by the Crow Indians.
Others are lined to Buffalo Bill Cody. When he ended his Wild West Show days in 1918, Cody released many of his Cleveland Bays in the McCullough Peaks.
The herds normally comprise up to 15 horses with one stallion, his colts, and his harem of mares. Mares usually drop their foals in May. The stallions are constantly fighting for dominance and control over their harems.
Over the generations, the mustang’s size remained small and compact (averaging 14 to 14.2 hands). The cold winter climate fostered a heavier body type-- thicker necks, smaller ears, and long, silky manes.
The mustangs have large, expressive, often almond-shaped eyes spaced widely apart that allows for maximum range of vision to escape predators. Their hooves are good size for their bodies that delivers surefootedness over the rocky terrain.
What really stands out is the rich and brilliant array of coat colors with some of the most dramatic, primitive markings found on any horses across the globe. Golden duns are creased along the back with crisp, dark dorsal stripes. You’ll also find apricot and claybank duns and shades of grullo (dun/black) that virtually glow. Red and blue roans are common as are palominos.
Martin turned his past time of watching wild horses into a tour business seven years ago. Red Canyon Wild Mustang Tours has been a winner, climbing to nearly 1700 people last year.
“The wild horse have personalities just like people-- boisterous, quiet, some are aggressive to other horses,” related Martin, a compact and fit man with a rapid-fire speaking mode.
“The fathers help raise the babies, unlike most male species. They seem to like the companionship.”
Martin passes out binoculars and then leads a single-line trek across the open prairie. Beyond wild horses, we’re on the look out for cactus and rattlesnakes. In the distance a band of horses trudges down to a watering hole. Martin knows them all-- the dominant stallions, the prospective mares, and the babies. He ticks off their names.
“There is War Bonnet, Buck, Sonny Boy, Four Socks,” Martin shouted. “Raven had a band of mares, but lost them to War Bonnet in a fight. They’re part of the Wild Bunch that is actually two bands traveling together. Red Paint Band is another band and the Paints and Grays much further east.”
Breaking off from their band, the stallion Shorty, a mare and their newborn foal roam. They watch us as intently as we do them.
Many of the mustangs have been adopted at nearby auctions. People who adopted the wild horses are often amazed at their intelligence. Untouched by human hands they exhibit a natural “Paso-like” gait in the wild, a trait many domesticated horses are taught.
“They learn more quickly than other horses and have tremendous heart,” Martin noted. “I find they make wonderful trail horses because they’re always watching where they put their feet.”
The bands of wild horses increase roughly 20 percent each year. The growth has sparked a politically charged battle between the cattle ranchers and those who love the wild horses.
In ten western states there are roughly 27,000 wild horses and 2,000 wild burros versus three million cattle. Five years ago, 400 of the 500 mustangs were rounded up in McCullough Peaks.
The original idea was to improve the herd, leave the dominant stallions and mares. This fall a roundup is projected to remove 130 of the 200.
“That’s too many, over the past several years we’ve had good food and water supply,” Martin insisted. “The horses get put up for adoption, go to long-term holding pens or could be euthanized. What to do with them is the critical issue.”
Martin is hopeful a reasonable plan can put in place by Wyoming’s Bureau of Land Management.
“Listen, I’ve been floating river trips here for 37 years,” he noted. “I never get the comments like the folks on the wild mustang tours. For most it’s the highlight of their vacation.
“The wild horses’ hoof sparks are all over the West. If they go, so goes a big piece of America.”