Rescuing an American Icon
July 3, 2009
I thought long and hard about writing this story. It’s been such a horrendously heartbreaking event (for many); I just didn’t think I could relive any part of it. However, it seems there is always some good that shines through a tragedy and my experience is no exception. To do the story justice, I have to start from the beginning.
In the spring of 2007, I photographed a magnificent tri-colored pinto stallion from the White Mountain Herd Management Area (HMA) near Rock Springs, Wyoming. I have photographed many, many wild horses, but this particular Mustang made more of an impression somehow. To me, he was the epitome of all the exceptional and unique qualities embodied in the wild horses. And for that reason, I vowed that if I ever found out he’d been rounded up, I’d do my best to save him.
In November of 2007, there was a BLM roundup of the White Mountain HMA. Six hundred horses were taken off their range and the magnificent pinto stallion I had photographed, and so admired, was one of them. He was no longer running free. Rounded up in the prime of his life, but too old for the adoption program which left him destined for – what? Long term sanctuary or possibly sold to a kill buyer under the “sale authority” provision? Now I needed to seriously think about the promise I’d made to myself…and to him.
I purchased El Mariachi (as I later learned he was named by artist Dwayne Tanner in one of his paintings) in January of 2008 and relocated him to a ranch in Nebraska where he was to live out his life running wild just as he had for all of his 11 years. That lasted just over a year before there were serious concerns and allegations made regarding the ranch and it became necessary to re-rescue my horse. If it can be called lucky, El Mariachi (and another Mustang we rescued at the same time) was one of the fortunate ones. He survived the ordeal. Since the case is currently in litigation, that’s all I’ll say about it other than I pray for justice for every horse and every person involved.
Seeing El Mariachi in such emaciated condition took me to my knees. I was absolutely heartsick. I went back and forth between uncontrollable tears and utter rage. It was a terrible scene and what I witnessed there will haunt me forever.
Through the efforts of my ever supportive husband Tom and another gal, Amanda Davis (who helped Tom and I get the two wild horses loaded in our trailer), El Mariachi and Hope began their recovery on April 16th, 2009 under the very competent care of two veterinarians from Alliance, Nebraska. Drs. Jim and Tom Furman. I was amazed that they would even consider taking on two completely unhandled horses, but that was all part of the good stuff that was to come out of this terrible situation. These were awesome people who really went out of their way to help us through something we all viewed as incomprehensible. I’m very grateful to them.
After a week and a half at the Vet clinic, “Dr. Tom” offered his personal farm and care to continue the horse’s rehabilitation until I was able to find a suitable, permanent situation. Seems El Mariachi had worked his magic again – Dr. Tom had become quite taken with the big guy (he refers to El Mariachi as, “our boy”). With time and patience, he was actually able to touch El Mariachi gently on the nose. “It was awesome” he said. I could only imagine at first, but I got my chance later on.
I worried every day about where to place the horses. I was sick, sleepless – completely shell-shocked that the situation I’d placed my horse in had turned out the way it had. How was I ever going to find a safe place for these two wild horses? I had someone offer a place for them for which I was grateful, and I considered it, but my gut kept nagging at me that it wasn’t a perfect fit. I continued to pursue other options.
A friend of mine mentioned the name of a very well-known and highly respected wild horse advocate out of South Dakota. I knew the name and was certain she’d be a reliable source of information. My trust had been shattered, so having someone so well thought of to consult with was a real blessing. I contacted Karen Sussman and explained my situation. She was familiar with the case and said she thought she might know of someone who could help – she told me she’d be in touch. Those few days I spent waiting for her to get back to me were long, but, she didn’t disappoint. She had indeed found someone who could help and my new hero (how could I consider him as anything else?) took the horses sight unseen. I am forever grateful to Karen for her efforts in coordinating the horses’ placement with this big-hearted, very generous man. Michael Blake (author and screenplay writer of “Dances with Wolves”) offered to take the 2 horses and allow them to peacefully live out their lives on his very private, remote ranch at the base of the Rincon Mountains in southern Arizona. I could not believe it! What an incredible outcome for these two survivors. My gut no longer nagged at me and the decision was made. The horses would be transported to Arizona.
The horses arrived at Michael’s ranch on May 27th, 2009. He’s been so kind keeping me informed of their improving conditions and the entire goings on as they adjust to their new life in the safety of his care. And he was gracious enough to let me know that I could call anytime or come visit the horses whenever I wanted. So, I took him up on it! My Mom, Tom and I went down to Arizona on June 26th, 2009 to visit El Mariachi and Hope and to meet Michael so I could personally thank him for the gift he had given me and the horses.
Michael himself had rescued a BLM stallion that had been captured after running free for 20 years. He named the horse Twelve and he has a very touching memoir of their time together entitled, “Twelve The King.” He also rescued a Mustang mare named Samantha as a companion for Twelve (who lived to be almost 40 years old!) who is now in her mid 20’s. Other ranch residents are Tomas, a big, bay 3 year-old gelding that Michael rescued after Tomas had been starved and Little Boy, Michael’s retired riding horse. Rounding out the animal family are three dogs, a cat and a raven. Obviously, Michael is an animal lover. He sees himself as a caretaker, not an “owner” and I admire that. It’s the same way I feel about my relationship with El Mariachi.
Michael is just what I expected after speaking with him on the phone several times; kind, generous, interesting, passionate about his beliefs and very real. But let me tell you how surreal it felt at one point to be chatting away so comfortably and then to realize, hey, this is a man who stood at the podium at the Academy Awards – the recipient of an Oscar for his masterful creation, “Dances with Wolves.” Unbelievable. I think about just how much good stuff transpired to get the horses to this new place and person in their lives – our lives. I finally begin to believe there are better times ahead. The horses are safe and I’m no longer immobilized with fear and worry about their futures. Michael, and ALL the people who played a part along the way have given me more than they’ll ever realize. I don’t even know how to begin to thank everyone, but know that I do. I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity that was shown to me and these beautiful, beautiful horses. Never.
Obviously, this story doesn’t have an end, so I will be doing periodic updates as I get opportunities to visit the horses and Michael. It’s just so gratifying to know that the horses are recovering and will have a quality life despite what they’ve been through. I know that the next time I see them, they’ll be back at optimum weight.
In the meantime, I feel a certain responsibility to try to get people thinking about what happened to these two horses and why. The wild horses need to be better understood and managed as do the “sanctuaries” in which they are sometimes placed. This incident should never be forgotten and I can only hope for positive changes as a result of the many horses that suffered and died. Something just has to change.
El Mariachi is smart, strong, put together well and possesses a proud, yet gentle spirit. He has every quality I would look for in a horse companion. And there’s an added bonus that many Mustang owners enjoy of a bond of trust unmatched when the horses are handled correctly and patiently. We could learn alot from the wild horses, if we’d only give them the opportunity and time. They do require patience. I can’t think of a better trait to embrace though – it would benefit not only ourselves, but the people we encounter in our daily lives. I will just never understand why the wild horses are not used, appreciated and PROTECTED more as the gifts they truly are.
Important note: Before I purchased El Mariachi, that beautiful horse belonged to each and every one of you. All of the BLM managed Mustangs belong to you. Many people don’t even realize this, but the wild horses belong to the PUBLIC. You. Their futures are in your hands as well. If you ever have an opportunity to view a wild horse in its natural surroundings, I guarantee that you’ll be changed forever, and maybe you’ll begin to understand why many people work so hard to preserve them. Hopefully, you’ll become involved in the wild horse protection efforts yourself. There are so few wild herds remaining, it’s imperative that people act NOW. The wild horses are magical, spiritual creatures and they absolutely deserve their place on our Earth.
(Many thanks to all of you that took the time to read this story. Please feel free to share the story via the link: https://nickolesphotography.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/rescuing-an-american-icon/. The more exposure to the situation facing our wild horses, the brighter the hope for their continued survival).
Related stories and updates on El Mariachi and Hope:
The Passing of an American Icon: https://nickolesphotography.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/the-passing-of-an-american-icon-2/
El Mariachi’s Gift: https://nickolesphotography.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/el-mariachis-gift/