Saturday, August 28, 2010

South Dakota - Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Our original plan was to turn in the rental car yesterday and then drive the Trek to the Wild Horse Sanctuary and stay on one of their RV pads for a couple nights. Anyway, we had to ditch this because of the delay in getting the Trek repaired. So we extended the car rental and paid for a couple additional nights at TeePee Campground & RV Park.  If nothing else, we've learned to be flexible!

We left the dogs in the Trek this morning and made our way to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is about a 70-mile drive south of Rapid City.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is actually part of the Institute of Range and American Mustang (IRAM), a non-profit corporation founded by Dayton Hyde in 1988. IRAM owns and manages 11,000 acres of private land dedicated to range preservation and a balanced ecosystem.

The specific purpose of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is to provide life and freedom to unadoptable and unwanted wild horses, and to contribute herd management research for the well-being of wild horses everywhere. The sanctuary is home to more than 600 wild Mustangs, and also a mixed herd of wild American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs. Here's a brief lesson about wild horses in America: 

Mustangs are American wild horses that are indirect descendants of Spanish horses brought to Central and North America in the 1700s. Apaches captured highly bred and well-trained Spanish horses from Mexican villages and breeding farms, and traded them northward with other tribes. Some of these Spanish horses then became lost or escaped, and many survived to roam freely across the open plains. In those early days, a feral Spanish-blooded horse was called a mesteƱo, meaning "stray" or "wild," and this became the root of the word Mustang.

As colonization of the Americas expanded, the English, French and Dutch also imported horses such as Morgans, Percherons, Belgians, and Clydesdales. Like the Spanish horses, some of these horses also escaped or became lost, and then they bred with the wild herds of Spanish horses. By the 1800's, the Mustang had evolved into a different animal than a pure Spanish wild horse, except for one important characteristic: hardiness. Other attributes of Mustangs are high endurance, extremely strong herding instinct, very hard hoofs, and superior agility. Herds have adapted to the conditions of their locations and so Mustangs that live in cold climates are shaggy and small, and desert Mustangs can survive on remarkably small amounts of food and water.

Over time, these wild horses multiplied until thousands, perhaps millions, roamed the American plains. The US Calvary captured Mustangs from these herds and put them into service, and so did ranchers and farmers. But the wild herds were competing with settlers for land and grass and, by the mid 1800s, Mustangs were being shot on sight and rounded up by the thousands to be slaughtered for food and other products. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act which made the controlling and harvesting of Mustangs illegal. But then the Mustang population grew so quickly that control and management of the herds became a major concern. In response to this, the Bureau of Land Management began an adoption program that continues today.  However, not all Mustangs are good candidates for adoption and this is where the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary comes into the picture.

We arrived in plenty of time to explore the little gift shop and read a copy of the latest newsletter that was laying around. A family of four arrived and then our guide pulled up in a van to take the six of us on what turned out to be a very interesting tour of the sanctuary.  As he drove us around, our guide told us the history of the American Mustang and how carefully the sanctuary is run in order to have the least impact on the natural state of the horses.  For example, they don't have round-ups and they let nature take its course rather than treating sick horses. In times of drought, however, they do put containers out with water so the horses can drink. We were very fortunate to see a lot of horses, although we drove around for a while before we found the herd.  We made several stops and were able to get out of the van for a closer look and photo-taking. 

Shortly before returning to the visitor center, our guide took us to see the mixed herd of Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs, which occupies a bounded area separated from the regular Mustangs.

American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs are direct descendants of wild Spanish horses and have little, if any, DNA from other horse breeds. They are highly intelligent with an innate sense of self-preservation and legendary endurance. The American Spanish Mustang comes in a full range of solid colors including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo, zebra and red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cremello. Sulphur Mustangs are usually line-backed duns and grullos, but can have the color variations found in Spanish Mustang. 

In addition to seeing the horses, we also visited a petroglyph site, saw the Crazy Horse movie set (from a distance), learned more about Native American history, and saw the Sundance ceremony site that the Lakota use every summer.  Our 2-hour tour actually lasted almost 3 hours, and we really appreciated the extra time and effort our guide put in to make the experience so enjoyable.  By the time we left, we certainly knew a lot more about American wild horses than when we arrived! Click here for photos...

In today's fast-paced, money-focused way of life, I find it comforting to know there are people such as Dayton Hyde who put nature and conservation ahead of personal gain, and help keep our world in balance.

We left the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and drove to Hot Springs for some lunch and to visit the Mammoth Site. But that's another story... stay tuned!

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