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Of Rocks, Creeks and Broom-Tailed Horses 

Will California’s own wild mustangs ever return to Coyote Canyon? Should they?

Wednesday, Feb 1 2006
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Among other things, the official reports said that the horses were starving and dying of thirst and therefore needed to be rounded up. Such was not the case, but no matter: A plan was in place and, one day in 2003, the contractor from Utah who makes his living rounding up wild horses on public lands all over the West arrived with his team, his truck, his chopper and his portable corral and chute and set the trap. Up went the corridor through which the horses would make their last run, the channel that would lead them to a dead end, the metal fencing that would form the small pen into which thousands of mustangs had been chased before and thousands were going to follow. From outside the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the chopper took off and flew into the park, sweeping across the boulders and cholla and ocotillo until it spotted the horses, in Coyote Canyon, their home, a stunning and rugged riparian region cut by a rare and sparkling desert treasure — a stream.

The chopper dropped altitude and slowed and began harrying the wild horses out of the canyon, up the ancient path used by Indians, Spanish explorers, cattlemen, wildlife, hikers, drivers of jeeps and ATVs. As the band neared the trap, the chopper peeled off and there came the dispatch of the contractor’s Judas horse — a sad name for the sad gig that was this animal’s lot in life — and it galloped before the oncoming band, leading it toward the trap, peeling off like the chopper just before the mustangs ran into the dead-end makeshift corral. Panicked, the horses shifted this way and that, the stallions occasionally leaping above the pack and trying to break out, the smaller horses battered in the frenzy. After a while, the mustangs tired and lowered their heads. Sorted by gender and numbered with chalk (there were 10 stallions and 19 mares), the wild horses of Coyote Canyon, the last herd of wild horses in Southern California, were then funneled into trucks and hauled out of the desert.

When the last of anything that is good and pure and true disappears, it is a sad occasion. But consider this: America — and, very much so, California — would have no history without the wild horse. In fact, our country and state would simply not exist without this four-legged partner. As we fled tyranny into the great, wide open, the wild horse carried us across parched deserts until it could run no longer and then it buckled under our weight. In death it served us still, becoming nourishment on the trail. Unable to catch a break, the wild horse was taken from the Western range and pressed into service to fight our wars. In the Civil War, thousands were killed at Gettysburg alone; in the Indian wars, Custer massacred hundreds of Indian ponies in the Battle of the Washita lest they live to carry Native Americans into battle once more; in World War I, the need for cavalry mounts decimated our herds as thousands were shipped to the European front and died in service. And even as we mythologized ourselves and our relationship with the wild horse in the making of Westerns, the horses were injured and abused, or they perished. Among the many horses killed in stunts gone fatally awry are the mustang in the original Jesse James with Henry Fonda, which was forced to jump off a cliff, and two wild horses that died in stunts during the recent filming of the remake of My Friend Flicka. So I say mad props to the eagle, but ’tweren’t no bird that the red-white-and-blue came in on. It’s the wild horse that courses through our blood and promises freedom and the pursuit of happiness and the open road. It’s the wild horse that is our most powerful and meaningful icon, the wild horse that lurks right under our hood. Which is why America’s once-and-future vehicle of cool is called a Mustang.

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Alas, most people — probably including drivers of Mustangs — don’t know that we even have wild horses. I base this on many conversations I’ve had over the past few years about a book I’m writing on wild horses in the West. “There are wild horses on the range?” people generally say, excitedly. “Where can I see them?”

The story of the wild horse — actually, the fact of its very existence — is basically suppressed. Not in a conspiratorial sense, but what’s the difference? Even I missed the part that’s right in our own backyard, in spite of my extensive research — visiting several of what the government calls herd-management areas around the West, reading dozens of reports and historical accounts, studying various maps and stats about the remaining wild horse herds on public lands, and talking with scores of people in the desert states where wild horses still roam. In fact, it was not until 2004 — after investigating the plight of these animals for six years — that I heard about the wild horses of Coyote Canyon. That’s when I met Kathleen Hayden.

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