Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Europeans travel thousands of miles to see Nevada's wild horses

By Harold Roy Miller • Special to Dayton Courier • May 20, 2009

Just north of Silver Springs lies a stretch of rocky, sagebrush-covered range called Stockton Flat. It's bordered by treeless, lava rock-dotted mountains, where the landscape changes from rolling dry meadows and sandy washes to acclivous, unfriendly hills and deep ravines that provide a scenic background.

Stockton Flat is the local place to spot wild mustangs. Some of the most hardy and strikingly colored wild horse bands flourish in this harsh terrain. Besides the usual bays, sorrels and browns, there are cremellos, buckskins, duns, grullas, pintos, and roans. They are an inspiration for writers and photographers, and they are a true cowboy's delight.

So naturally I was excited when my friend Willis Lamm, a longtime friend of the wild horses, asked if I wanted to go to Stockton Flat to help a film crew shoot video, and maybe recite a wild horse poem or two on camera.

The shoot was intended to test scene locations and possible characters for a pilot reality show that renowned country singer-songwriter and wild horse advocate Lacy J. Dalton had been asked to develop. The fact that this was Lacy's project surely was going to make an interesting day even better.

The primary focus of this morning's shoot included a father and daughter from the Netherlands. The father had told his daughter they could go anywhere in the world she wanted for her 16th birthday, and she told her father she wanted to go to Nevada and see mustangs in the wild. Lacy planned to capture this adventure and then get the father's and daughter's reactions on camera.

Lacy planned to get some photos of riders on horses with wild horses in the background, and she was going to do a bit of riding herself, so Willis and Lee Graves brought out three of their own mustangs. My assignment was to drive Willis' Jeep, be the videographer's chauffeur, and to record the event with a still camera. I felt privileged just to be invited to come along.

The morning didn't start as planned. The production company needed the videographer for another assignment later in the day and cut the shoot time in half. Highway repaving caused another delay of about an hour. As a result, a six-hour video shoot involving animals now had to be done in about two-and-one-half hours.

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I arrived at the shoot location with Willis and two of his mustangs, a gelding named Corey and a sweet mare named Kahlua. Lee Graves already was on site brushing out a third mustang, a little sorrel with a big attitude named Little Bit.

Since Lee didn't have a saddle with stirrups short enough for the somewhat vertically challenged Lacy, Willis had "borrowed" his wife's prized saddle for Little Bit to wear on the shoot.

We hastily saddled the horses. We had originally intended to work out any kinks in the horses just in case a cayuse decided to act up before the Dutch tourists, Lacy and her videographer arrived. The others drove up to the staging area just moments before Lee first stepped into the saddle.

Little Bit picked up on everyone's energy, suddenly put on a "horse gone Western" demonstration and went on a wild bucking spree. Lee looked at first like a rodeo bronc buster as he sat the pitching horse, but after a few hard bucks, he sailed through the air and landed on the rock-covered ground with a thud. He didn't quite make 8 seconds. The rest of us just stood there with our mouths agape.

Lee got up, brushed off a few tumbleweed stickers, then somewhat stiffly walked toward his horse. Either Lee was moving too slow, or the horse was moving too fast, because from our vantage point, the closer Lee tried to get to Little Bit, the farther away Little Bit seemed to be. Then Little Bit suddenly took off across the range at a gallop, with reins flying and stirrups flapping.

Willis mounted his mustang gelding and yelled to me to get the Jeep and try to get ahead of Little Bit before he got too far away. By now the horse was at least 500 yards out and moving straight toward a band of wild horses grazing on the side of the mountain.

This could be disastrous! The band's stallion was known by the locals as "Bubba," a real brute, who had the largest harem of mares on the range. Little Bit might have been quick and feisty, but he wouldn't stand a chance if he happened to meet up with Bubba.

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These thoughts and many others went through my mind as I raced Willis' Jeep down the dusty road. I would have to get in front of the running horse and head him off. Lee was following Little Bit's tracks.

Willis was making good time along the lip of a ravine. When I thought I had gone far enough, I parked the Jeep and started out on foot across the desert. I sprinted across dry sandy creek beds and climbed up small rocky hills trying to find a vantage point where I could locate the escapee.

Every time I reached the top of one ridge, it seemed I had to climb yet another. I topped a plateau and finally saw the little gelding off in the distance. He then disappeared into an arroyo, and I lost him again. I started running in the direction I figured he was headed, all the while looking for Little Bit, Willis or Lee, but finding neither hide nor hair of any of them.

I scanned a ridge with my binoculars and caught the movement of two horses coming down a mountain. One was sorrel and the other was white. Then Little Bit came into view, and I saw he was headed straight for them. My first thought was that Little Bit was about to tangle with a stallion, so I started yelling at Little Bit to stay away, which, of course, had no effect. Little Bit ran right up to the sorrel horse and they started nickering. They appeared to fight as they charged in at each other, but then I saw that Little Bit was actually chasing the horse in my direction.

The horse was a mare, and her beautiful little cremello foal. I was dumbfounded. Little Bit had charged into Bubba's harem, had cut out a mare and her foal, and was chasing her right to where I was, as if to say, "Look what I found!"

When they got within 30 or 40 yards of me, Little Bit stopped, and the mare and the foal moved away, wanting nothing to do with a human. Little Bit held back with them, and then they took off down a dry creek bed.

Lee came into view. Little Bit abruptly left the mare and foal and started off in the direction where I had parked the Jeep. I could see he had a front leg through the rein and it was bothering him. Though I was running out of steam, I started running again to try to cut him off.

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Then Willis arrived and positioned his horse right where he needed to be to make Little Bit stop. Little Bit recognized his buddy and stood still. Willis could see that Little Bit was starting to track in on me, and suggested that I back up. Little Bit followed, and in a few moments, I was able to take a tight hold on his bridle. Willis came over, lifted Little Bit's hoof and untangled the rein. The chase finally was over, and everyone seemed fine.

Lee, who can claim his own share of hard bark, caught up and climbed right back onto Little Bit. He and Willis rode back to the staging area while I returned with the Jeep. While we were back at the trailers discussing the event, and making sure Lee didn't have any seriously damaged parts, the sorrel mare and the little foal arrived and walked within 50 yards of us! The whole group just stood and watched. Willis and Lee, now riding Kahlua, herded them back towards their own band.

This mishap had set us back a notch, but we went ahead with the original plan, except Lacy decided to ride in the Jeep with me, and Little Bit remained confined to quarters in a stock trailer.

Willis and Lee rode to Bubba's band, which was now sunning on top of a sloping ridge about half a mile long and about that far away. The Dutch visitors got to view this beautiful wild band until it slowly vanished over the crest.

Lacy conducted her interviews, then we wrapped things up and headed back down the ridge. Josine, the Dutch girl, got to ride a mustang back to the staging area.

It was a lively time for sure, and I considered this to be one of my better days. I don't know what generated more excitement, watching Lee do his impromptu rodeo ride, chasing down and catching the runaway gelding or driving a celebrity around in a Jeep and hearing her sing her hit song "Sixteenth Avenue," a capella, at my request.

It turned out that Lee was okay, and Sharon's saddle had come through its amazing ordeal without a scratch. In the end, we all were happy the day had been blessed with a "little bit" of excitement.

We heard a little later that when Little Bit returned home, he lay down in a sunny spot and slept for three hours.

There are a few lessons to be gleaned from this tale.

If you do anything where Lacy J. Dalton is involved, you're bound to have an adventure.

If you don't remember that horses do things on their own time, and that they don't really care how rushed you might be, they can, and will, remind you of that fact.

You don't have to be the biggest, toughest stallion on the range to pull off a raid and come away with a great looking mare and foal; but if you're with wild horse advocates, they will probably make you put them back!

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