TEHAMA COUNTY -- The riders reined to a halt upon spotting the mares and their foals, but the stud already had gotten wind of them.
He was a big, heavily muscled bay whose nostrils flared and tail switched like a whip as he stepped forward to challenge the intruders.
"Turn to the side; don't ride toward him," Dianne Nelson counseled softly. "He's a watchy one."
The stallion drew himself up, pawed the ground, galloped forward a few paces, planted his feet and stood stock-still, wary as a deer, until satisfied the riders were retreating.
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"Sometimes, the stallions will charge -- that's the wildness in them. You just don't know what they'll do," said Nelson, who in 1978 co-founded the only mustang sanctuary in the country where visitors can observe natural herd behavior.
Two-and three-day rides are available to the public, providing an opportunity to spy on the 200 wild horses and about 20 burros roaming the scenic, 5,000-acre refuge near the Shasta County line in the Cascade foothills northeast of Red Bluff. The sanctuary is one of a few where mustangs rescued from public lands run free and wild, and where reproduction also comes naturally.
Left to their own devices, Nelson explains, horses sort themselves into familial bands of about 10 animals, each dominated by a stud and a lead mare. As the scars on their bodies attest, stallions fight hard to keep their harems intact -- and steal mares from their rivals whenever they can.
Young males and defeated studs roam in "bachelor bands" governed by a different hierarchy. The several dozen geldings on the preserve form their own groupings. Burros keep mostly, but not entirely, to themselves.
"It's an emotional thing," Nelson says of her lifelong fascination with these living symbols of the American West. "Horses carried us through history; we wouldn't be here without them."
Critical time for mustangs
Her feelings are shared by many -- including the scores of horse lovers who contribute to sponsor the mustangs sheltered on sanctuary lands.
Natural behavior, of course, includes natural reproduction, and each year 40 to 50 foals (including the occasional mule) are born on the preserve. Mountain lions claim a few young ones each season, but most survive to be adopted and trained for domestic use.
Proceeds go toward the $200,000 a year it costs to support the nonprofit operation run by Nelson, her husband, Ted and a loyal corps of volunteers. Much of the expense is tied up in supplemental feed that keeps the mustangs healthy and sleek in wintertime, when conditions otherwise might reduce them to skin and bones.
The creatures are best observed from the back of one of the well-trained saddle horses kept on hand for visitors. Overnight rides, scheduled throughout the warm months, provide an introduction to the nature of wild horses and the issues and controversies surrounding them.
This is an especially critical time for America's mustangs, according to Nelson. Late last year, President Bush signed a 4,000-page spending bill that contained a provision allowing for the sale at auction of older and unadoptable horses ranging free on public lands. Wild-horse advocates claim most of these would end up at slaughterhouses serving the European market.
The bill sparked an outcry -- and the introduction of pending legislation that would reinstate protective measures. Remaining to be resolved is the problem of wild horses reproducing faster than they can be adopted.
The issues are complex, but those who regard America's mustangs as mere domestic animals gone feral are missing the point, Nelson and other horse preservationists say.
The genetic heritage of today's free-range horse dates back to mounts brought to the new world by Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s. Over the centuries, the horses interbred with cow ponies, saddle horses and draft animals released by settlers, Indians, ranchers, the U.S. Army and others.
Some still show traits of the original Arab and Spanish-barb stock, Nelson says.
"The horses that are out there are the product of hundreds of years of survival of the strongest, the most resilient. They're disease-resistant, low-maintenance and represent in many ways the bloodlines we would like to see in all our horses."
By government estimates, approximately 37,000 mustangs in 10 Western states -- including about 2,500 in California -- roam on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and other agencies. A majority share the range and compete for resources with privately owned cattle.
Horses might not make money for anyone the way cattle do, Nelson argues, but they take up relatively little space and can be managed effectively through birth control (now being tested) adoption and other means.
Whatever the issues, the wild horse advocate sees it as her mission to preserve the mustang's legacy as an icon on par with the buffalo, the bald eagle and apple pie.
One of the sanctuary's goals is to establish and maintain a model for responsible wild-horse management. Adopting out the young while letting older horses lead natural lives is part of that philosophy.
"We realized our job was to tell the story," Nelson says of the sanctuary's mission. "We felt like we could bridge a gap, create a place where people could come and see the horses that had carried us through history."
Once the story got out, back in the early 1980s, "Lo and behold, people started sponsoring the horses we rescued," Nelson recalls.
Rides can be dramatic
The loosely structured weekend rides, which attract all ages and types of equine enthusiasts, also serve as a means of earning money to support the sanctuary's goals. Assisted by interns and volunteers, Nelson leads groups of six to eight participants through the rugged preserve.
"It's not a commercial operation, and people can really tell the difference," the petite horsewoman notes.
Excursions take three hours or more, with frequent horse-watching stops along the trail, to reach a rustic overnight camp set beside a vernal lake at the top of a rocky ridge.
Riders sleep in cozy, lantern-lit cabins and chow down on steak, chicken, salad, corn on the cob and cowboy beans cooked on a campfire. Sore muscles are soothed with hot showers and cold margaritas. Sleeping bags and other personal gear are ferried up by truck.
In the morning, the crew whips up a breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes, biscuits, gravy, fruit and steaming-hot coffee.
Conversation at the camp tends to focus on horses and Western history, with wild ones often visible in the background. On rare occasions, mustangs caught up in the passion of the moment violate their instinctive boundaries and come closer than they normally would.
"Once, two studs got into a fight right behind the cabins while one of the guests was using the outhouse. He came out pretty wild-eyed," Nelson recalls with a chuckle.
The typical experience isn't nearly so dramatic, but it inevitably leaves guests filled with appreciation and respect not only for the horses but for the raw, powerful beauty of the land.
Riders amble through low, tree-shaded meadows and splash through streams to ascend rugged ridges shaded with oak, pine and buckeye. The land is studded with outcroppings of volcanic rock over which horse hooves click and scrape like giant fingernails.
The terrain is ideal, Nelson says, for keeping the mustangs' hooves worn down naturally.
A two-day lesson
Horses are not the only creatures inhabiting this land. Bear, bobcat, mountain lion, coyote and deer share the setting, and riders who keep their eyes peeled sometimes spot an antler shed by a resident stag, the scattered bones of a foal or an animal track in the red earth. Lassen Peak, a volcano that last erupted in 1918 and today is the centerpiece of a national park, floats on the horizon to the east of the refuge. From the top of a ridge, on a clear day, the inverted white cone of Mount Shasta is visible to the north.
By the end of the two-day rides, Nelson invariably has created dedicated converts to the mustangs' cause. The long-term goal is more noble: "To keep a piece of our history alive is what I really want to see - to have the sanctuary be here in perpetuity so horses can be what they have been for 500 years, running free on American soil. I feel like it's our job to educate people to the problems and dangers that face America's wild horses."
Travel wise: Wild Horse Sanctuary
What: Overnight rides to view wild horses on the 5,000-acre sanctuary are scheduled weekends in June, July, September and October. Two-night rides are set for Labor Day weekend and Oct. 8-10.
Cost: Two-day trips cost $295 per person; three-day trips are $395. Horses, food and lodging are included.
Where: The nonprofit sanctuary is in Tehama County, midway between Red Bluff and Lassen Volcanic National Park. Its office is in the nearby Shasta County community of Shingletown.
Information: To learn more about mustang sponsorship and adoption opportunities, or about the goals of the sanctuary, go to www.wildhorsesanctuary.org. To register for a ride, call (530) 335-2241.