Horse Nation’s in-house cowgirl diverts our attention from the winter weather and indoor arenas with this tale of blue Wyoming skies, wide open spaces and a mysterious feral horse.
In the dead of winter in western New York, when all outside is a blowing tundra of snow and ice and even the heated indoor is feeling a little drafty, I find myself telling a lot of stories at the end of class or practice when my students are gathered around, too tired to dismount but too tired to continue working. Most of my tales come from my summers on staff at a working guest ranch in Wyoming, leading trail rides, moving cattle and training young horses in the mountains and forests. Here follows such a story:
On a typically bright and beautiful Wyoming morning, the sun shining bright and the endless sky filled with scraps of white clouds, I led a group from the corral across the whitewater river and down the winding road to our riding arena, a fenced-in rectangle among the vast yearling pasture where the ranch’s homebred Arabian youngsters grazed and learned the politics of life in a herd. As our horses ambled easily down the road, I made small talk with my guests, pointing out a red-tailed hawk circling overhead.
As we approached the side valley containing the arena and pasture, my guests began to point to a shape on the opposite hillside. I followed their line to see a bright red horse standing beneath a lone tree about halfway up the slope, ears pricked in our direction. Our young horses in their meadow were equally intrigued, heads and tails lifted as they stared at the newcomer.
“It appears to be a wild horse!” I proclaimed, not bothering to hide the excitement in my voice. “A mustang! Sometimes mustangs get separated from their band and wander alone until they find other horses. Maybe this one has found us.”
I was referring, of course, to another mustang in our herd, the famous Three Dot, who had trailed rides out of the ranch for weeks and then one day finally jumped the fence and chose to live among her domesticated cousins. The wranglers on the ranch at the time started her under saddle and she was now one of the most-requested mounts in our dude string, famous for her cow sense and unique personality. This horse, for all intents and purposes, looked to be following a similar story.
For the next few weeks, we led guests all over the mustang’s territory, pointing out the marks of unshod hooves in the trail dust, glimpsing the red horse from a distance as it descended the hills and paced our fencelines, touching noses with our colts, until finally the inevitable happened and the red horse jumped the fence. We were able to ride close enough to identify the horse as a mare, slightly ewe-necked and high-headed, Roman-nosed and not very big. Truthfully, she was hideous—but the idea of this wild thing coming to live among us made up for many conformational sins. A guest along the way dubbed her “Freedom” and she became an instant legend.
“Look at her paddle as she trots!” I crowed to a string of goggle-eyed guests who drank in my every word. “That’s a distinct trait of her Spanish breeding—all mustangs descend from the horses of the conquistadors, horses that were set loose or traded with natives when this continent was first discovered.” My guests oohed and aahed as Freedom paddled away and paddled back close to us, flinging her poorly-shaped head high and snorting in our general direction, still wary of humans.
Word of our new mustang spread, thanks to several calls to the brand inspector (whose job is essentially exactly what it sounds like). When our neighbors from down the valley came to dinner one night, one of our bosses couldn’t help but tell the story in great detail, describing Freedom’s physical characteristics down to the Roman nose and paddling forelegs.
One of our guests set down his fork and laughed.
“Girls, that ain’t a mustang…it’s a packhorse.”
We quickly learned the details: a man from out-of-state had hauled in a little string of horses the previous autumn, including a green and untested packhorse. She broke from the line and took off, losing her pack saddle and halter somewhere in flight, vanishing into the National Forest (two and a half million acres worth of nearly-untouched land). Her owner returned on a special trip a few weeks later expressly to capture his escaped packhorse—described to be a “Standardbred mix”—but couldn’t get within 50 feet of his now-feral mare. He mentioned to our neighbors on his way back home that anyone who could catch her could keep her as far as he was concerned.
Freedom lived on her own all winter long—no small feat for a technically-domesticated animal on its own at nearly 8,000 feet in cold and snowy elevation—and wandered around for much of the spring, eventually finding her way to our fencelines mid-summer. The rest is history, albeit a creatively-told and carefully-angled history: as far as many of our guests are concerned, Freedom the mustang lives on, in memory and in spirit. She represents in glibly-stretched truth all that is great about the west: spirit, pride, solitude, and well-spun lore.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl