The following originally appeared in the March 4, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
by Clint Thomsen
They came from nowhere — or at least it seemed that way. From somewhere in the near-vacant panorama, four wild horses on a distant ridge had become an entire herd. They all but surrounded us now, standing cautiously in cohesive calico-colored bands. It was an early spring evening in a remote section of the west desert — happy hour at the local watering hole.
Band by band, the rare creatures approached the trough, cautious but surprisingly tolerant of the three of us standing a mere 30 yards away. Behind us to the right, a pair of mustangs reared onto their hind legs, breaking the silence in a dusty clash of kicks and snorts.
The American mustang descends from domesticated horses that strayed or escaped from ranches in the late 1800s. Those free-roaming feral horses banded together into herds and have roamed the West ever since. Their frayed appearance and regal gait are the personification of independence. In 1971, Congress declared mustangs “Living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
I’ll never forget our encounter with the Onaqui Herd, both because it was rare and because it marked the beginning of a long-overdue reconciliation. I’ve always loved horses, but a falling out began in my early 20s when I tried to impress a girl by proving I could ride her family’s horse bareback. The horse wasn’t game, and I ended up in the dirt with a sore shoulder and a bruised ego. That one was my fault.
A few years later, fate found me again with a girl and a horse. This time, even a healthy respect for the mare and my use of a saddle didn’t prevent her from throwing me to the ground. If I was ever going to impress a woman, I concluded, Equus ferus caballus was clearly not the vehicle. Since then, I’ve always admired horses from a distance.
That is, until I met Reno, a 15-year-old chestnut-colored mare.
“Every horse is born with a certain disposition,” Reno’s owner, Janet Hancey, told me. “Work and training can enhance and improve on this, but the underlying disposition remains. According to Janet, Reno’s disposition is one-in-a-million. “She’s sensible, sweet and dependable.”
Reno is also a mustang.
She came from a west desert herd near the Nevada border — hence the name. Janet and her husband, Craig, adopted her from the BLM in 1997, when she was three years old. Janet is the treasurer for the West Desert Chapter of Back Country Horsemen Utah, an organization dedicated to trail service projects and preserving access of stock animals to public lands. I had posted a question about the sport on the group’s online forum. She saw my message and decided that Reno was the perfect horse to reintroduce me to the world of horseback riding.
I met Janet at the top of Bates Canyon Road, where she was saddling Reno and Banner, an Arabian, also 15 years old. “The key is to be calm,” she said. “She needs to know you’re going to take care of her. Then she’ll take care of you.”
I reached out and patted Reno’s neck near her white U.S. Government brand. She responded by nudging me with her head. After some brief instruction, we saddled up and rode northward on one of the dirt roads that wind along the Oquirrh benches.
Reno seemed to understand I was a novice and she made things easy for me by following Janet on Banner. The differences in each horse’s disposition were immediately apparent. Unlike the Arabian, Reno’s movement was tactical. Sometimes Reno took a completely different route than Banner when it came to slopes. She seemed to calculate each step, analyzing the ruts and rock patterns in the road to plot her course. Janet believes this may have something to do with her days as a wild horse on callous topography.
Reno’s neck reigned easily, but I was content to let her do most of the steering. I opted to stay behind Janet and Banner so as not to embarrass myself if I did something wrong. Janet led Banner with very little visible effort — which didn’t surprise me, as she’s ridden horses most of her life. She talked about the relationship between human and horse, about trust and the rewards of devotion. She told me about the time two bulls charged her young children but were headed off by one of their horses.
“Being around horses helps me stay grounded to what is still good in the world,” she told me. Given the gloomy state of the world, this rang especially true.
As we crested the northern end of the bench, the Great Salt Lake’s azure blue spanned the horizon. Janet stopped to take in the view. “This is why I wanted to ride this way. When you ride a horse, you can actually enjoy nature without the sounds of a motor.”
On the return loop I decided to experiment with different control techniques. At times, Reno seemed confused by my directions, which at best were probably wildly mixed signals. But she played it cool. Sometimes she’d switch from a casual stroll to a quick trot. Whether or not that was at my direction, I haven’t a clue. I was just enjoying the ride, imagining what it must have been like to ride these same trails during pioneer times and wondering why I waited so long to give horseback riding a second chance.
As I dismounted, I rubbed Reno’s neck and told her thanks for the ride. Then I quickly realized that Janet hadn’t been kidding when she said I’d be sore. Two hours in the saddle working muscle groups I never even knew I had, and I could barely push my car’s clutch. It was a good sore, though — the kind that results from doing something worthwhile.
Not only had I reconciled with my equine friends, I had ridden a mustang. The feat may not have impressed my country-bred wife, but at least she pretended like it did.
Back Country Horseman of Utah