Cowboy, wild horses at home on the range

Published Aug. 29, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

A summer storm, announced by thunder, jolts of lightning and hard-driving rain, has just passed over the Black Hills. Now, like a miracle, two rainbows arch from the cliffs against the still-blackened sky.

Tall and lean, his 70-some years etched in a face shaded by a cowboy hat, Dayton Hyde stands alone, as if leaning into the rainbows. He, too, seems a fixture of the landscape.

Looking out over this 11,000-acre spread of rocky buttes, grasslands, deep canyons, twisting Cheyenne River and vast Dakota sky, he declares: "I don't own anything here but the old black car. The rest is owned by the horses. The land owns itself."

The statement is simple and its meaning complex, like the man himself. To understand it is to unravel what brought Hyde here in 1988 to establish the Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM), a private sanctuary for the idyllic retirement of old, wild horses.

In part, he came because something in him identifies with the lonely, the outcast who finds solace in untamed land.

As a boy of 11, he left home on a lake in Michigan to work on his uncle's Oregon cattle ranch.

The lessons he learned as a tenderfoot apprentice stayed with him while he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in English, served in the European theater in World War II, and tried his hand at rodeo and bull-riding, about which he quips, "I had everything but the ability."

By 1958, a seasoned rancher and a family man, he bought his uncle's Oregon spread.

He also did photography for Life magazine and became an author who has written, so far, some 17 books of nonfiction and juvenile fiction.

Of all this he says, "I never did have a career _ my work has always been my pleasure."

Perhaps the best insight into the man and his passions is found in his book Don Coyote, published in 1986 and excerpted by Reader's Digest. It was hailed as doing for coyotes what Never Cry Wolf did for wolves.

In it Hyde tells of his moment of truth facing a coyote _ a scourge to all right-thinking ranchers. But Hyde had a different urge, and instead of shooting it, responded to Don Coyote's invitation to play. In time, they shared bologna sandwiches and games of kick-the-can, and he raised other coyotes.

Learning to love despised predators made him rethink their place on the land _ and how he had been managing it.

"It was time to rethink my whole relationship with this valley and work with Nature instead of running headlong into her," he wrote. "It was all too easy to put the blame on forces beyond my control when, in reality, I was the culprit."

His rethinking led to restoring an ancient lake, creating wetlands and a sanctuary for birds, bringing back wild flora and fauna, cutting down on pesticides and returning predators to "balance" the natural system.

Though his unorthodox ways made other ranchers scoff, his balanced natural system was both profitable and environmentally sound _ and an unqualified success.

But when he stepped forward to save, at considerable cost, "a bunch of decrepit horses" from a degrading death in small corrals, one neighbor opined that it "did not seem to be the act of a rational man."

A herd of these horses, now sleek from grazing and galloping across an open Dakota meadow, make their own reply.

These mustangs derive from horses brought in Spanish galleons of the 1500s. Quickly adopted by Native Americans, the horses moved westward, adapting to grasslands and deserts and intermingling with other breeds.

By the early 19th century, millions were running free in the West. But with barbed wire closing off grazing, and the increasing use of horsemeat for pet food, only an estimated 17,000 were left by 1970.

In the 1970s, however, there was also a new consciousness about conservation and wildlife. Responding to a massive letter-writing campaign to stop the slaughter of mustangs, in 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

It prohibited private parties from killing or catching these animals and gave responsibility for their protection to the Bureau of Land Management. As a result, by 1990, there were an estimated 58,000 wild horses.

But there were also new problems: too many horses competing with livestock for too little grassland. The BLM solution was to round up the horses and sell them to qualified buyers. The program, called Adopt-A-Horse, has successfully auctioned off more than 100,000 wild horses.

The glitch was that not all were adopted. The old, ugly or sick _ mainly mares _ were left behind, condemned to cramped feedlots until they died.

Enter Hyde, wearing a white hat.

"I grew up with wild horses," he says. "They deserve a better life."

After two years of looking for the right land, he found the site in the Black Hills and was ready to leave Oregon behind. Putting the down payment on his credit card and raising funds for the rest, he created the IRAM sanctuary.

Complicated arrangements with BLM, which still owns all but 80 of some 350 horses, included a small payment for daily upkeep until IRAM achieved self-sufficiency, which it did three years ago.

Hyde has had to turn to other money-making schemes.

One is tourism. In summer, there are two-hour guided tours through the sanctuary in cushioned seats on the back of a pick-up.

IRAM also offers a chuck wagon cookout and the opportunity to sleep in teepees _ designed for the movie Dances with Wolves _ on the banks of the Cheyenne River.

Hyde confesses that sometimes he just breaks even with tourism, but a larger good comes from "taking people out and showing them my concept."

Last year, however, he entered into another for-profit scheme that may be the strongest argument yet for letting nature take its course.

Hyde decided to try to breed the 80 adopted mares to produce colts for sale. So he brought in a stallion.

According to guide and ranch hand Norm Kisor, hormones started kicking in, "and that stallion couldn't get the smile off his face until Christmas."

"In a good range year," Kisor adds, "a stud loose among mares would have 25 foals. He's got at least 50 on the ground."

Now, on early mornings under a burning blue sky, Dayton Hyde may be seen scrambling agilely up a steep, rock-strewn hill, feed bucket in hand, trying to approach frisky new colts, while their mothers watch, ready to bolt.

Spirited, wild and now rejuvenated, they give a new twist to the refrain about the old gray mare _ who perhaps can be what she used to be, after all.

Joanna Biggar is a Maturity News Service writer.

For information

For information about the wild horse sanctuary, write: The Institute of Range and the American Mustang, Box 998, Hot Springs, S.D. 57747. Call (800) 252-6652.