Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mustang Meadows

H. Alan Day & Lynn Wiese Sneyd, The Horse Lover: A Cowboy's Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs

Career rancher H. Alan Day purchased South Dakota’s failing Arnold Ranch in 1988, expecting to turn it into a cattle operation, like the two ranches he already owned in Arizona and Nebraska. Then he met Dayton “Hawk” Hyde, cowboy activist. Hyde told Day about the wild mustang herds controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, costly animals that needed constant attention and couldn’t run free. Suddenly Day found his mission.

Day constructs his memoir like a classic Western novel: the proving story of a man discovering life’s mission on the land, where all pretensions melt away. Day fights intransigent government bureaucrats, hidebound cowboys, and city suits who believe they can tell country people how to behave. But his love for these confined mustangs keeps Day motivated. Then, when he gets permission for his wild mustang sanctuary, his next battle begins.

People claim to love wild horses, which have historic standing in the American West, besides just being gorgeous animals. Their rearing outlines, with muscular legs and rearing manes, are iconic even to people who’ve never ridden the range. But unlike cattle and sheep, mustangs are economically precarious. While some can be tamed and turned to ranching, many mustangs just hoover prairie grass and anger agriculturalists.

These are the proverbial wild horses that couldn’t drag you away. Mustangs are strong, willful, and spirited. Hard experience has taught them to distrust humans, who often consider them vermin and chase them away, sometimes with guns. Nobody thought Day could domesticate herds numbered in the thousands; Day resolved to prove everyone wrong. The Arnold Ranch, rechristened Mustang Meadows, became America’s first wild mustang refuge.

An adept storyteller, Day mingles autobiography with a holistic description of ranching, as both a business and a personal vocation. He describes his lifelong romance with horses, beginning when his father gifted him an undersized mustang, sized just right for a growing boy’s legs. Day remembers horses’ names, habits and dispositions. He describes them with nearly human qualities, and sometimes with downright heartbreaking poignancy. Horses, to Day, are family.

He also describes moments of remarkable violence that remind us how ordinary people treat animals. Descriptions of capturing mustangs by paralyzing them with gunshots across the spine, or disciplining willful horses by whipping them until they bleed, make the blood run cold. Not everyone loves horses like Day, and these snapshots of stunning inhumanity underline why Day resolved to bring nonviolent techniques to horse ranching.

Day pioneered a technique called “gentling the herd” on cattle adopted onto his Arizona ranch. It involves pressuring cattle to stick close together, reminding them who’s in charge. This involves minimal effort from human ranchers, and allows the animals to remain essentially wild, provided they recognize humans as dominant. But to ranchers accustomed to using force to control and domesticate livestock, “gentling the herd” proved controversial, to say the least.

Worse, Day has to persuade skeptical cowboys to attempt his unorthodox technique on mustangs, much wilder and more ornery creatures than cattle. They have limited time to sand rough edges off 1500 animals and get them onto strange pasture, and several hands insist it can’t be done. Throughout, Day must contend with the one creature more high-strung and volatile than wild mustangs: the cowboys who ride them.

Day admits his technique resembles Monty Roberts’ famous “natural horsemanship” techniques, commonly known as horse whispering. Though he began gentling the herd before Roberts became famous in the mid-1990s, the overlap of techniques is pointed and conspicuous. Perhaps, when times are right, good ideas just bubble forth like water in the desert. One hopes Day’s techniques catch on, because they’re not only more humane, but more environmentally sustainable, besides.

Despite Day’s sometimes technical topics, he never bogs down in jargon or abstruse cowboy-speak. His story has a novel’s dynamic flow, mixing Western horseback action with a family epic and a concise memoir of ranch life. In talking about government wheeler-dealing, innovative animal husbandry techniques, and more, it would’ve been easy for Day to become impenetrably dense, but he doesn’t. His storytelling never loses immediacy through long, hot, horse-filled seasons.

This book will appeal to multiple audiences. Casual readers interested in a compelling memoir or modern Western will find plenty to enjoy. Fellow ranchers interested in lower-cost, ecologically supportable techniques can mine Day’s experiences for useful pointers. This isn’t a niche book just for horse people; it touches hearts and minds across disciplines, even a pointy-headed city slicker like me. This fun, touching, smart book won’t let you go easily.

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