“Wild Free roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West and they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American People”
Wild Horse & Burro Act, December 1971
Every time I head out into Utah’s West Desert along the Pony Express Trail, I am filled with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of seeing some wildlife whether it be a pronghorn, golden eagle, coyote or some other kind of creature. My favorite wildlife that is often seen along the trail however are the wild mustangs that have been roaming the desert for over 160 years since the time of the Pony Express and Overland Stage. The horses in Utah’s West Desert likely escaped from the giant herds kept by the Army at Camp Floyd, local ranches, or some of the Express Stations themselves.
These horses have been roaming the western United States for centuries since their ancestors were brought over to North America by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500 and 1600s.
One theory I heard recently on the podcast “Legends of the Old West’’ is that most of the western mustangs are descendants from the “Great Release.” This event occurred in old Santa Fe in 1680 during the Pueblo revolt when the Pueblo people revolted against, overthrew, and expelled the Spanish from New Mexico. It is said that the Puebloans turned thousands of Spanish Horses loose when they sacked Santa Fe and that is how much of the Plains Indian Horse culture got started as well as our western mustangs. Not sure how true that theory is but it is interesting to think about.
It is also interesting to note that as wonderful and wild as these horses are, they are not eligible for protection on their own because the federal government, the Bureau of Land Management in particular, views the mustangs as a “non native” and “invasive” species. As such, you can imagine how local cattle operations do not appreciate these animals and view them as pests and competition for forage for their livestock on an already sparse range.
Generations of Americans, however, have loved and enjoyed the presence of these horses, so much so that In 1971 Congress passed the “Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act.” This Act declared these animals to be “living symbols” of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. Congress further declared that the wild free roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death and that they are an integral part of the Natural System of the public lands.
To have the chance to get out on the unspoiled, wide open lands of the desert and see these incredible creatures roaming wild and free is something that I take advantage of every chance I get. Due to my circumstance, I have numerous opportunities to do just that so I will share a few of my favorite experiences here for those of you who don’t get out there that often.
One time after a long day of work, I headed out into the desert to camp and do something that I often do, which is to take a nighttime hike under the stars. The night sky out there is something that can hardly be imagined, much less adequately described. It’s just something wondrous that you have to see for yourself. I decided to camp somewhere along the Pony Express trail and I arrived at the eastern rim of Government Creek wash at around 8:30pm. The last twilight of early evening was showing gold to the west over Camelback Mountain and the GSL desert and there was a cool late winter/early spring chill in the air.
I quickly configured my gear for the next morning, put my coat, gloves and knit cap on, shouldered my rucksack and prepared for a nighttime hike in the desert. Just before it got totally dark, I noticed tiny specks of what appeared to be a herd of wild horses about a mile and a half away from my position in the direction of the Indian Peaks so I decided to pay them a visit.
I secured my vehicle and headed off across the desert under a half moon and wispy clouds that blocked out most of the stars, but I did notice the first star and on that one I made a wish for the safety, happiness and security of my family and then continued on. As I walked, I noticed pyramid ant hills – one of which I tripped over, lots of horse droppings, bunch grass clipped low….no doubt by the horses. At this point the horses were mere tiny specks out in Porter Valley.
Porter Valley is set between the Simpson Mountains to the West and the Sheeprock Mountains to the east. Even though the notorious Porter Rockwell had a ranch in this area back in the 1860s, the valley is not named for him. It was named by Captain James H. Simpson in honor of Capt. Fitz John Porter, adjutant of the U.S. Army at Camp Floyd.
As I continued on, I noticed how soft the dirt was under my boots and the periodic songs of night birds and the ever-constant whoosh of the wind across the desert. After about a half a mile, I noticed a lone Stallion out in the dark and he stood frozen like a statue, staring at me unmoving deciding what he should do. This sentinel horse and protector of the herd shadowed me from approximately 300 meters away for a good three-quarters of a mile.
After some time, I realized I was getting much closer to the horses so I would take a series of steps … stop, watch, and listen … and then take another series of steps so as to not disturb the animals. It was totally dark by now and I hoped my sense of direction was as good as I thought because I wasn’t quite sure if I knew exactly where my truck was out there in the black. As I walked, the silver moon would pop out of the clouds every now and then and I noticed I was casting a pretty decent shadow in the moonlight on the ground that moved with me as I walked.
I finally got myself within about 50 feet of the horses which in this group numbered about 50. A few horses came out to challenge me and I had to clap my hands and whistle to get them to stop. I’m not going to lie , it was kind of scary when a big horse walked out of the pack toward me with a purpose which was to stomp my guts. When they did this, I just clapped my hands and said “HEY” and they would come to an abrupt stop snorting and stamping about. I backed off a bit then and observed that this group of horses was framed perfectly against the sky with the Indian Peaks of the Simpson Range and swoop of the Milky Way rising behind it all.
I stood there and spoke to the horses to calm them down. Every now and then a horse would come out of the pack to challenge me, but they soon gained a comfort level and accepted me. There were quite a few young horses and one momma horse in particular — a big gray — kept her eyes fixed on me the whole time. As I stood there admiring the scene, I noticed a group of about six rowdy horses running fast, chasing each other, in and out of the area as a group and generally agitating each other.
They ran in rings and as I stood there their circular paths got closer and tighter which caused me alarm because I didn’t want to get trampled. Finally, they came in a wide loop and then turned right at me. I had to “get large,” clap my hands fast and hard and holler “STOP.” This caused the group to part before me except for a few large horses who skidded to a dust raising stop in their tracks and then stood there snorting and stamping.
As mentioned before this drama all played out under the most beautiful desert night sky you can imagine. With my heart pounding and not wanting to push my luck any farther, I left the horses there at the base of the Indian Peaks and hiked back across the plains to my truck.
In next week’s article, I will share a few more tales of my experiences with the horses and then introduce you to a legend who roamed our desert for over 30 years, who has likely passed on now — a white stallion called the “Old Man.”
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Deseret with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.