“A dog may be man’s best friend but the horse wrote history.”
It is a true statement that the horse wrote history, especially in Utah’s West Desert.
These spirited and cantankerous mustangs that carried the express riders and mail had no quit in them. They often gave their lives in the service of the Country. The contributions these wild beasts and their brave riders made keeping the lines of communication open between the eastern United States and California leading up to the Civil War cannot be overstated as it helped keep California aligned with the Union.
The descendants of the intrepid mustangs that served the pony express still roam our west desert. They are as proud, wild and cantankerous as ever. As mentioned in a previous article, I try to get out to see these animals every chance I get and I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences with them.
One time while camping in the desert, I took a walk through the Davis Knolls. It was a beautiful, clear, moonlit summer night and it was easy going walking across the valley and over the knolls in the moonlight. I heard some toads croaking in the far distance so I decided to go check them out. Their ridiculous noises led me to their location at a water hole where I saw those fat speckled things sitting at the edge of the water staring up at the moon, as if mesmerized by it. I could see the reflection of the moon in their toad eyes.
As I stood there admiring the reflection of the night sky off of the water, I heard some far off neighing on the wind. It was very faint at first but then it got closer and closer until I felt the ground rumble as hundreds of pounding hooves approached the water hole at a run. Before I knew what was happening, I was surrounded by over 100 wild mustangs that moved right in and took over the water hole in the middle of the night. I stood still as a board as they surrounded me. They didn’t seem to care that I was there.
They had to know I was there and didn’t belong but they made themselves right at home anyway because this was “their” waterhole. They were right next to me within arms reach and all around. I was worried that if I spooked them that I would be trampled like the poor desert toads no doubt were at the water’s edge.
I stood there as if made of stone, almost not daring to breathe as horses waded into the water and rolled around in it, frolicking, playing and splashing everywhere. After about 30 minutes, a few at a time, they began to depart the water hole, and then the main group departed with a few stragglers trailing behind. Then they were gone, but for the distant neighing and pounding of hooves on the night wind. That is an experience I will never forget.
One thing that is shocking to me is how mean and ruthless these horses can be to each other. Many of them have dozens of old battle scars on their hides. On one occasion, I noticed a horse that kept licking its hind quarters and upon closer inspection, I realized there was an open wound, 3 inches deep, sort of a fold of flapping meat, where it looked like a monster tried to take a bite out of it.
It is a terrifying thing to see these beasts rear up on their hind legs and attack each other. If that energy was directed at a person, that person would be dead!
This type of behavior is probably what finally caused the disappearance of one of the most beloved horses out on the range known as the “Old Man.”
I only saw him once in the spring of 2021 out in the southern end of Skull Valley near the Pony Express Trail. When I saw him, he was alone and shunned by the other horses. He had a thick, white, flowing mane and long tail. He was not allowed in the herd anymore. That’s how it works. He was once the king of the Onaqui herd but even in his old age, he was an incredible white stallion.
Porter Rockwell raised horses on Government Creek not far from where I saw the old man. Rockwell bred the best and strongest mustangs to pull stage coaches on the Overland Trail. Rockwell bred a special breed of white horses called the “Angel Herd.’’
It makes you wonder whether the Old Man is a descendent of Porter Rockwell’s herds. At 30+ years old, the Old Man was a legend. During his life he survived wicked winters, relentless heat, punishing drought, brutal attacks by younger stallions who challenged his dominance as the top stallion and numerous BLM roundups where they just couldn’t seem to capture the wiley beast.
I was curious about the horses, so I asked my friend Kelly, who is a wildlife photographer and who is very familiar with this herd, if she knew of this horse. She became excited and told me that he was the “Old Man.”
The following is a story told by Kelly about her encounter with the Old Man out at Simpson Springs, dated Aug. 11, 2021:
“I went out there in June and camped at Simpson Springs. I wanted to see the horses and the old man before the big roundup in July. We looked for the old man on the first day and didn’t see him. Then on the day we were leaving, all 200 hundred horses came down the mountain to the water. It was amazing! As I was getting shots of the stallions fighting, I looked over and saw the old man and my heart jumped! He was so frail and thin with bones sticking out. He was over 30 years old at that time which is remarkable because wild horses don’t usually live to 30. He hung back as he always does, he knows he has to wait to drink very last. It was so hot out and with that many horses he would be waiting a long time. He let me and my friend get really close to him closer than he ever has. It was amazing! I have incredible pictures! Then for some reason the stallions came at him not once but 4 times! It was so hard for me to watch them gang up on him! I wanted them to stop. He was so thin and frail but they would not stop! At one point a huge stallion climbed on top of him and was trying to force him down to the ground! I knew if he went down that would be the end! To my amazement he held his ground and fought off three stallions who kept coming at him! With all of the strength he had left in the heat with no water he rose up on his two back legs and fought back! I have pictures of this! I have not posted them because I want to wait until he passes away to tell his story! What a truly amazing stallion he is!”
It is not known whether the Old Man is still alive, wandering the fringes of the Onaqui herd along the Pony Express Trail but he has not been seen for quite awhile now so he has likely passed on. What an incredible animal and amazing life lived by that creature.
In next week’s installment of Desert Odyssey, we will wrap up our series on the horses by taking a look at their characteristics, disposition, management plan and what the future may hold for these living legends.
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.