Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 28, 2022
Desert Odyssey: The Horses

“Through all kinds of weather, through hardships and dangers, they faithfully bore their riders and the mail and took pride in doing their very best. Their hoof beats will sound down the ages…. echoing the romance of an era that is gone”

Mabel Loving

As you travel the Pony Express Trail in western Utah, you may encounter some free roaming horses out there in the desert. These are the wild mustangs of the West Desert of Utah. They belong to the Onaqui and Cedar Mountain herds that are managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management. 

These proud and independent beasts are an amazing sight to see when you come across them. They are literally a living link to the wild and crazy days of the Pony Express in Utah’s West Desert. 

Initially, when stocking their line in early 1860, the Pony Express men chose the best-bred horses money could buy from back east but it soon became clear that those horses were not used to or well suited to the harsh environment of the Western Mountains and Deserts and the rough terrain, torturous pace and privation they had to suffer. Several months into the venture, the proprietors started capturing and saddle breaking wild mustangs because these animals were sure footed, tough as nails and could be ridden hard over the challenging terrain under harsh conditions.

It was not an easy thing breaking these wild horses. They were ornery, mean and ferocious when a man tried to throw a loop on them or put on a first touch and then heaven forbid, ride. Any man or boy who wanted to ride for the express had to be more than an ordinary horseman to be able to hold down the job as a pony express rider. 

In the old book “Racing with the Indians” the author told the following story: “One especially mean horse was kept in Salt Lake City and when one would apply, he was given this horse to ride. Many having heard of the animal before, did not go farther. A test of this kind was necessary, for one must be able to ride well if he were to protect himself and the mail in those days.”

It was the position of the company and advice given to riders to rely on the speed of their horse, and not their guns, to outrun trouble on the trail and many a rider told the tale of how they did just that on their trusty mustangs.

It was an especially difficult thing to capture and break these horses and many of the Pony Express riders that we mentioned in the previous articles were right in the thick of this effort. Station men were not sitting idle while the boys were out on the trail with the mail. They were busy doing all kinds of chores — one of which was breaking horses so that the next rider who came into the station had another mount to charge out on the trail again. 

Pony Express Rider Nick Wilson gave the following account of how this was done out at Willow Springs Station: “Peter Neece was a home station keeper at Schell Creek for a time and then Willow Springs. He was a big strong man and a good rider. He was put to breaking wild horses for the express riders to use because the big fine horses purchased initially began to play out. After he had ridden one of these beasts a time or two, he would turn the half broken wild things over to the express boys to ride. Generally, when a hostler could lead them in and out of the stable without getting his head kicked off, the broncos were considered broken. Very likely they had been handled just enough to make ‘em mean. I found it to be so with every one they gave me to ride.” 

Watching the Mustangs beat and tear each other up out in the desert today to assert dominance over the herd, one can only imagine how difficult and dangerous an undertaking it would be to try and put a saddle on one of these things for the first time. 

While doing some research in a local library I came across a fine description in a dusty old forgotten historical volume called “Our Pioneer Heritage Vol. III” by Kate B. Carter.

Ms. Carter gives us a rare glimpse back into the local history of providing horses for the Pony Express and described the process like this: “Ira Nebeker, Sol Hale and Quince Knowlton had the contract to break the ponies for riding. These adventurous fellows were young men of 17 to 18 years of age at the time. Their contract called for them to ride at least ten ponies a day. The riders weighted around 130 pounds. The young horse breakers would take turns being rider, then as helper as the wild ponies were roped, bridled and saddled and then mounted for the first time. Usually when a horse got through bucking he didn’t buck again, but sometimes the horse would have to be ridden again and again. I suppose many of the ponies were still quite wild but they had the hardy and enduring characteristics needed in a fast and tough pony to make the necessary ride between stations. These ponies, when broken for riding, were then taken to the main express station in Salt Lake City on Main Street. Here they were available for the Pony Express riders and stations as needed. Every station had two or three extra horses in corrals as relief horses”

As the Stationmen got down to the business of breaking the ponies for use by the Express Riders, the chore didn’t always go as planned. Henry “Doc” Faust raised some of the finest horses in the State of Utah and in his capacity as Home Station Keeper at Faust or Meadow Creek Station in the days of the Pony Express, he was oftentimes busy with the chore of breaking wild mustangs. I find the following story that his daughter Eliase Faust told rather humorous because Faust was very proud of his abilities as a horse wrangler and he was highly respected by the Indians in the area.

Eliase said: “Once father was breaking a horse that was very fractious. Some Indians had made a camp near the place and both squaws and bucks were much interested in the process. The horse jumped bucked, careened, twisted, turned and snorted. It went on for sometime much to the edification of the Indians who were pleased to see the way he kept his seat. Finally, making a tremendous effort, the pony succeeded in throwing his rider and father landed in an upright sitting position in front of the teepees where the squaws were squatting in a circle. There was a shout of laughter from all sides and one of the bucks yelled “Paust heap wayno sit down”. An expression that he was never permitted to forget.” 

Sounds like Doc Faust lasted eight seconds but even the best of the cowboys got bounced sometimes in the end. 

Now that we have a good idea of what it took to wrangle and so called “break” these devil horses for duty along the Pony Express Trail, next week we will take a closer look at the horses that exist out on the desert today, how they got there and what the future holds for these magnificent creatures.

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.

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