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Making Friends With The Neighbors

By William E. Simpson
10/14/14 -- There are few animals in nature that match the majestic beauty of a stallion running wild and free. They rule their territory by day and by night. Recently, my wife Laura and I decided to change adventures from expedition sailing to starting from scratch in the wildness with an off-grid living project. After traveling all around the Western U.S. States for several months, we discovered a hidden valley high in the remote Sierra Nevada Mountains that encompassed about 150 acres, which we named 'Wildhorse Ranch' after the wild horses that roamed the land.

Wild (feral) stallions competing - copyright Laura Simpson 2014
Wild (feral) stallions competing - copyright Laura Simpson 2014

We figured that after sailing for nearly 4 years and living aboard ship in the remote reaches and islands of the Sea of Cortez, how hard could it be doing a similar thing in the wilderness on land, where at least you can drive into a town! In our case, that would be about 40 miles down a winding mountain road to a bustling town of 7,000 people.

The wild stallion 'Black' moving his mob of mares, yearlings and babies - copyright Laura Simpson 2014
The wild stallion 'Black' moving his mob of mares, yearlings and babies - copyright Laura Simpson 2014

I have to confess though; I am cheating a bit... I did spend my formative years growing up on a working ranch in the mountains of Southern Oregon, so I did have some idea of what my wife Laura and I were in for... including the local neighbors; mountain lions, bears, deer, elk and the occasional grumpy rattlesnake. But included in that mix of neighbors are the amazing wild horses that we see in our valley and occasionally meet... up close and personal.

Sunset over the valley at Wildhorse Ranch - copyright Laura Simpson 2014
Sunset over the valley at Wildhorse Ranch - copyright Laura Simpson 2014

After settling into our off-grid ranch project we quickly discovered that the horses running wild over the land and in our little valley were very curious about us. And as they studied us and what we were doing we watched them, and even began giving them names so that we could keep track of which horses we were talking about. Then one day a powerful black stallion appeared with his mob of mares, yearlings and a few foals in tow. The first several times we saw this handsome guy and his herd, he just ignored us, as if we didn’t exist, even though I am certain he was very well aware of our presence on 'his' land. We tried to call to them but there was no reaction; they all just continued to graze.

Over the next couple months, the encounters continued with about the same results... the horses seemed to ignore us for the most part, except now they would actually raise their heads and look at us, as if to acknowledge us. After talking with various local government agencies (CA Fish & Game, Sheriff, Forestry, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, BLM), we learned that most of the horses we were observing were actually descendants of horses that were released onto the open range by a large horse ranch in the area that had failed a couple decades ago, combined with other horses that been recently abandoned onto the open range by individual owners who could no longer afford to keep them. Horses such as these are categorized as ‘feral horses’. They are nonetheless ‘wild’ in the sense that they are surviving free in wilds of the open range on their own.

As time went on, the horses started to graze closer and closer to our building site. Then one day the stallion (‘Black’) was so close, we offered him some Quaker oats. He looked interested but would not come any nearer than about 100 feet, so we just put the bucket on the ground. He slowly wandered up to the bucket and then pushed the oats around with his nose. It was clear by this and his following actions that he had never seen oats! He finally got a mouthful of oats and started shaking his head up and down as the oats fell out on the ground... then he rolled his lips back revealing all his teeth in a horse-smile! After messing around with the oats for about 5 minutes he finally figured-out how to chew them...

It was about 3 or 4 days later when Black brought his mob back to our building site... and of course we offered him some oats. This time, the mares joined-in and tasted the oats with the same trepidation that Black had... it was really funny watching them learning about oats.

‘Pixie’ and her mom ‘Lucy’ 2-weeks after worming – copyright Laura Simpson 2014
‘Pixie’ and her mom ‘Lucy’ 2-weeks after worming – copyright Laura Simpson 2014

One of the mares ('Lucy') was suffering terribly with parasitic worms and all of her ribs were protruding, and this was really troubling to Laura and I since winter was coming and Lucy was still nursing the sweetest little blue-grey filly, which we named 'Pixie' who was also underweight. We decided to see if we could befriend Lucy enough to bucket-feed her, which would allow us to give her some medicine for her worm problem in the feed. We did the research and found a wormer that was approved for both pregnant and lactating horses. It turned out that Lucy was more than cooperative, as if she knew our intentions. Not only would she take oats from the bucket, but she let Laura brush the stickers out of her mane, at which point we began to suspect she was an abandoned horse. We successfully gave Lucy the medicine and within a couple weeks, she started putting-on weight, as did Pixie, who was dependent upon Lucy's milk production to augment her grazing (There is another nursing mare who is also under-weight, as is her sweet little colt. We hope to treat her next).

Black, who we think has some Arab in him, watched us carefully as we cared for Lucy. We have noted that he’s very protective of his herd, so we had some concerns when we were working with Lucy. Of course Pixie was very curious about the care and attention we were giving her Mom so she was nearby smelling the air, trying to get our scent.

Black takes oats from Bill for the first time – copyright Laura Simpson 2014
Black takes oats from Bill for the first time – copyright Laura Simpson 2014

It was about two weeks later during one of Blacks’ visits that something very interesting happened; I was holding a bucket full of oats for Lucy when Black decided that he was going to trust me enough to eat from the bucket. I have to say that, having seen Black in action against other powerful stallions, having him walk up to me and gently take some oats was a humbling experience. Even though he was very gentle as he ate, I knew for a fact that he could potentially kill me in an instant if he wanted. That said, I was reading his body language, eyes and ear positioning, which said he was ‘OK’ with me.

I interpreted this as a sign that he was going to allow us to stay on ‘his’ land.

Laura and I are doing what we can to enhance our pasture lands to increase the grazing capacity for the feral horses that range on and around our land, and when we observe an animal that is severely injured, elderly and no longer viable, or seriously ill, we will work with the local agencies to achieve a humane solution. It wasn’t long ago that such a situation occurred when we spotted an injured mare languishing dehydrated on the side of the road about 3 miles from our ranch. She had been obviously hit by a vehicle and one of her hind legs was bloodied and swollen. Making matters worse, she was accompanied by a cute little foal. Laura and I went to the nearby California Fish and Game facility and they informed us that the feral horses that are running wild in our area are not their responsibility, and that we should call the Animal Control. Of course we all knew that was a death sentence for the mare, and possibly the foal, so we contacted a local animal rescue group who thankfully said they would take care of the situation. I should note however that wild horses that are running on Federal lands are protected by the Horse and Burro Protection Act, and they are managed by the BLM and/or U.S. Forestry, and these horses are under their jurisdiction.

Having this experience with these and other horses running free has given me a new appreciation for them and I am hopeful that readers will help support the awareness of how they are being harshly treated by some heartless people and government agencies. There are places right here in the U.S. where these majestic animals are being rounded-up and sold for slaughter and cheap meat. This must be addressed and stopped. To learn more visit here and here.

Few people could disagree that horses running free and wild in America represents the true strength and freedom that made America great. Frankly, what has an eagle ever done to help man? America was built off the backs of horses! They deserve our respect, support and admiration.

William E. Simpson spent his formative years growing up on a working ranch in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. William (aka: 'Capt. Bill') is a retired U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Capt. Bill has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. In early 2013, he appeared on National Geographic’s hit TV show Doomsday Preppers (Season-2 ‘A Fortress At Sea’) and received the highest score in two seasons for disaster preparedness and survival, earning the title of ‘Best Prepper’.

Capt. Bill is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot and a PADI DiveMaster. Simpson is an accomplished writer covering all aspects of disaster preparedness, including a recent book ‘The Nautical Prepper’ (Ulysses Press). His articles have been featured via numerous magazines and websites and he has been a featured guest on various disaster preparedness radio talk shows. More info

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