Hooves & Heart

“AW, MARY, COME ON,” SAYS DAYTON Hyde, with the sad and knowing air of a man who is about to be rebuffed by one he loves. “Don’t do this to me.” But Mary remains unmoved. Proud and independent, she turns away from him. “She can be like that,” says Hyde, with a sigh of resignation as he watches her walk away.

She might not be someone else’s idea of a beauty, but Hyde is passionate about Mary. “She’s big and awkward,” he concedes, “and she was on the dark side of the corral when the good Lord made her sisters pretty. Her hipbones stick out enough for a magpie to sit on.”

Still, Magnificent Mary, bald-faced and knobbly-kneed, is one of Hyde’s favorites among the 300 wild American mustang that roam his 14,000-acre spread of canyons and buttes along the Cheyenne River between Hot Springs and Edgemont, S.Dak. “I love her,” Hyde gushes, as she gallops with the herd.

From his cramped, makeshift second home at the base of a cliff in the southern Black Hills, Hyde has launched a crusade to save one of America’s legacies. “Horses were in North America until 7,000 years ago,” he explains. “They died out for some reason, but some of them had gone across the land bridge to Mongolia, and they made their way to Africa and Europe. They were domesticated, and then the Spaniards brought them back to this country.” As he speaks, Hyde drives his battered pickup truck over a butte toward a small band of horses grazing in the lee of a Ponderosa pine grove. “It’s like adding rhythm to music to add horses to this land,” he says. “These horses are free; they’ve never had a rope on them.”

At 67, Hyde lives most of his days alone, tending to a herd of wild horses no one else wants and keeping alive a dream. He calls his project, which he started in 1988, the Institute for Range and the American Mustang—a bureaucratic-sounding name for what is nothing more, nor less, than a man’s love affair with nature. “I’m still behaving like a child in my enthusiasms,” says Hyde, who has left the management of his ranch in southern Oregon to his wife, Gerda, and their four grown children. “I hope I never grow up.”

As a boy in northern Michigan, Hyde spent much of his time alone; his father, stricken with multiple sclerosis, required his mother’s constant attention. “I spent a lot of time in the woods, fishing, searching for wild berries. Those were the only things I had to play with.” In 1938, when he was 13, Hyde received a letter from an uncle who was a cattle rancher near Klamath Falls, Oreg. “He said that his crew had just captured a band of wild horses,” Hyde recalls. “He said he could step out on the front porch of his ranch house and scoop up enough trout in a pan to feed his crew for breakfast.” Says Hyde: “That was nothing to tell a boy if you didn’t expect to find him on the next train.” Six weeks later he ran away from home (“I was having battles with my mom, and it seemed like a way out”) and rode the rails to his uncle’s ranch.

Young Dayton’s parents, apprised of his whereabouts, consented to let him live with his uncle. He thrived on ranch life and became fascinated with the mustang that ranged near his uncle’s spread. “When the snow was deep, we’d go out with a load of hay and dump it so they could eat,” says Hyde. But Hyde also got his first inkling of how the changing ecology of the West—the fencing of range-land, the elimination of such natural predators as wolves—was affecting these animals. “Once I rode into a canyon and discovered 40 wild horses that had starved to death during the winter. They were lying there in a pile. They’d eaten each other’s manes and tails off.”

Hyde grew up, served in Europe during World War II and married Gerda, whom he had met while studying writing at the University of California at Berkeley. But he never forgot the image of those horses, and in 1950 went hack to the ranch to make his life. In the ’50s, long before environmentalism came into vogue, he became alarmed at the damage being done to wildlife by pesticides. His solution was to turn 25 percent of his ranch into wetlands. Soon, he remembers, the returning birds kept the pest population in check without chemicals. To Hyde’s surprise, the warmth of the marsh he had created helped protect his crops against early frost. To his delight, dozens of animals found their way to his ranch and made it their habitat. “We created a wildlife spectacular,” he says.

Over the next three decades he farmed and wrote, acquiring—in 12 books, including 1968’s acclaimed Sandy and 1988’s Don Coyote—a reputation as a skilled, lyrical observer of the natural world. As his fame spread, he was elected to several conservation and humane society boards. He was on his way to address one group in Nevada five years ago when he noticed hundreds of horses crammed into small feedlots. “They were dejected; they wanted to run free,” he says.

For Hyde, the sight was a defining moment. The horses, he learned, were wild mustang. There are some 56,000 such horses in the U.S., most of which live on government land in Nevada and Wyoming. Without predators, these horses tend to over-breed and compete with cattle for grazing land. So in 1976, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) instituted an adoption program, which, together with birth-control measures, is intended to stabilize the population. Each year several thousand of the youngest, best-looking and most trainable are taken in by private citizens. But in feedlots, even with proper nutrition, the mustang no one wants often become listless or sick. Some of them give up eating and die. “I stewed about that for weeks,” Hyde says.

Three years ago he persuaded the BLM to let him care for mustang that were too old, too cantankerous or just plain too ugly to be adopted. He raised money for the down payment on the sanctuary near Edgemont, and the BLM delivered 300 horses to him. (Hyde made a separate arrangement to acquire 1,500 mustangs on leased land in eastern South Dakota.) “When they came here, they were skin and bones,” says Hyde. “Now look at them.” A small band of sleek, athletic-looking horses saunters toward him, scoping out the grain bucket in his hand.

The sanctuary has many admirers: Every day a handful of visitors pay $25 to be driven up the cliffside for a view of the majestic herd, and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has been outspoken in his praise. Ironically it appears that IRAM itself could become an endangered species. When Hyde established his sanctuaries, the government agreed to subsidize the operation for three years at an average $1.19 per horse per day. After that, foundation funds were supposed to keep it going. But though Dayton Hyde is equal parts gnarled rancher and gentle essayist, he has few entrepreneurial traits. “I’m no good at raising money,” he says ruefully. “I keep hoping I’ll find somebody good to do it.” He doesn’t have a lot of time. The BLM contract was extended by a year, but the federal agency vows it will take the horses back next August if Hyde cannot raise the necessary funds.

EVENING IS APPROACHING; the horses have spent the day on the high plateaus, but now they will come down to the river. Slowly, their ears and nostrils flicking for signs of millennia-old dangers, the mustang ease down to the water and drink. Then, suddenly, they turn. The earth shudders with the thundering of their hooves as they bolt and in full gallop return to high ground. “What the BLM doesn’t understand is that these horses need freedom,” Hyde says. “All I know is that if they ever come to take these horses back, I’ll be lying down in front of the truck.”

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