Sulphur Springs lies along the old Spanish Trail. In 1840 a Ute Indian Chief and a one legged cowboy stole 3,000 head of Spain's finest horses from the missions in Los Angeles. They drove this herd back to Utah losing a third of them along the trail in the rugged mountains called the Home Range near Milford, Utah. These were Iberian Sorriaos. They were descendents of the primitive sorriaos of Iberia. This band disappeared into the mountain desert range. It wasn't worth it to stop and find them. After all, they still had 2,000 good horses. No use in starving them to death trying to round up the strays. They pressed on to Salt Lake City and made themselves rich off their bounty.
The Spaniards bred a hearty little horse. Much like the Arabs did. They were great horsemen and although they might have been a little mean they were smart horses and they knew better than to get caught unawares by the few cowboys who wander through the canyons.
Cattlemen considered mustangs to be a nuisance, like rats or mice or coyotes. They were eating grass their cows could eat. Granted they were on BLM land, not their land, but they considered BLM land was their land because they paid minimal fees to have their cows graze on that land. They had what was called "grazing rights." Mustangs had no rights. They were as a rule shot on sight. Or used for sport. The cowboys had a game called "earing." That is where you come on a herd of mustangs, you chase them down and you bulldog them and cut off an ear as a trophy. The cowboy with the most ears is the winner and everybody has to stand him for beer all night. You can still find eared mustangs at the BLM so that game has never really stopped. Of course it is mainly the babies and the old and the heavily pregnant mares that get eared, but an ear is an ear when you get to the bar. Right? All's fair in love and war.
The BLM at Butterfield Canyon near Salt Lake City culled about 15 horses from the Sulphur Spring Herd this year. Me and my girl Vicki spend a lot of time up there. Got hooked on Mustangs when I moved here from Boonville three years ago. Vicki moved here from Reno last year and got hooked on mustangs right off. ("Like marijuana leads to heroin. Once you get into them silver bullets, you think you'll just save a few of them for your bad days and then pretty quick all your days turn out to be bad days without them silver bullets. Time to stop chippin' around. Time to admit it. You're hooked about as bad as you can get hooked." — Tom Waits/William Burroughs, "Crossroads")
And that's how it was. We were hooked. But there are worse things than being hooked on mustangs, don't you think?
So we were there when they brought that bunch of Sulpher Spring horses in, 14 or 15 of them. They spooked at the drop of a hand — wild eyed and terrified. There were two bummers in there (babies with no mothers). One looked pretty strong. He was nursing off of this mare or that, but the other one had bad legs. He was a mishmash of colors. He was black brown and light tan. He was a rack of bones. His legs were crooked and he was dragging the right hind. He could not compete. He was not getting any milk. We went up to the office and told them we wanted one of those horses. They said those were Sulphur Springs so they would go on the internet. We would have to go on-line and bid on them. So I said we will take that bummer baby not the one with the bad legs because he won't make it but the other one. I said, "Those babies won't go on the internet because they won't live long enough." "Yeah," he said, "but we can't get them out right now because if we go in there the mares will spook and trample the orphans."
Two weeks later they called to tell us they had a Sulphur Springs baby for us. If we could save him we had our horse. Guess which one it was? Yup. You got it. It was the hopeless one with bad legs.
There was an old woman in Nevada, a rancher. I can't remember her name. But she was headstrong, honest, and she had been working horses all her life. She was the one who changed everything. She went to battle with the ranchers who were killing the mustangs or hauling them to the canners to pick up some cash. She never cared what people thought about her.
She was no bleeding heart yuppie ass liberal. She was a cow person herself. But she saw no reason why all these horses should die just because they were wild and not useful. She saw them for what the were: horses — who have served us for thousands of years and through no fault of their own now lived in the desert eating what they found and making the best of what God had given them.
So in the end that little old lady beat the ranchers and the mustangs became a national treasure like Yellowstone Park or Dead Horse Point. The Government acknowledged the ranchers' complaint that there were too many of them and they were eating too much so the national adoption program was set up. The BLM built wild horse centers. The herds were monitered and culled. The horses were sent to these centers for public adoption. An advertising campaign was set in place. You could adopt a wild horse for $125, if you met the qualifications. You needed to a have a large paddock with adequate shelter, good fencing, six feet tall.
You received your title after a year. The BLM visited your facility at six months and then a year. If you kept your horse in good shape you received ownership papers. They required that you never send your horse to the canners. If the canner sees a horse with the BLM tattoo on its neck they are to call the BLM. Of course they don't do that. A horse in the can is worth two in the bush, right?
It was on honest effort to keep these lovely animals from abuse. There are those who will adopt a horse for $125 and drive to the canners to pick up $400 and still have the afternoon free to get their other chores done with that $275 warming their pocket. That kind of thing doesn't happen much because when the BLM comes around to check up and the horse is not there you are in deep trouble. If you fed that horse for a year to get title then take it to the canners you lost money because it cost you over $500 to feed it for a year.
Things are like that in the horse business. Horses have no idea how many things conspire against them. They are afraid of tarps and plastic bags and flu shots. They have no idea that their dead body is worth more than their live body to some people.
Sebastian was what we named him. He took to his new stall right away. Those mares at the BLM had beat the tar out of him. He loved the peace and quiet. Vicki and I slept all night with him the first night. He did not like his milk replacer at first but after awhile he drank it down — three buckets. And we knew we had it. At least we had our foot in the stirrup.
The death box. A place you can't get out of. Up the walls. Down the walls. Into every corner. Up down around and over. No door no window. No place to escape. You can't dig your way out. You can't climb out. You can't zone out. You can't get out of the death box.
We took pictures. Before and after. We took before. He had blue eyes, gray blue eyes. He was a special horse. Spirit horse, my ancestors would say. Only spirit horses have those eyes. Horses have brown eyes. But once in a blue moon comes a horse with pale eyes — most often one spirit eye. One eye looks into the spirit, the other eye is the earth eye looking out to the earth. But he had two spirit eyes.
He was thriving at first. He gained 30 pounds. Before he had skin hanging over bone. He grew muscles overnight.
Then he got pneumonia. That was what I expected. The pneumonia hung on. We kept fighting.
Then he got diarrhea. That scared me. Diarrhea kills babies. Pneumonia kills babies too, but put the two together and things don't look so good. By now I had no money. But I needed a vet. I wouldn't win this battle on my own.
Sebastian loved his walks. We went out every day. He loved the way people stopped to give him a pat and say how cute he was. Sebastian thought he was a movie star. He had so many fans. He had a twinkle in his eye. So much hope.
I called Dr. Clay Cannon. He came over. He is a big man. He has the hands of a working man and he was wearing a plain western shirt. He did not hold out much hope. But he went to work. I told him I had no money until payday. He did not know me but he decided to save that baby's life as best he could whether he got paid or not. He had no way of knowing if he would ever get a penny, but he did it anyway.
That is a judgment on his heart and he had the heart to do it. So he will always be my vet. He did what needed to be done without even pausing for a moment. He had paying clients waiting for their West Nile virus shots but he chose to try to save this baby. We were a long way from worrying about mosquitos.
He did not expect him to live through the night. But he did. I slept with him. The dogs slept with him.
Sebastian didn't get it the first night. He kept getting up and dragging all the blankets with him. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked him. "Lay down and I will feed you."
The second night he understood that dogs and people want to stay under the covers all night. I woke up every two hours and gave him his medication and tried to make him eat like Dr. Cannon told me, then we snuggled in to doze for two more hours. He licked my face for hours. He did my hair. He sucked it into little curls that spiraled straight up all over my head. The sticky milk in his mouth acted like mousse and froze them in place. I said he should go into hair when he grew up because he had a definite talent for styling.
But his diarrhea continued. No matter what I did I could not stop it. His weight dropped. He was once again a rack of bones. I started to think the milk replacer was the problem. I bought goat's milk. He drank it right down. His diarrhea disappeared immediately, but it was too late. He was too weak.
I discovered that under his strange motley coat he was a true black. His muzzle and around his eyes had turned black. That is the true color a horse will be. As they shed their baby coat — which can look like anything — the true color comes out around their eyes first. He was a black horse. A rarity in horses. Most of what people call a black is a dark bay. A dark bay has an almost black coat with a brown muzzle and usually brown legs below the knees. But his muzzle was black. His eyes were pale blue.
He is my spirit horse. He was a gift to me from Wakantanka. I have always dreamed that Wakantanka would one day give me a gift, a vision, something that told me I was not just a lost half-breed in a white world.
I have grown old in my body although my mind and my spirit have not changed. I can see in the mirror that my body has changed. I am as strong as ever but I must rely more on my will than anything else. I force my body to keep up with me. Sometimes my body just wants to sleep but I force it to get up and go on doing what has to be done for all the animals that need me. I have done this for years. I will keep on doing it until my body will not rise up again and then I hope my beautiful Vicki will stand up in my place.
But I had given up on my vision quest. I believed no vision would come to me. Wakantanka saw me as white because I was half white/half Assinaboine. The Assinaboine were a part of the Lakota nation. A fight between two women caused them to leave the nation. They went to far northern Montana and Canada. And some of them, like my mother, married white men.
I never took to Christianity. I have always believed in the old ways of our land. I have always loved Wakantanka and the Coyote God, the Trickster. He taught me more than any other. The Trickster Coyote is not kind or forgiving, but he is fair. Fair is all I ask for really — not kindness, not charity, just justice, that's all I want out of life.
Coyote gives that and his lessons are hard, and almost brutal. But truth is brutal isn't it? In the end truth is all we need, really. Just to know exactly how the land lies. That is what matters.
Now an old one I have been given my gift, my spirit horse. I know that when I cross over he will meet me there. My black horse, my war horse. My black horse with the pale spirit eyes. He will take me up on his strong back. We will ride high up through the skies. His pale spirit eyes will see all the demons who hope to possess us and he will pass over them without a moment of hesitation because he is my horse, my perfect horse and nothing will ever defeat him.
I would have given my life if only he could live but it was not to be. I remain here, without my horse. I wait for him to return and take me up to the spirit land of Wakantanka.