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Riding in Wild Horse Country

Submitted by Willis Lamm

There was a light breeze carrying the scent of sage as we approached a rise on the trail. Our horses pricked their ears forward and one nickered. A few seconds later a line of fourteen wild horses simultaneously broke over the rise to see who was approaching.

At about 150 feet away they stopped as did we. We watched each other for a few seconds, then the lead stallion stepped out in front of his band, taking a protective position. Each of our groups regarded the other with curiosity and respect.

We then reined our horses slightly to our right so as to not ride directly toward the other horses. The stallion shook his head whereupon his lead mare led the group down a small horse trail to our left. As the band progressed down the trail, the stallion took the rear position and glanced back as the horses broke into an easy canter and disappeared into a draw.

It was another magnificent day in wild horse country. Today we were riding the lower southerly foothills of Nevada’s Virginia Range. I love to take visitors out to ride in the wild horse range. The terrain can be a bit rugged but the views are spectacular. Even after all these years, the encounters with the local free-roaming equines are always exciting.

The Virginia Range and adjacent Flowery Range are primarily made up of volcanic ridges that rise out of the Great Basin,formed by prehistoric Lake Lahontan. Pleistocene Lake Lahontan once stretched all the way to Utah. The various elevations within the massive lake’s dry footprint provide a vast array of geology, plants and animals ranging from a classic high desert floor to amazing rock columns and piñon forests near the ridge tops that once formed prehistoric islands. The horses range on the entirety of this landscape, many descending nearly 3,000 ft. in elevation to get to water each day, then returning to the more secluded high country to graze and sleep.

Some of the trails are challenging. We most often ride mustangs as they seem to take to the more difficult and rocky routes with gusto. However there are plenty of less arduous dirt roads and trails that are quite suitable for the less adventurous horse and rider. And there are plenty of wild horses.

Wild Horse Etiquette

Wild horses are generally non-aggressive and social animals, but they are instinctively curious and protective, especially when it comes to other equines. I am not aware of any verified incident of a wild horse assaulting a passing rider, although there have been a few encounters when someone decided to tease a stallion or barge into a band’s “space” whereupon the lead stallion displayed aggressive behavior. Riding straight toward a stallion can produce a defensive response.

Our horses almost always notice the wild horses before we do, and the wild ones almost always notice us before our horses notice them. Many times the lead or alpha stallion will gallop out and take a position guarding his band. Depending on the stallion, this position could be a few yards away from his band or he might come forward a half-mile or so, leaving the beta stallion behind to guard the rest. It is not unusual for a dominant stallion in an area to posture, paw and pose when he comes forward to meet approaching riders. Once his presence is acknowledged he will often pull back to a position that is closer to his band.

Occasionally our horses will play games with a dominant stallion. As an example, my mustang gelding Corey used to enjoy frustrating “Bubba,” who was once the dominant stallion of the southeast corner of the range. Corey would intentionally ignore Bubba’s posing and posturing, prompting Bubba to ever-increase his animation. Eventually Corey would look around as to say, “Yes, I see you,” whereupon Bubba would gallop back to his band of some 30-plus horses.

It is proper wild horse etiquette to respect the stallion’s boundary whenever practical. We observe wild horse bands from a distance so as not to disturb the animals, especially mares with young foals.

If the topography requires us to enter a band’s defensive space, we will do so at an easy, non-threatening pace. A stallion may keep close watch but as a rule, once they are acknowledged wild stallions won’t start fights that they don’t feel are necessary. If we don’t behave in a threatening manner, the stallions will generally leave us alone. The conduct that best preserves our safety is one of, “I’m OK. You’re OK. We’re just passing through.” The secret is to never ride directly toward the horses.

If we meet an oncoming band of horses on a narrow trail, we’ll usually veer off the trail to let them pass undisturbed. A few feet of clearance is generally sufficient for the horses to feel comfortable passing as our body language is saying, “We’ll yield. Come on by.”

Hidden Watchers

The only horses we have ever had come directly toward us at close range are young bachelor studs. Their behavior is often somewhat akin to that of poorly supervised teenage boys. They like to get together and count coup with the older stallions, seeing how close they can get before the stallion charges them. They can also transfer this behavior to riders out in wild horse country.

Once in a while we’ll encounter two or three young bachelors who gallop towards us, seeing who will be the bravest and get the closest to us. The best way we have found to wave them off if we feel they have come close enough is to turn to face them, get tall in the saddle and raise our arms. On rare occasions we’ll have to shout. At that point the truants typically spin about and gallop as fast as they can back to the band from which they came.

One stallion had a thing for our Clydesdale mare. On one ride he and his band followed us home at a polite distance and they hung around the back fence for about three days. He was a magnificent looking animal. Had we not had so many horses, I might have considered letting him in the gate for a conjugal visit. On that subject, we do occasionally ride out with mares that flash into a false heat when approached by stallions. So long as we keep riding, we have never had a problem as a result. However if such a mare was not saddled and being handled, I’m pretty sure her “Take me into your harem” message would be well received by the stallion.

Common Sense Safety

Most wild horse ranges consist of high deserts and scrub forests. This environment is actually ideal for horses, but the weather can change significantly within an hour or so which can be hard on riders. Bring layers of clothing. The air is usually pretty dry. Horses can drink from springs and stock tanks, you can’t. Bring water.

We usually ride out in early to mid morning. Depending on the time of year it can get windy and we can occasionally experience dry thunderstorms in the mid to late afternoons. When taking day-long rides check local weather forecasts and watch the skies.

Trail conditions can change from prehistoric lake-bed sand to volcanic rock literally in a matter of a few feet. All of our horses are kept barefoot, including the Clydesdale, as are most horses in our region. Barefoot horses seem to be less likely than shod horses to slip on the larger flat rocks, especially when climbing or descending hills.

The upper horse trails sometimes look like cobblestone streets.

The mustangs don’t seem to have any trouble with the rocks, especially if they are kept properly trimmed with “mustang rolls.” Some of the domestic horses, even properly trimmed, should wear boots. We’ve tried a number of different boots and the Cavallo Simple Boots are our “go to” choice. They are easy to put on and to readjust on the trail. They tend to resist sand intrusion on the lake-bed portions of the ride, and our horses don’t suffer heel bulb or coronet area blisters during the steeper climbs. However no matter what hoof protection works best for your horse, consider bringing it along unless you know that your horse’s hooves will hold up while traveling over bands of rocks.

Your horse needs to be reasonably fit and be able to maintain reasonable composure around unfamiliar horses. Some of our horses only get out on rare occasions and thus they are not fit athletes, however they are sound and we have a sense as to how difficult of a ride they can handle without conditioning. We generally ride the less fit horses in the lower elevations. We save the more extreme rides for the more fit horses and even then, we may occasionally dismount and lead the horses for a half-mile or so over difficult terrain.

Unless we’re doing a TV shoot in “costume,” we always wear helmets. Some of these areas are extremely rocky and even a misstep while leading a horse can result in a trip to the emergency room and a stitched up scalp. Don’t rely on Obamacare. A helmet is your best insurance!

Regarding animal hazards, there are Great Basin rattlesnakes in the area, however the only snake I have actually encountered in many years of living here was one that I had to remove from someone’s house when I worked for Animal Services. Rarely, but on occasion, we may hear a snake buzzing in the sagebrush. Statistically it is most often a gopher snake mimicking a rattler. The Great Basin rattlesnakes are generally docile and will provide plenty of warning that the observant rider can heed.

There are also cougars and coyotes that prowl the region. The coyotes are primarily curious and are no threat unless you bring a small dog along on the ride (not recommended.) The cougars are reclusive and I am not aware of any threatening encounter between a cougar and a mounted equestrian happening in modern history on the Virginia Range, although cougars do like to eat young horses. On a couple of occasions I have had my horse get nervous due to some scent detected in the air, but to date I have never actually seen a cougar on a ride.

When riding south of the Carson River I would recommend at least one horse in the ride wear a bear bell. While bears haven’t threatened horses and riders, unexpectedly coming across a bear could significantly upset your horse. My advice is to warn these beasts away with the noise from a bear bell and avoid the issue altogether.

A band moves on.

Some of our best high desert trail horses are in their twenties. They are used to the altitude and the conditions. “Low land” horses may require an easier pace if they are not conditioned to the hills and rarefied air. Nonetheless, nearly any horse sensibly ridden and sensibly equipped can safely navigate most of the literally hundreds of miles of trails and back roads where both you and your horse can experience the ride of a lifetime – among the free-roaming horses of the Virginia Range.

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