You’ve heard of The Horse Whisperer. Now, meet The Horse Lover, a cowboy on a mission to save wild mustangs—1,500 of them, all nickering and snorting at the Mustang Meadows Ranch in South Dakota.
“When my brother told me he’d agreed to keep hundreds of wild mustangs on his ranch, I thought he’d temporarily lost his common sense,” writes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author’s sister, in the foreword to H. Alan Day’s memoir.
The 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act dictated that thousands of mustangs on public land be rounded up, corralled and offered for adoption—something for which many of the animals proved utterly unsuitable. That gave Day the idea for his project: a refuge for wild horses.
Already a cattle-rancher who owned and managed two ranches—totaling 250,000 acres, in two states—Day bought a third, a 35,000-acre property in South Dakota, just to provide a home for unwanted mustangs. “This was an opportunity to plow unfurrowed ground in building the first wild horse sanctuary in the United States—a never-before-done project,” Day writes.
He describes the fun he had in meeting and caring for his new charges, as well as the problems and frustrations involved in trying to keep 1,500 horses—that’s 6,000 thundering hooves—healthy and happy at his wild equine rest home. Fortunately, he had help: The federal government paid 100 percent of the project’s cost during his four-year contract with the Bureau of Land Management. Still, Day has harsh words for the way the BLM manages mustangs.
“The Bureau of Land Management treats wild horses as numbers and objects rather than as individuals to be treated with love,” he writes. “Man is the worst enemy of mustangs, especially men in helicopters who cause terror and trauma. If you don’t make friends with them and teach them that you’re not their enemy, then you are.”
When the contract expired, Day rebid for it and lost; he then sold Mustang Meadows Ranch to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 1993, and another contractor took over the care of the horses.
Asked if he’d do it again, given the chance, he answers without hesitation: “Make me 30 years younger, and I’d damned well do it over again.”
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs
By H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd; foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor
University of Nebraska Press
264 pages, $24.95