Horses originated here in North America. Prehistoric ancestors of today’s equines migrated to Europe, Asia, and Africa but were frozen out here by the last ice age. Then horses came back: The thundering herds of old Westerns first escaped from Spanish explorers and soldiers. Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same: Much to the surprise of researchers, permafrost-preserved remains of the ancient Yukon horse – the last horse of prehistory to live in North America – were recently discovered to be identical, genetically, to both feral and domesticated modern horses.
So here’s a question to ponder the next time you’re on a trail ride, say, out spying on wild horses: They were reintroduced to this continent within historical memory, yet horses first evolved here prehistorically, and co-evolved with habitats here. So … aren’t they a native species? Hmm . . .
About that wild-horse trail ride: It so happens that the best place for that is also here, just northeast of Red Bluff, at the Wild Horse Sanctuary near Manton.
Co-founder Dianne Nelson started adopting "unadoptable" mustangs in the 1970s. Some 300 wild horses and burros now roam freely on the sanctuary’s 5,000 acres of lava cap, oak woodlands, and juniper scrub, not all that different from the hard-scrabble Modoc County territory where much of the herd originally roamed.
The nonprofit Wild Horse Sanctuary opens to the public on Wednesday and Saturday; visitors are welcome to hike the horse trails. Most exciting are guided horseback trips and two- or three-day overnight rides, complete with hearty cowboy barbecue and a sleeping-bag stay at Wild Horse Camp, in rustic cabins complete with kerosene lamps. Trail rides are offered from late spring into October. If you’ve always dreamed of rounding-up “li’l dogeys,” the longer October cattle drive at the Carey Ranch is for you.
Wild horse fans typically come in October for the annual foal adoption. But last fall’s event was postponed due to an outbreak of Pigeon Fever, so the “baby party” was rescheduled for April 16 this year. Keep in mind too that due to the recession, foals from previous years, now young horses, are still waiting for the right folks to take them home.
Or bring the whole family in mid-August to the annual Open House, to get up close with mustangs and burros on docent-led walks, plus enjoy free horse rides for the kiddos, face painting, and crafts. Not to mention barbecue, live music, working stock dogs, and demonstrations of horse shoeing, grooming, and basic veterinary care. Parents, please note: If the kids really want that horse, mustang or not, they need to take responsibility in all these ways and more, so this is a good opportunity to make that point.
If you can’t visit the sanctuary right now you can always "adopt" a wild horse from home, through regular tax-deductible financial contributions. Keep in mind that due to the drought, grazing has been poor in recent years and the sanctuary’s need for help with hay and other costs has been greater than usual.