On our way to Glacier National Park we stopped in the Black Hills of South Dakota. While there we happened to pick up a brochure on the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. We’re always looking for opportunities to see wild horses and this place looked ideal so we promised ourselves that we’d come back next year to visit. However, due to the fires and smoke our trip to Glacier got cut short so we headed back to the Black Hills and to the Sanctuary. That’s another great thing about being retired…you have the ultimate in flexibilty. My hopes were high!
We had read about problems finding the place due to GPS issues and/or poor signage. But we had no problems whatsoever because the signs were excellent and our GPS took us straight to the gate. We even ended up being an hour early for our tour so we had plenty of time to browse the homestead/gift shop and then to visit the nearby paddocks. One of those paddocks had Choctaw Ponies which are a rare breed with only about 300 left in existence.
Seeing paddocked horses was okay, but I was still skeptical as to whether or not we’d really see wild horses. Similar excursions in the past had yielded only fleeting glimpses at long distances. Let’s face it, I’m a horse nut and I’m happy anytime I get to see a wild horse but this time I really really wanted to see them close up!
Precisely at 9:00 our tour guide, David, led us to our little school bus. On the bus was David, his four year old granddaughter, and six of us to see the horses. The tour started with the paddocks near the homestead but soon we were headed up to higher ground and entered one of the vast pastures dedicated to the wild horses.
As we drove along David recounted some of the history of the ranch and the horses. The ranch is on land that was roamed for centuries by Native American people. This land was homesteaded in the mid-1800s by the Cox family and was purchased in 1988 by an Oregon rancher, Dayton Hyde, with the intent to establish a home for wild horses. Hyde started the ranch by purchasing about 300 unwanted horses from the Bureau of Land Management and that number has grown to about 600 horses to date. Even though each horse is named, they are indeed wild. They are never shoe-ed and they are free to roam the ranch as they please. Their natural food is augmented with hay and nutrients to help keep them healthy but they are allowed to live and die as they always have…in the wild.
I must admit that even without the horses, this ranch is beautiful. There were wild turkeys, eagles, and falcons everywhere and we must have seen hundreds of doves. And did I mention the incredible vistas overlooking the Cheyenne River valley…it’s like looking at a movie set. (More on that to follow.) But what I really wanted to see were wild horses! My patience was wearing thin.
After about ten minutes on the dirt road we saw some horses off to our left. Suddenly, David turned the bus off the road and we bumped into the field getting within a 100 feet of the horses. The bus quickly emptied as we piled out hoping to catch a glimpse of the horses before they ran.
Turns out we didn’t have to rush. The horses seemed comfortable with the distance and three horses walked up to us. David explained that this often happens as some of the horses are curious and/or are more comfortable with humans. What these horses seemed particularly curious about was David’s granddaughter. Literally every horse that came up to us first visited his granddaughter before paying any attention to the rest of us. As at any other time, grandkids come first. But who cared?!? We were seeing wild horses up close and personal! All my trepidations about not seeing horses vanished in an instant!
We finally pulled away from the horses and our next stop was an overlook above the ranch’s valley. There we got a better sense of just how big this ranch is plus we got an eagle-eye view of some buildings built for the movie “Crazy Horse”. Scenes from that movie were shot on this ranch along with scenes from “Dances With Wolves”, “Into The Wild” and several other films.
Our tour continued on the dirt road with several forays into the brush as we spotted horses. At each stop we would see lots of horses and always a few would come up to us and visit. What a magical feeling to have one of these wild horses come up to you and look at you eye to eye! It’s like they are looking inside of you to take your measure to see if you are worthy…and worthy is what I so wanted to be!
This part of the world has a lot of Native American history and the Sanctuary does what it can to preserve and promote what came before it. That includes setting aside an area for the annual Sun Dance ritual of the nearby Lakota tribes. This land, the Black Hills, is sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota and during the summer solstice they come here to dance the Sun Dance. Their sweat lodges along with their ceremonial cottonwood pole remain here, decorated with their colorful banners and prayer offerings. Just being here feels like we’ve stepped back into time and I can almost feel a connection to my ancestors.
There are also several petroglyphs and cave dwellings on the ranch. Our tour took us by one such site where ancients (and the original homesteaders) lived in a cave. Here you will find all kinds of petroglyphs carved into the rock including one that looks like a wooly mammoth! If it’s really a mammoth then that carving dates back almost 15,000 years!
Our final encounter was with horses that are descended from the war horses Spaniards brought with them to the new world. These are striking horses with multi-colored manes and a dark stripe down their backs. David said there are only about 300 such horses left in the New World and we got to see at least 20 of them! Magical!
All too soon our tour was over. We had spent about 2 1/2 hours touring the ranch and yet we had seen only a small portion of the many acres. However, we weren’t ready to leave yet so we ordered a bison burger lunch and while our meal was cooking we took the opportunity to talk to more of the staff. After talking to them it’s easy to see that this isn’t just a job for them, it’s a labor of love. They all seem to know all about every horse on the ranch and lovingly can recount stories about each one. (BTW: the bison burger was perfectly cooked and so delicious!)
I’m trying to not write a commercial about the Sanctuary, but it’s difficult because the experience was so incredible. We loved everything about the ranch, the people, the scenery, the history and of course the horses. Without a doubt, this was one of our favorite travel experiences ever! We are already planning a return trip but the next time we want to spend lots more time here!