I spotted a pair of buzzards circling against a mountain backdrop as I was making my way down the eastern drop of Dynamite, just past some remote horse ranches with names like 4G, Oso Rio, and Esperanza.
I’m sure those turkey vultures had a better view of the sprawling ranches below, outfitted with the kind of indoor training facilities, air conditioned stables, and immaculate pastures fit for horse royalty.
I glanced that way only briefly, because just beyond those ranches was a panoramic postcard scene that really caught my eye. The boulder strewn north face of the McDowell Mountains on the right. The majestic Four Peaks towering off in the distance ahead. The expansive greenbelt of the lower Salt River winding down from the northern foothills. Miles of Saguaros, Mesquite, Palo Verdes… oh, and that pair of buzzards circling high on the thermals to complete a scene reminiscent of an Old Western classic.
A few miles further east on a treacherous dirt road, a small devil duster greeted me when I climbed out of the truck and my boots hit the ground. The brief whirlwind grabbed my attention, right along with the noonday sun which had already baked the desert to the current seasonal norm of about 100 degrees. Nevertheless, I was out in the wilderness for a little fresh air, sunshine, and contemplation.
I reached for my weathered day bag –– packed with two digital cameras, two water bottles, two bologna sandwiches and two cigars –– and slung it over my shoulder. As an afterthought, I also took a small fishing rod and some tackle before heading into the desert to explore a new stretch of river.
The desert floor was fairly soft, so plentiful tracks were easy to spot. Some of them were fresh, especially from various birds, coyote, javelina, deer and wild horses. It didn’t take long to pick up the horse tracks, then follow the scent of horse hide and manure where they led. They eventually led to a narrow game trail that met up with other trails running parallel to the river. From there, they occasionally crossed the river at small openings in the thick trees and other riparian growth.
Taking one of those openings by Cougar Bluff, I waded east across the river onto Yavapai land where the scent was getting stronger. Once across, I followed the higher ridgeline for a couple miles north along the river, then dropped into a thick forest reminiscent of Tolkien’s Mirkwood ––complete with menacing webs. It was a bit creepy, but mostly tough to navigate because of all the overgrowth and deadwood. When I came upon a large fallen tree blocking my route, it seemed like a good place to rest, get my bearings, water up, and have a snack.
Maybe the crows spied my bologna sandwich because four of them were instantly on the scene, squawking from branches in the surrounding deadwood. Other than the obnoxious crow calls, it was deadly quiet and shadowy in the thick of it. Right about the time that ominous creep was looking for a foothold in my imagination, I caught the clear whinnying of a horse on the wind from somewhere up on higher ground, just to the east.
I waited a bit to be certain of the direction, then heard the horse again. It was a curious thing… that horse kept whinnying at fairly regular intervals until I found my way to a sunlit clearing and spotted him just on the edge of a tree line. He might have been a straggler, but from the look of him I figured he was the herd stallion, if only for a little band of other wild horses.
Like most of the Salt River wild horses, he probably didn’t have a name. Francisco immediately came to mind because… well, he looked like a Francisco.
American wild horses like Franciso are descendants of the magnificent Colonial Spanish horses brought to the Americas by explorers. Although many other breeds and types contributed to the bloodlines along the way, Francisco was likely a descendent of one of the horses brought with the Spanish missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino.
From as little as 70 of those original horses, populations flourished to a peak of around 2 million by the 19th century, with Arizona herds growing to nearly 500,000 strong at their peak.
Thousands were later rounded up for use in the Spanish-American War and World War I, and sadly their numbers continued to rapidly decline over time due to land use controversies, bad management, hunting, roundup and slaughter, poisoned watering holes, and other attacks on their range and well being.
By the 1950’s, the population had dropped to an estimated 25,000 horses scattered mostly West of the Continental Divide. In my area, the Salt River wild horses have struggled to maintain at around 500 head for the past decade. Finally this year, Arizona’s House Bill 2340 was passed to protect the remaining wild horses and their ability to thrive and roam free.
It appeared that Francisco was content to simply stand there in the shade so we could have a look at each other and get a good whiff. Yep, I was fairly sure that he was the herd stallion for a small band nearby, even though he seemed to be roaming on his own.
It’s a common misconception that there’s a herd mustang –– a single high-ranking alpha male –– dominating every band. Actually, it’s usually a lead mare (along with other mares) that guide the herd to food and water, direct the daily routine and movement of the herd, and ensure the general well being of the other horses.
A herd stallion like Francisco typically stays on the periphery, usually at the rear guard, where they often have to fight off predators, drive straggling herd members forward, and keep the herd together.
He was obviously serious about his duty as he kept his eye on me, but I got the sense that he was more curious than threatened. Who really knows what he saw in me with his horse senses, but I suppose I saw a little something of myself in him.
After a few minutes, he finally turned east and headed for the open desert just beyond the tree line. I followed him quietly at a distance so I wouldn’t cause alarm. About a quarter mile later, I caught up to him again after he had rejoined his small band consisting of the lead mare, another mare, and two more stallions.
It took some work and patience, but I was eventually able to approach within a couple of yards. Fortunately they were taking a cue from Franciso, so they calmly stood their ground, even lining up neatly in a single row at one point. After about 20 minutes of peacefully observing their behavior, I finally eased away and left the clearing for the river. Naturally, Francisco followed as far as the tree line, where he took up position again at the rear.
I had plenty of time to ponder the plight of wild horses on the return trek. Honestly, it wasn’t the kind of heartwarming contemplation I savor, because the creep of that sorrowful dismay sometimes leads to pointless griping, anger and outrage. Right about the time my internal griping was hitting full stride, I found myself back at the river on the edge of a great new fishing hole.
I wasn’t expecting that. Neither was I expecting a thunderous reply.
Oh, but it WAS thunderous! It was the ‘thunder’ of many hooves pounding the desert floor and echoing off the canyon walls –– a band of mighty horses charging down a wash just on the other side of the river. Moments later, a magnificent mustang broke into view, came to a sharp halt on a sandy point, reared up on hind legs, and let loose with whinny that ripped the air like a trumpet blast.
So much for the griping. Beyond my look of complete awe and wonder at that moment, all I could manage was one single word: “Glory!”