Text and Photos by Annie Jantzen
This wild horse family was beloved by the community in Carson City, but the BLM heartlessly trapped and removed them from their home in February 2013.
My phone woke me out of a dead sleep just before 7 am on February 27, 2013. If I wanted to cover the trapping of our treasured local band of mustangs, I needed to pull some clothes on and get down the road immediately. It was a frosty morning, but I remember the smell of sage in the air. It instantly transported me back in time; to the place I first met the family of 11 ‘mild’ mustangs.
I had just come from shooting pictures down at Mono Lake, and decided to stop at the rustic Riverview Park in Carson City, NV. Another photographer told me about a band of wild mustangs who frequented the area, and suggested we stop in to see if we may catch a glimpse of them. We headed down the dirt walking trail of the park and to my delight; we encountered what’s known as the Deer Run herd. It was my first real experience with wild horses, so all I had to contribute was intuition and a heart’s desire to know who these majestic beings were. I moved slowly, photographing them from a distance while they watched me and evaluated my scent in the wind. The other photographer kept a distance on the other side of the field, out of sight. After a half an hour or so, I split the distance between the herd and I, and lay down on my face in the field. The late afternoon sun was on my back, and the smell of sage was sweet in the air. Within 15 minutes or so, I hear faint crunching in the dry grass that stops close to my ears. Soft velvety lips explored my hair and I could feel the heat of her breath against my head. I could barely contain my excitement but I remained still, wanting to see what the ensuing moments would bring. Gentle as a flower, she moved around me and stopped for a taste of my day pack. As I sat there enraptured, more slow crunches as one by one the herd encircled me in the middle of their domain. At one point I dare open my eyes to look up, and big dark gentle eyes looked back. I was surrounded and in quite a quandary. I had come prepared with a 12 inch lens to make sure I could get some nice long distance shots of the horses, but here I lay in the midst of legs and muzzles, too close to shoot anything.
At a complete loss for words, I looked into the beautiful dark face before me with the white star on her forehead. I smiled at her and I felt her smile back.
One by one they became bored and wandered off, back to enjoying the late afternoon sun and tender green shoots of field grass. The big white mare stayed behind, and we had a long albeit wordless conversation. I told her how beautiful she was and that she needn’t fear me. She welcomed me to the herd and told me her name was ‘White Light’. I stayed on an hour or so, thrilled and sweaty and smelling like, well you can imagine, and oblivious to the other photographer snapping away in the distance. So began the story for me with the mild mustangs of Deer Run.
I would photograph and study this band over the next year and a half, collecting material for a book she impressed on me to write. Babies were born and the proud mares would bring them across the river and into the park, for our kids to meet their kids. Families and individuals alike came to the park in the early evenings of summer, to commune with the horses and happily share the space of the rambling, rustic park. Most herds have a range of up to 60 miles or so, but the Deer Run band stayed around home on the Carson City side of Brunswick Canyon. They had lived peacefully here alongside residents for over 40 years. Their herd once numbered in the 50’s, but has been systematically cut back by the Bureau of Land Management over time until only 11 remained.
One morning in early February, Deer Run residents noticed half the herd was missing. A baited horse trap was discovered in the canyon, on a trail well-traveled by the herd. We contacted BLM at once, who told us they were trapping the herd. We asked why. They said safety issues on Deer Run Road, then they said there were too many horses in the area. They said there were complaints from landowners (although the landowners are in the Herd Management Area where the horses are designated to live). We asked to see these complaints, but no complaints were produced. We pleaded with the BLM to give us time to come up with ways to rectify complaints, even though it was like chasing a ghost, not knowing what the true complaints are. The BLM gave us a 2 week deadline. The field office manager admonished us that if he received one more email from anyone complaining about his taking the horses, he would pick up the horses immediately.
We went to work, 20 of us. We created a comprehensive, multi layered plan to deal with every conceivable scenario. Among the improvements, we promised to install fencing that we would pay for and birth control for the mares. There were road improvements, public education, citizen coalitions. But when meeting day came it became clear this was nothing more than an exercise in public relations management for the BLM. A day after we presented our proposal, they posted the ‘complaints’ on their website. 8 complaints, 6 of which were two years old, all of which concerned a spirited stallion that had been removed in August of 2012. A few days later the BLM announced they would proceed with their trapping, eliminating the historic Deer Run herd forever. Local officials as well as a state senator and a US Congressman urged the BLM to exhaust efforts to work with the community, but the BLM would not relent. The community was stunned in disbelief, that this entity could take such invasive measures for no reason, stripping a community of a beloved part of their culture. Indeed, we lost family when we lost the Deer Run Mustangs.
It was quiet as a graveyard on Sedge Road, where the BLM erected the final trap. I was one of two photographers allowed in to document the capture. The BLM was so concerned about community backlash, that there were rangers blocking access to Sedge Road. The BLM field manager responsible for this action remained hidden behind the locked doors at the local office. In the distance, a man with a bucket of grain led the horses across the field like the Pied Piper. When they arrived at the trap, three followed obediently inside to the fresh hay baited inside. Then came the slamming of the steel gate, as a trip rope was yanked to trap the naïve horses inside. It wasn’t even an effort to trap these horses. They were trusting of humans after living their entire lives in a community that loved them.
Three startled mares ran from the trap gate and into the sage brush. One of the three was clumsy due to her advanced stage of pregnancy. As White Light and the expectant mother conferred behind a Pinion Pine, a smaller Mustang walks tentatively toward the trap. Another pregnant mare and her yearling colt stare pensively at the free horse, and I wonder what they are communicating to each other.
The grain bucket is replenished and it doesn’t take long for the other two mares to be caught, the sound of the slamming gate stinging in our ears. Five horses, three in advance stages of pregnancy are crammed into a small pen so the larger can remain open to trap our matriarch.
It was obvious that White Light allowed the others to go first by design. It’s the same way she used to walk the herd across the road, waiting until all had crossed before she did. There was no question in my mind that she knew exactly what was going on. She stood outside the pen looking in at her family. The BLM worker came with the bucket of grain again but this time she turned away. I scream silently, “Run! Run! Run and don’t look back!” She walked, then broke into a slow gallop up the hill. For the next hour or more, she grazed and wandered as if the trap didn’t exist, and her family wasn’t behind bars. I watched her look around and smell the air, and knew she was considering that this would be her last hour of freedom. The once patient BLM workers grew bored waiting, and decided to load the other horses on the trailer in preparation of their trip to the local prison.
I had stationed myself on the hillside across the road, where I could sob into my camera away from view. White Light came near. As the thunder of hooves erupted onto the deck of the trailer, the horses cried out in a way that seared the flesh. White Light responded. As the trailer pounded up the hill, White Light followed past me and up the hillside. The trailer turned around to go down the hill as steel panels slammed and clanged. As it passed by the horses inside screamed and White Light screamed back, as the trailer thundered out of sight.
All quiet once again, the remaining workers gone, it was just White Light and me sharing a long look. She ambled back down the hill toward the trap, which was now baited with one of the pregnant mares to lure her in. The truth was, she didn’t need to be tricked in. She knew what she had always known. I asked her why she didn’t run with her family, and she simply communicated to me, “I’m tired of fighting.” Running from the BLM had become a way of life in her 20 plus years on earth, and she was through fighting to remain free.
But in the end, White Light would go out on her own terms. I left her in her sunset, with a promise that it’s not over.
Media coverage and more information below:
Mar. 17, 2013: Was BLM Justifid in Removing Carson Horses?
Mar. 12, 2013: Mustang Family:BLM Auction to Separate Band of Horses
Mar.7, 2013: Born to be Wild