One spring a few years ago, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) set up a wild horse roundup in Eastern Utah. I was doing some title search work and found myself one morning riding out with the wranglers who would be catching and rounding up the horses for the BLM adoption program.
There has been much argument about the horses. Some people believe that these wild horses needed to be removed from the land because of overgrazing and inbreeding. Others believe that they should stay where they are and run free. “I am not sure about the debate but I guess someone should ask the horses,” I heard one person say.
We headed to a place known as Moon Water Point, way out in the middle of nowhere with undulating hills that dropped into the valleys and canyons surrounding the Green River some 50 miles north of Green River, Utah on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Some of the wranglers were private contractors and some were employees of the BLM. The rest were from the Ute Tribe Fish & Game Department, easy to tell from the BLM guys because they were Indians. Everyone was anticipating the round up. I had heard that a helicopter was out early that morning gathering the horses. We had been on the road for about two and a half hours over a long windy dirt road when we got to Moon Water Point.
The wranglers’ trucks and trailers were off the hill out of sight. We parked there in the brush and walked up the hill to the top of the bench. On top there was a brush line, set up in a V, to funnel the horses into a makeshift corral that had three sides dropping off the bench like a cliff dropping off steeply and the brush hid a portable fence set up to hold the horses.
The guys had been there for a few days gathering the horses and were set to catch them. The Ute cowboys were a hardy stock, rough and ready. I have heard they pride themselves as horsemen, those Utes. I did not hear anyone say it, but they seemed to know the animals and this area was Ute land.
Some of the Utes did not agree with the roundup of the horses. These were the last remaining part of the herd that represented their former life as the People of the Shining Mountains who were born on horses and roamed all over these lands from Denver to Salt Lake. I could sense their feeling but they were there to do a job.
Everyone mounted up and headed out, moving off the bench to the north and in the distance you could hear the herd of wild horses coming. You could see them off in the distance, kicking up the dust and running through the sagebrush in groups of two and three with others of four and five running alongside.
The horses usually travel and live in small groups to be able to forage the high and low areas for food. There were groups of 4- and 5-year-old stallions eager to make a place with the herd but they cannot live together and so they break off in small groups, each having his own band, but the helicopter was chasing them from behind and so they were all running together.
They were of assorted colors, magnificent animals, their legs flying and moving with a grace of years of running through sagebrush and these lands. This was their place and we were the interlopers. Their nostrils were flaring, their manes and tails blowing in the wind. There must have been 35 or 40 of them coming.
They ran up by us onto the bench at full speed, galloping past with a beauty and grace that took me back a hundred years and then we were in the chase, behind them. The horses we were on got caught up as kindred spirits, losing their domestication to go with their roots, to be wild and free.
The horses went into the V, the funnel. The stallion who led them in was black, a large horse, beautiful in his long strong strides. The group was going full tilt, and all of them went in. The guys hiding in the brush quickly closed the gate behind them and the horses were corralled. There was a quarter mile of room in there for them to settle down.
The lead horse didn't slow down and we all watched as he continued to run to the edge of the point where the land dropped off. All of the horses were running behind him at a full gallop. He was going to fall off, straight to his death, and take some of the others with him. The enclosure was opened and the wranglers took off after him to rope and cut him from the main group.
We were watching but could not believe it when he jumped off, and one by one the whole group went over the edge. A sick feeling came over me as I saw this. It would be a sad day to see all of them lying at the bottom of the drop. There was a 35- to 40-foot drop to the bottom. I could imagine horses with broken legs and all sorts of terrible things went through my mind.
When we rode up the edge and looked below the last of the group was bounding over the cliff, leaping to a large rock standing apart a ways from the drop and it was to here they had jumped using the rock as a way to jump halfway down and then bouncing off it to drop to the valley below without breaking stride. There was no pause and they were still running; not a one injured or hurt; all had made it.
I stood there with those Ute wranglers. The guys from BLM were all cussing those horses and talking about the craziness of them. The Indians to a man stood there apart quietly watching them. All of us looking and without saying a word our hearts were running along with them as they escaped into the canyons below, running wild and free.
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.