Fate of the mustangs
Herds of wild horses, commonly called mustangs, are regarded by many people as romantic symbols of the Old West, surviving into modern times.
At least 10 western states claim to have significant numbers of these animals, roaming mainly on public lands. Ranchers and even some conservationists are not happy with that.
Mustangs can doubled their population in three or four years, if left unchecked. They become competitors of cattle and wildlife for forage.
Uncontrolled, the horses might also damage the habitat of endangered species, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Today, the only control allowed by law involves the roundup of mustangs for adoption or their placement in sanctuaries. Recently, I heard of plans to establish a wild horse preserve on land near Madrid, N.M.
That reminded me of an unusual gather of wild horses that occurred during the summer of 1932 on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in Lincoln County.
The Indian land encompassed a huge block of rugged mountain terrain and within it mustangs had multiplied for years. No one knew how many grazed there, but estimates placed the number at more than 5,000.
Government officials contracted with local stockman to organize a giant roundup and sell off whatever was caught. Word went out across New Mexico and riders by the score showed up to join in an adventure never to be repeated on this scale.
Among them was cowman John Riley from the Oklahoma Panhandle, who arrived at the bustling roundup camp with four hired men. One of them was young Pat Blake, a student from the University of Michigan who had come west for the summer, hoping to be a cowboy.
Riley, having heard of the roundup, borrowed money and came to Mescalero to acquire a herd from among the better horses captured. He had a buyer in the East lined up to take them and needed to ship the horses by rail.
Interstate freight rates, however, were much higher when New Mexico was the shipping point, so Riley decided to drive his horses almost 400 miles northeast to his home range in Oklahoma. There his railroad charges would be far less, allowing him more profit on the venture.
He and his small crew took part in running down bands of mustangs. They were driven into enclosed traps with gates that could be quickly shut.
Racing down steep, heavily-timbered slopes proved to be dangerous and exciting work. Greenhorn Pat Blake witnessed a rider crushed when his galloping horse did a somersault with him still in the saddle.
In a short time, Riley put together a herd of 110 horses and burned a trail brand on their hides. Then the crew set forth on a drive across burning plains where water was scarce and rattlesnakes plentiful.
Some 30 days later, the worn and blistered men rode into Clayton, just a few miles from the Oklahoma border. The trip had been crammed with mishaps, hardships and high adventure. But the mustang herd was still intact.
A curious throng came out to view the spectacle. Some 25 or 30 local men on horseback joined in driving the herd to an overnight holding corral.
Then a passing train tooted its whistle. “The engineer was playing a joke,” Pat remembered long afterward.
“Our mustangs went crazy and it took all 30 of us to hold them. Such things make stockmen hate railroad men,” he said.
Riley hunted up the New Mexico brand inspector, a Mr. Emery. By state law, he had to check and approve papers proving ownership of the horses.
The drive that had begun at Mescalero came to an end two days later in Felt, Okla. where the animals were loaded on railroad cars and were gone. The crew dispersed, never to see one another again.
Pat Blake had the final word: “Old-timers often told me that ours was the last long wild-horse drive to take place in the United States. And it probably was!”