By BILL BECHER
MUSTANG. The word conjures up images of the Old West — a wild horse running free on the range in a big blue-sky world, a renegade. I watch as a tall mustang stallion escorts his six mares. He pulls his ears back in warning, and the other wild horses nearby scatter out of the way. The stallion stops and grazes while keeping a careful eye on his harem.
Once two million mustangs roamed the West, descendants of horses that escaped from or were released by early Spanish missionaries and explorers and later European settlers. Now it’s estimated that fewer than 50,000 wild horses live in remote areas of California, Nevada and other Western states.
For horse lovers, or anyone who wants to observe mustangs in a natural environment, the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Northern California offers two-day and three-day trail rides to see the horses on the organization’s 5,000-acre preserve near Lassen Volcanic National Park. This little-visited corner of California bears the scars of its violent geological past. Fields are littered with volcanic rock from previous eruptions. Lassen Peak, formed by a volcano, is visible from the sanctuary.
Dianne Nelson was bottle-feeding a month-old abandoned kitten when I met her on the porch of her ranch house at the sanctuary, in Shingletown, Calif. Mrs. Nelson is a co-founder of the sanctuary. And although caring for unwanted animals is her life, she stumbled into it by happenstance.
In 1974 she was helping her first husband round up mustangs under a government contract. When the Forest Service couldn’t find homes for 12 older stallions that Mrs. Nelson helped capture, they were destroyed. “I heard the shots,” she said, “and you don’t forget that.”
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