Shingletown, Calif. — A hundred yards from the gates of the farmhouse, we spotted a harem of wild horses, 16 mustangs grazing in the shade of an oak tree. Our guide motioned for us to stop. I pulled the reins of my mount, patted him on the neck and, without looking away from the harem, hastily fumbled for a camera in my satchel.
The mustangs, now just 30 feet away, stopped grazing and turned to face us. Black, brown, sorrel, dun: They were stunning. Females stood close to their foals. Two youngsters slept next to a pregnant mare. Grateful that my horse remained still, I quickly shot an entire roll of film.
The harem's stallion guarded his family and made sure we kept our distance. Any perceived threat might have caused him to charge, so we retreated. Other than tails swishing at flies, the herd remained motionless, the animals' gazes fixed on us until we were gone.
So began our journey at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, a 5,000-acre ranch in the far Northern California hamlet of Shingletown. Seven girlfriends and I hoped to experience a bit of the Old West as we embarked on a two-day pack trip into the foothills of Mt. Lassen. Eight women on a getaway without husbands or kids -- yee haw!
The adventure began one Friday in Redding, 160 miles north of Sacramento. (Visitors can fly into Redding, but fares to Sacramento are usually much lower.) Shingletown's lodgings were booked, so we had reserved rooms at a Super 8 Motel in Redding, had dinner at Chevy's and turned in early.
Saturday we reached the Wild Horse Sanctuary, 30 miles southeast, by 9 a.m. and were greeted by co-founder Dianne Nelson. She and husband Ted live here in a 100-year-old farmhouse, a former courthouse where the old oak "hanging tree" still stands in the frontyard.
The nonprofit ranch runs two-day ($295 a person) and three-day ($395) trail rides May through mid-October. Experience isn't necessary, but the sanctuary prefers riders 14 and older. All 15 saddle horses here have a history: Some were rescued from slaughter, some were donated and others were bought. Two are mules retired from Grand Canyon pack trips. Because I'm a novice with equines, my partner for the weekend was Ace, a gentle 18-year-old quarter horse-thoroughbred cross retired from a dude ranch.
Eager to start, we adjusted stirrups, donned new cowboy hats and headed into the open hills. Flanked by guide Karen and trainer Hillary, Dianne led our search for some of the sanctuary's 200 mustangs and dozen wild burros.
Guests ride 16 to 20 miles a day, climbing 2,000 feet to cabins, where they spend the night. Though the heat can peak above 100 in summer, temperatures during our ascent were in the 80s. Lava rocks from nearby Brokeoff Mountain littered the terrain. Delicate wild roses grew alongside resilient juniper. Fields of yellow and purple flowers bloomed next to dry riverbeds.
Framing the trails were manzanita, black oak and white oak. Whenever we heard loud cracking, an exceptionally tall mule named Big R was taking my friend Patty through low-hanging manzanita. Usually she emerged wearing a limb or two.
We stopped for sandwiches, fruit, chips and soda, then fed the leftovers to our horses. As we climbed higher, the mustang herds became smaller, but rarely an hour passed when one didn't come into view. Occasionally we would see the animals scrambling for cover when they heard us approaching.
A night in nature
Around 4 p.m. we emerged from the woods into a field of soft yellow and lime-green grass. Five cabins and a cookhouse faced this meadow, flanked by trees on one side and a pond on the other. While Karen and Hillary bathed the horses, we shamelessly indulged in margaritas, chips and salsa.
Four sanctuary volunteers, who had trucked our gear to the cabins earlier in the day, were busy barbecuing chicken and tri-tip, shucking corn, cooking beans, baking rolls and chopping salad.
Margaritas in hand, my friends and I sat by the open fire and asked Dianne about the history of the sanctuary. In 1978, her lifelong passion for horses turned to activism when she bought 80 wild horses that were scheduled to be destroyed; they were older than 5 and considered unlikely candidates for adoption. She said her home for wild horses was the first authorized by the Bureau of Land Management.
About 47,000 of the animals still roam public lands throughout the West. Believed to be descendants of Spanish horses brought to the New World in the 1500s, they remain symbols of freedom and power.
But because they breed prolifically and often live in areas scarce in food, the horses are rounded up each year by various government agencies and put up for adoption. Some never find new owners and spend their lives in crowded holding areas. Others are adopted but are later discovered to be malnourished or abused by the new owners.