can get up close to wild horses at the Black Hills
Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
SPRINGS, S.D. — The wild horses eyed us hard across the
broad South Dakota plains.
were two of us: With me was Monte Matheson, a thickly
bearded retired cop in his mid-40s who had turned to the
cowboy life for his second act. There were about 20 of
them, alternately grazing on the short, rough South Dakota
buffalo grass and tracking the two-footed strangers.
one stranger. As a Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary guide,
Matheson spent his days leading city slickers, suburban
dwellers, small-town folk and everyone in between to a
front-row seat of the horses and the wilds of the West.
stepped toward the horses. They stepped away. Matheson
guessed they would be more welcoming to him alone, so I
hung back as he moved slowly forward, hand slightly
extended, until he was able to get close enough to crouch
and sweet-talk them into a howdy.
on, girls," Matheson cooed. "Come on."
extended his hand farther. Finally one approached, head
bobbing and nostrils flaring.
girl," he said.
wandered slowly to the herd, palm open for assessment,
until I found a black mare that would let me scratch
behind her ear.
the ears are forward, everything’s OK," Matheson
advised. "When the ears go back, there’s fixin’
to be a rodeo."
in South Dakota’s southwest corner, the Black Hills Wild
Horse Sanctuary is far from a rodeo. The 650 horses that
call the sanctuary home aren’t part of a show; they are
the show. Dayton O. Hyde founded the ranch in 1988 as a
refuge for wild horses jammed onto Bureau of Land
Management property. None of the horses on Hyde’s
13,000-acre sanctuary can be saddled or ridden, so
visitors must keep their ranch fantasies in check. This
place is about watching the horses in a natural
environment, and many of them won’t let guests get
within a few feet.
documentary about Hyde and the sanctuary, "Running
Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde," is screening at
film festivals this year. Monte Matheson no longer works
at the sanctuary but makes a cameo in the film.)
a three-hour private tour of the land in Matheson’s
dirt-streaked SUV, we saw no shortage of the star
attractions. Chew in his lip — as it is most of his
waking hours, meals included — Matheson told the horses’
stories with a Western zeal. In fact, he said most
everything with a Western zeal; females (the human kind)
are "fillies" in his world. He looked the part
too, with the requisite Wrangler jeans, heavily scuffed
brown boots, a white cowboy hat and a blue button-front
shirt crossed by vertical and horizontal stripes.
got 200 more shirts just like this," he said.
"And I never wear shorts. Even at the beach. I wear
blue jeans and boots."
sanctuary is a rugged, looping and lovely land, a former
cattle ranch that would stir the imagination even without
wild horses. It is home to rock-carved American Indian
glyphs and the graffiti of 19th century stagecoach riders.
Matheson said Marlboro commercials have been filmed there,
along with several feature films including "Into the
Wild" and "Hidalgo."
sanctuary offers group and private tours, stays on the
land and, for $400 a year, the opportunity to
"sponsor" a horse, which mostly amounts to
naming it. The real prizes, though, are the wild horses
themselves and the opportunity to scratch the rough area
behind their ears while looking into those deep,
cool is that some of the horses in the far-off spots see
people maybe once a week," Matheson said. "Some
might only see people every six months."
than protecting horses, the sanctuary is about letting
nature run its course. That means wild horses running
free, and it means a few going down to hungry mountain
lions. Matheson said he’d shoot a rattlesnake in a
minute but wouldn’t touch a mountain lion.
we kill a mountain lion for killing horses, that defeats
the purpose of the sanctuary," Matheson said.
"One hundred years ago no one was keeping the
mountain lions off the horses. Dayton’s deal is that he
wants the horses to live free, not to be harassed and to
live like they did before people came around."
one point, as we stood above a canyon where horses milled
below, a gunshot echoed out.
getting shot?" I asked.
be anything in the West," Matheson said. "Could
be someone shooting a rattlesnake. I don’t think it’s
turkey season yet. We’ve had some poachers lately."
shoot snakes?" I asked.
there was a snake here I’d shoot it right now," he
said. "Rattlesnakes aren’t good for anything except
we came upon a group of about a dozen people who were
rumbling across the land in a blue, rickety former school
bus. Their tour had just started, and its youngest member,
a bright blond 6-year-old, leaned in and said something
quietly to her guide.
little girl wants a white horse!" the guide bellowed
to the group.
I think she’d much prefer a pink one," her
might be able to do that," Matheson said. "With
a can of spray paint."
THERE: The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (12163
Highland Road, Hot Springs, S.D.; 800-252-6652;
wildmustangs.com) is about a 75-mile drive from Rapid City
TOURS: Between May 5 and Oct. 31, it is open for tours
8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Two-hour group tours cost $50
for adults, $45 for ages 55 and older, $15 for ages 13-18,
$7.50 for 5-12 and free for younger children. A private
three-hour tour costs $150 per adult and $75 per child.
The private six-hour tour costs $1,000 for as many as
three people, including lunch. Also available is a private
six-hour tour with a two-night cabin stay on the property
for $1,500. Reservations are required for all tours. Costs
of the private six-hour tours (and cabin stay) are
considered donations and are therefore tax-deductible.
SIGHTS: The sanctuary is a short drive to Badlands
National Park (35 miles to the gravel-road south entrance
and 125 miles to the paved north entrance), Mount Rushmore
(60 miles) and Deadwood (100 miles), among other notable
South Dakota stops.