The Thunder and Gold of Horses Running Free My encounter with the wild horses of Missouri and the people who love and protect how they live.

(Photo by Patti Gabriel)

“There are no sad-eyed horses here.”

—Dayton O. Hyde, founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

 

 

They gallop at breakneck speed for the joy of it, not because somebody blew a trumpet. Through the clouds of dust, you see that glorious mix of colors, spots, and blazes that comes when horses can mate as they choose. Watch long enough in spring, and two stallions will rear up, fighting in a way far too dangerous for humans to allow, settling the hierarchy. The rest of the year, you see casual nuzzles of affection, peaceful companionship, easy movement across the land.

We think of wild horses out West, galloping across the Dakota Badlands or rounded up by helicopter in Nevada, the mustangs driven screaming and rearing into a pen. But there are wild horses in south-central Missouri, too, peacefully roaming a twenty-mile stretch of the Ozark Scenic Riverways that looks like a miniature Colorado—waterfalls, rivers, streams, and forest, mountains in the distance.

People learn of these horses and, drawn in ways they barely understand, make the trek to find them. When they do, it often changes their life.

 

•  •  •

 

One by one, the farmers swung open their horses’ stalls and rode or led them toward the river. “Run,” they said, sometimes with a catch in their voice. “You’re free.”

These horses would forage, grazing on grass and sweet clover and nibbling twiggy branches. Every year, they would move further from their lopsided old partnership with humans. Yet they would remain curious about the two-leggeds, bearing no grudge, happy to coexist as long as they could do so on their own terms.

The Depression had descended, and nobody could afford to rent rich Shannon County farmland anymore, let alone buy oats and hay. So the bridles were slipped off, the saddles laid aside. No more plows to pull, each horse doing the work of fifty men. No more iron shoes banged onto their hooves. No more humans sliding around on their backs or leading them on a string. No more rhythmic brushing or vet visits, no more bales of hay or carrot treats or troughs of fresh clean water.

These horses would forage, grazing on grass and sweet clover and nibbling twiggy branches. Every year, they would move further from their lopsided old partnership with humans. Yet they would remain curious about the two-leggeds, bearing no grudge, happy to coexist as long as they could do so on their own terms.

Maybe that is what “wild” really means. Self-determined.

 

•  •  •

Photo by Patti Gabriel

 

In early April, Greg Holden, a photographer who has fallen in love with these horses, agrees to be my guide. He makes the drive to see them whenever he feels restless, or sad, or empty. “If it’s three in the morning and I’m feeling lonely, it’s only two and a half hours to drive down,” he says with a shrug.

The fifty horses have divided themselves into four small herds around Eminence, Missouri. Each is named for its favorite territory: Shawnee Creek, Broadfoot Field, Round Spring, Rocky Creek. Holden takes me first to the field where he just saw the Shawnee herd with its new foal. “He can’t be more than five days old,” he says. “There was afterbirth on the mare’s back legs on April 1.”

Barn swallows swoop over the empty field.

We try another field nearby, this one more private. “This is where that foal was born,” Holden says. “He can’t cross the river yet, so if they left the Shawnee field, it’s because somebody chased them.” His jaw sets hard. You cannot care about a wild creature, these days, without turning fiercely protective.

The Broadfoot herd is out of reach, he tells me, shaking off his worry. “They crossed the Current River before it rose, so unless we want to swim over….” Instead, we decide to look for the Round Spring herd. As we drive to one of their haunts, he tells me he followed them one day. They went north on 19 and then walked, single file, across the Current River on the one-lane highway bridge. “What are you guys doing?” he said under his breath, afraid a car would come. “Well, I get it, you’re keeping your feet dry.”

Slowly, quietly, we move into their favorite meadow, its air zigzagged with bluebirds, dragonflies, and zebra-striped swallowtail butterflies. A kingfisher lets out such a loud, tropical call that if we closed our eyes, we could be in a jungle.

But there are no horses.

“When we do find them,” Holden says, “always approach from upwind and let them smell you. Make no sudden movements or loud noises. Keep your distance.”

Even that is no guarantee. The first time he came upon the lead stallion of the Rocky Creek herd, he was far from the mares, shooting with a 600 mm lens. “The stallion decided, all right, enough of this, and he put his head down and his ears back, swished his tail, and charged.”

At about fifty feet, he stopped, turned broadside, and raised his head. Holden exhaled.

Then the stallion charged again, this time stopping about eight yards away.

Holden knelt, “so as not to present the human silhouette,” and addressed him, with genuine respect, as Sir. After a long stare, the stallion’s ears relaxed, and he turned and walked away. Holden could stay.

“You’d better teach me how to be unobtrusive,” I say worriedly, conscious of my pink slicker as I traipse behind his brown camo.

“Down here, they don’t say, ‘I’m going to teach you,’” he says over his shoulder. “They say, ‘You’ve got to learn your ways.’”

The next field is empty, too. The horses could be anywhere—out of sight in some secluded meadow, picking their way up a hill, or wading single-file across a creek. Siri cannot find them for us.

All the wild horses in the American West are called mustangs, from a Spanish word for “stray” or “stranger.” Yet they belonged in this country long before we did. The Dawn Horse, or eohippus, appeared in the North American forests about 56 million years ago.

At the last place we try, the sun sinking low in the sky, we sit awhile and hope. “The crows are mating—hear them almost talking?” Holden asks, forced to raise his voice over their ruckus. There are more trees here, and the wind roars through still-bare branches. We spot a peregrine falcon. Turkey vultures circle lazily, so many of them that Holden jokes, “I might as well just lie down now and get it over with.”

There was a time he might have considered it. Now he is as glad to be here as the horses are.

 

•  •  •

 

All the wild horses in the American West are called mustangs, from a Spanish word for “stray” or “stranger.” Yet they belonged in this country long before we did. The Dawn Horse, or eohippus, appeared in the North American forests about 56 million years ago. Tiny as a fox, it had three toes, each ending in a small hoof. The separate toes merged as it grew and evolved, its forest changing to savannah and its browsing to grazing. Then, between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, all the horses disappeared from North America.

Luckily, some had already crossed the bridge of land that once connected Alaska with Asia. The horses that cover the cave walls at Lascaux were definitely wild; domestication happened, at the earliest, around 3500 BCE in the Eurasian steppes. In 2000 BCE, the Sintashta honored important personages by burying them with their horses and chariots. Gradually, horses spread across all of Europe, bringing unprecedented mobility. “Horses,” remarks molecular archaeologist Ludovic Orlando, “are the animal that has changed history.”

And in the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought them home.

 

•  •  •

Emmie (Photo by Patti Gabriel)

 

When I pull up to Cross Country Trail Rides, owner Jim Smith is waiting in a big, dusty truck so high I have to leap to grab the handle and swing myself up beside him. He is the man who saved the wild horses, and he has promised to tell me how.

First, he wants to know if we found them yet. I list off all the places we looked, and he nods. “If somebody scared them, they might not come back for a while. ’Cause they’ve got the whole world.”

He repositions the toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth and begins to tell me about the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The first national park formed to protect a river system, it was created in 1964, when he still lived with his family over in the next holler. There were only about twenty wild horses then, and they were allowed to stay, and the herd to grow, for the next three decades.

In 1991, though, the National Park Service decided that because the horses were feral (descended from domesticated animals), they were not really wild, therefore should be rounded up and removed.

“They used helicopters and four-wheelers, made a funnel, and would run them up to a cage pen,” Smith recalls. “We found out what was going on by accident—somebody found fence wire strung for a quarter mile right where they cross the river all the time. They were caught in that pen before they knew what was happening.”

He was furious; those horses weren’t hurting anybody. There were a thousand acres for them to roam. Enlisting others just as indignant, he formed the Missouri Wild Horse League and organized a protest. The town sheriff (who was squarely on their side) led a procession of trucks and horse trailers that stretched bumper to bumper all twenty-four miles from Eminence to Fremont.

In 1991 the National Park Service decided that because the horses were feral (descended from domesticated animals), they were not really wild, therefore should be rounded up and removed.

An attorney from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, took an interest and filed appeals in state and federal court. But in 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the final appeal and gave the park service the right to remove the horses at any time.

League members hurriedly presented the National Park Service with a proposal: they would take full responsibility for the horses and clean up several fields for them, dig out the rambling roses and brambles and weeds. The superintendent rejected the proposal, Smith says, “and told us no other proposal would be accepted if it included a way for the horses to remain free.”

So they took the horses’ case to Congress.

In October 1994, Rep. Bill Emerson presented a bill making wild horses a permanent part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Clad in cowboy boots and western hats, Smith and Kennedy flew to D.C. to testify. It was the first time Smith had ever flown in an airplane, and when he looked out and saw the wing “just floppin’,” he boomed, “Hell, we’re gonna lose the wings off this before we ever get off the ground.” As they disembarked, last off the plane, not about to rush, the pilot asked, “What brings the cowboys to town, business or pleasure?” Smith’s face turned grim. “Strictly business.”

When it came time to testify, he ignored all those rules about green lights and red lights and staying within the circle. “They asked me to tell a hundred-year history in a few minutes!” he says. “I started walking around, talking. I didn’t pay that timer no mind. I could tell they were interested. And when the red light came on, the chair of the committee just reached over and set that timer again. After the third time, he just reached over and shut it off.”

The bill passed in both houses and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, with the caveat that the herd never grow beyond fifty horses.

“How on earth do you keep it at fifty?” I ask.

“It is a little tricky,” Smith concedes. “Sometimes I’ll catch a whole bunch. I’ve caught seven or eight at once.” I ask how he manages that, and he chuckles. “Very carefully. They bite, strike, and kick all at the same time, and they don’t miss! One horse, I had six-foot panels, and he just went up and over them.”

Two horses are penned at Cross Country as we speak, waiting for homes. One is named Eminence, Emmie for short. Local names are often used, honoring place in the old way, and the white blaze on Emmie’s forehead is, everybody swears, the shape of Missouri.

Those who do stay in the pen (lured in with salt licks and treats) are wormed and blood-tested, and the stallions are gelded, and then the horses are put up for adoption. But Smith thinks hard about which horses to take, which to leave as breeding stock to keep the wild herds healthy and well-formed.

Two horses are penned at Cross Country as we speak, waiting for homes. One is named Eminence, Emmie for short. Local names are often used, honoring place in the old way, and the white blaze on Emmie’s forehead is, everybody swears, the shape of Missouri. She was part of the Shawnee Creek herd, but for some reason she left them, or got left, and then she tried to join the Broadfoot herd, who swam across the river without her. She seems to like the idea of a human family instead; she approaches people eagerly, far more outgoing than most of her kin.

 

•  •  •

Photo by Patti Gabriel

 

The next morning, I am up at daybreak, out in a chilly gray drizzle. Holden wants to try “a secret little spot not many people go to, right along Sinking Creek. The horses sometimes cross there.” We park and walk down a slight hill. By now used to not finding horses, I can enjoy the lush wet greenness of the unmowed grass, the distant bubbling of the spring-fed creek. As we descend, we see a wooded area ahead, soft with mist.

And there they are.

Silence usually means absence, a cutoff of sound; here, it feels more like presence. The air itself vibrates, and the quiet wraps around all of us. Kneeling on soggy grass and twigs, we watch for more than an hour. The civilized world drops away.

Seven horses, five of them white. From this distance, it looks as though the mist gathered itself into their shapes. “That’s the lead mare,” Holden whispers, nodding toward a graying roan horse. Backlit in the diffused sunlight, her never-brushed coat has a fuzzy, glowing outline.

Keeping back, we watch them graze. Silence usually means absence, a cutoff of sound; here, it feels more like presence. The air itself vibrates, and the quiet wraps around all of us. Kneeling on soggy grass and twigs, Holden and I watch for more than an hour. The civilized world drops away.

“I think I could turn and live with the animals,” Walt Whitman wrote. “They are so placid and self-contained.” Enter their world—strip away the thinking, worrying, and comparing—and serenity becomes possible.

I am beginning to see why Holden comes looking for them.

 

•  •  •

 

Photo by Patti Gabriel

 

Suspense, now: will they cross the creek? Is that dark stallion who keeps apart from the rest aloof or outcast or just preoccupied? How will the lead mare signal when it is time to move?

Ten minutes later, she tosses her head—our answer—and they come together (the dark bay staying back several yards) and pick their way up the hill we descended. We give them some time and space, then walk up well behind them. Holden moves to one side; I kneel again, eyes as downcast as a penitent nun’s.

The next time I peek, the lead mare is heading toward me.

It was curiosity. She was the lead mare, and I was in her field. She wanted to get a whiff of me, take my measure.

She keeps coming, closer and closer. Talking as softly as I can, I tell her she is beautiful and say, over and over, “I would never, ever hurt you.” She steps right up to me and sniffs the pink slicker, her breath warm on my cheek. Holding absolutely still, I whisper a thank you.

When she turns and walks away, I give Holden a goofy grin I cannot erase. It feels like I had a crush on somebody for years and they just asked me out. Like a validation, or an unearned blessing. Like forgiveness for all my species has done to hers.

It was none of that, in fact. It was curiosity. She was the lead mare, and I was in her field. She wanted to get a whiff of me, take my measure. And when I promised I would never hurt her, she believed me. How often do human relationships work that well?

Holden is grinning too; he gets it. “That horse has never had a halter touch its skin,” he murmurs. “She’s never been handled by a human being.” Never groomed, never ridden, never bent to human will.

Happier than I have been in quite a while, I get up and brush off my muddy pants. The sun has broken through the mist, and the horses are blinking slowly, basking in the sudden warmth. Near the top of the hill, the mare lies down, and a stallion, the one who keeps close guard over her, lies down next to her. A minute later, his head goes down for a nap.

“They’ve accepted us,” Holden whispers. “The stallion would never let himself do that if they hadn’t.” Still, we have to pass them to reach the car—will he startle awake and change his mind? We go one at a time, balance-beam slow. The horses watch us leave.

 

•  •  •

 

I am reluctant to write even about this slight encounter, because so many of us crave connection with a wild creature—and our want will be the death of them. We need to restrain our impulses, I remind myself. No direct approaches, no treats to tame and lure them. We keep a good distance and leave the rest up to the horse.

But how I longed to stroke that rough, fuzzy coat. “Might it help the horses to interact more with us?” I ask Holden. “The more people feel a bond with them, the better they’d be protected from any attempt at eviction, right?”

He explains as one would to a small, disappointed child: “As the horses got tame, they would be more likely to approach people, and then they would be bothering tourists, and the park officials would have to get rid of them.”

Last year, for example, a young horse, full of beans, figured out how to press the automatic door opener up at Echo Bluffs Lodge. He walked right into the lobby. Jim Smith had to quickly strategize a way to move the herd before the yearling taught everybody else his trick and they found their way to the gift shop.

 

•  •  •

 

The first time Holden saw the horses was in 2014. He had come to Eminence with a group of photographers, but they saw no horses the first day and woke to rain the next, so everybody else left. Exploring, he cut through brambles, stepped into a field—and found himself standing in the middle of the Shawnee Creek herd. “The mare had such a long mane, and it was so tangled, I wanted to untangle it and get the burrs out,” he recalls. “Which might have won me the Darwin Award.” He backed into the brambles, figuring that was a safe post. But she came up behind him, oblivious to the thorns, and sniffed for a long time—then licked his ear. Moving with excruciating slowness, he reached for his phone and switched it to selfie, so he could see what she was doing without turning his head.

As soon as she decided he was okay, the other horses did, too. He walked behind them the rest of the day, and he has been going back ever since.

“There’s something about being accepted by a whole herd of wild animals,” he remarks. “My parents had died within two weeks of each other, my girlfriend had left, and the diabetes I’ve had since age ten was kicking my butt. I’d been isolating myself a lot. But after something like that, you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

As soon as she decided he was okay, the other horses did, too. He walked behind them the rest of the day, and he has been going back ever since.

I nod, thinking of Wendell Berry’s poem: “I come into the peace of wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought/of grief….” Nearly always, we are safe and whole in the present moment, but we belong to a species that insists on traveling through time. We need the wilderness to bring us home.

 

•  •  •

 

In 1900, the wild horse population out West was about two million. By 1926, it was half that. Determined to save the grass and water for their cows, ranchers hired “mustangers” to round up the wild horses and cram them into trucks. They often ended up as chicken feed or pet food or hides or rodeo broncos.

In 1950, Velma Johnston, later nicknamed Wild Horse Annie, was driving to her job as an executive secretary when she saw blood dripping from one of those trucks. The panicked horses were packed so tightly that a yearling was being trampled. Johnson followed the truck to a slaughterhouse and came home changed. She started a campaign that led to the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

By the time that federal law passed, there were only about 17,000 wild horses left. Today, that number is up to 86,000.

 

•  •  •

 

Photo by Patti Gabriel

 

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote. The larger world, he meant, not one of the human-made, climate-controlled sub-worlds in which we live and work. Why does Shannon County feel more real to me than any city? Redbuds and white and pink dogwood trees soften the bluffs, and the pale roads wind like ribbon candy. In the distance, the hills are a smoky blue, the bare trees bands of gray and tan. Up close, you see the light green leaf buds misting the branches, dry as old brooms a week ago, and the bright green of new grass, and the dark green the pine groves paint across the middle of the hills.

Things seem still and eternal here, yet they change in the blink of an eye. The river rises and covers a field; a whole tree washes in, its root ball a giant tangle; Rocky Falls swells from a greasy trickle to a rushing, foaming cataract. The horses gallop into sight or disappear just as fast.

A huge limb has fallen across the road we took ten minutes ago. Grunting, we shift it and drive on, past a rusty trailer half obscured by the surrounding junk. “Hardscrabble livin’,” Holden murmurs—yet what luxury, to live in a wild beauty nobody gets to see from a penthouse.

The horses live obedient, structured lives, rising early, accepting direction or chastening from their leader, and following seasonal rituals. What their wildness means is that those who are not their kind cannot exploit them.

Too many of the world’s remote and pristine places have been developed into rustic Disneylands so we can venture there without taking any real risks. Wildness secretly appalls us. Dictionaries define “wild” as uncultivated, undomesticated, undisciplined, unrestrained, inhospitable. “Running wild” means running amok. Yet when these horses gallop, what you feel is not chaos but life force. D.H. Lawrence called it “blood-consciousness.” Henri Bergson called “the élan vital.” The energy, deep inside us, that propels us to live as we were meant to.

Wildness need not mean anarchy; far from it. The horses live obedient, structured lives, rising early, accepting direction or chastening from their leader, and following seasonal rituals. What their wildness means is that those who are not their kind cannot exploit them. Should they sense danger, they can gallop over the next rise and vanish into the mist. Unowned, they cannot be told or whipped or made to work.

We are used to thinking of ownership as enslavement, but there are subtler variations, often built on love or custom instead of greed. There are days I feel like everyone in my life owns a piece of me and is entitled to a corresponding chunk of my attention, my labor, or my affection. You could diagram me the way butchers diagram a cow, partitioning my brain, my heart, and my hands for all those customers. No doubt this feeling is what inspired the horrid phrase “me time,” and why women fight so hard to own their bodies’ private spaces, to avoid being invaded or commandeered. The “company man” of midcentury was owned, too, as are all sycophants and minions. But a wild horse belongs only to its herd and its family. It is self-possessed, self-determined, self-sufficient.

By this definition, we should be the wildest creatures of all. Yet we are willing to cage and bind and stable ourselves, trading that terrifying freedom for security. And we impose the same fate on every creature under our control.

•  •  •

 

Our luck is changing. In the afternoon, we find the Shawnee herd, and the foal is with them. Though the adults are mostly white, his coat is chestnut, and the sunlight turns it reddish-gold. His little tail swishes as he grazes. Every half minute, he raises his head, maybe making sure his mom is still there. Or maybe just curious about the whole world.

As we walk into the field, I am careful to keep my eyes down, focusing on clover, dandelions, and mounds of fresh horse poop. The next time I sneak a glance, the foal is trying for a sphinx position. He loses balance and tilts to one side, then rights himself and curls up beneath his mother. A minute later, he is gamboling. Then he wants to nurse again. Afterward, he drops down jerkily—front legs first, then back legs folding and down with a clunk—and rolls onto his side for another little nap. The sequence repeats all afternoon.

The oldest mare, pink skin showing through her balding coat, seems alternately tickled and annoyed by the youngster. The mother just looks tired. But her ears prick up when the others raise their heads to focus on the edge of the field. Without any signal we can decipher, the horses, who were scattered around the field grazing, come together in tight formation. A minute later, a few trail riders appear on the path. The wild horses gallop in the other direction, heads high and proud. In seconds they are all the way across the field, the foal somehow managing to keep up. Yet when the riders round the corner and trot in their direction, this time the wild horses hold their ground. The two sets of horses stand there, stock still, staring at each other. I wonder who envies whom.

 

•  •  •

 

When I first read her best-known poem—“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life”—Mary Oliver’s demand startled me. My life had never felt wild at all. No drunken escapades, no safaris or skydiving. Only now am I drawn to wildness.

Docility is overrated; it saps the personality. Instinct animates, burning away hesitation. You see it in the stallions’ all out fights, their eyes bulging as they bite each other’s necks, desperate to win the fight and the mare and the deference. You see it again in the mare’s fierce kick when she needs to defend her foal. Again in the thundering gallops to safety, sweaty flanks pressed close, the rhythm of pumping muscles keeping each horse upright, letting them fly.

From a distance, wildness is exhilarating. Yet the minute I come close to these creatures, I want to tame them. When a spring snowfall surprises us, I find myself wishing, absurdly, that they had blankets. And then I remind myself what that would cost.

Docility is overrated; it saps the personality. Instinct animates, burning away hesitation. You see it in the stallions’ all out fights, their eyes bulging as they bite each other’s necks, desperate to win the fight and the mare and the deference.

We humans buy ourselves freedom, and we also pay in coin for our comforts. To other animals, who have no coin, we lend comfort at the price of freedom. But these horses have a different contract. They receive only the slightest help (vaccinations, mowed and planted fields, extra hay in snow or drought). They live sustainably, and as long as they keep out of the lodge’s lobby, they are free to roam at will. They leave a light footprint on the Earth.

Our job is to keep them free.

 

•  •  •

 

Sitting on a log, shivering, we watch the foal as long as we can. “I would love to spoil him with treats,” I whisper. Holden just smiles, but I can tell he would, too. He has been spending time with Emmie, sweet-talking her, building trust in a way he dare not with those who must stay wild. When her long mane kept falling across her right eye, very Veronica Lake, he reached through the fence and gently scratched above her nose, then, an inch at a time, worked his way higher. Finally, she let him brush that wiry mane away from her eye.

My mind drifts back to my own encounter with the mare, what a compliment it seemed. Would a wild horse come that close to, say, a sociopath? Hitler had a dog; I am not special. But the moment was, and the horses are. Protect their freedom, and we free ourselves—from guilt, from pain, from separation.

Tender, wry, battle-scarred—Greg Holden is a complicated man. One minute, his loneliness soaks into me like a cold chill; the next minute, he is cracking jokes and talking knowledgably about art, psychology, barn owls, or drones. He has found a home, of sorts, with these wild horses, and they are healing him.

My mind drifts back to my own encounter with the mare, what a compliment it seemed. Would a wild horse come that close to, say, a sociopath? Hitler had a dog; I am not special. But the moment was, and the horses are. Protect their freedom, and we free ourselves—from guilt, from pain, from separation.

 

•  •  •

 

There are no truly wild horses left anywhere on earth. Only the zebras and the asses of the wilderness exist entirely apart from humanity. This saddens me.

Still, mustangs run free on federal land out West. About 100 wild horses roam in Iceland, where the canyon of Ásbyrgi is said to be the imprint of Odin’s flying horse as he set one foot on land. Wild Chincoteague ponies live on Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland. About 3,000 wild Garrano ponies live in Portugal’s Peneda-Gerês mountains—and have for 20,000 years. The horses of the Camargue have lived wild at the Mediterranean’s edge since prehistoric times, their pale gray a foil for the pink flamingos of the salt marshes. It is said, though I cannot confirm it, that Napoleon sought out these tough, stoic horses for his campaigns.

Animals are tougher when they grow up by their own devices. These are not high-strung racehorses or polo ponies. Their vigilance has a different quality, an instinctive alertness that prompts action and thus avoids neurosis.

 

•  •  •

Photo by Patti Gabriel

 

Larry Norris and his wife happened upon the wild horses of Shannon County six years ago, just after they retired. Since then, they have made the 44-mile trek several times a week, packing a picnic lunch and driving the “old roads, if you want to call ’em roads,” he says. “Some of ’em are cowpaths. And you don’t always find the horses.”

But when you do? “It’s indescribable. We can sit and watch ’em all afternoon, and all they do is roam around and graze.” It is hard to explain the hypnotic calm of watching wild animals go about their lives. “Then in the spring when those stallions get chasin’ each other, there’s electric in the air. And what we really love is to see them crossing the Current River. You think man, this is a good day we’re having.

“Tamed horses in fenced-in fields just kind of stand around,” he continues. “These, you’d be surprised how much affection they show one another. They’ll rub noses or put their heads together. The old stallion will take his head and rub the neck of the mare, or he’ll rub on one of the colts and play with him.”

Horses are loyal: I read about cavalry soldiers who could not leave their ranks to deliver a message because their horse refused to leave the other horses. Intrigued, I hunt for other examples of horses’ loyalty to one another, but instead find page after page discussing their loyalty to us. Nothing about their bonds with one another. Which makes sense, because how often do we keep their families intact or allow them to live as a herd?

Horses neigh or whinny to call out to one another. Whicker—a special horse word, a soft and breathy whinny—to soothe their foals. Blow through their noses when curious or in greeting. Issue a challenge (this is the stallions) by striking the ground with their hooves. Show arousal (again, the stallions) by lifting their head, curling back their top lip, and inhaling deeply. They herd a mare by “snaking,” stretching their necks forward and lowering their heads. But the lead mare need only toss her head and the entire herd follows.

Other visitors talk out loud to the horses, the way one does at a loved one’s grave. The specifics will be lost, but somehow they feel sure the larger meaning will land. “I have so many things to talk about with them,” laughs photographer Holly Ross, “and so little time!”

The Norrises watch all this like anthropologists, decoding subtle signals when the stallions fight or the mare nudges her foal to get up and nurse. Other signals are less subtle: “When the mare doesn’t want the stallion, she’ll just kick him off, like a bowling ball when it hits the floor,” Norris says, chuckling. “I mean, it’s a thump! When they are not in the mood, they are not in the mood.”

Other visitors talk out loud to the horses, the way one does at a loved one’s grave. The specifics will be lost, but somehow they feel sure the larger meaning will land. “I have so many things to talk about with them,” laughs photographer Holly Ross, “and so little time!”

Her first encounter with these horses was “akin to a religious experience,” she says, tentative with the phrase but not willing to water it down. “We were there for a wildlife photography workshop. It was very foggy, but we knew the horses were out there because coming down the hill, we could see white dots in the field.” They set up their tripods and long lenses in a row at the edge of the field, then settled down to wait. “All of a sudden, we heard them running toward us. One by one, they emerged from the fog in a line, side by side, parallel to us, facing us.” The precision of that line, its perfect choreography, took her breath away.

I ask what, if she had to pick a single word, the horses represent.

She pauses; the question is too big.

“They mean something different to everybody,” she says slowly. “Freedom. Nature. Instinct. Wildness. The heritage of Shannon County, because they are working, living off the land, and struggling sometimes to survive, which people in Shannon County can identify with. For me, they are different things on different days. Maybe just ‘healing,’ because when I need to get away from all the noise, I can come and watch them, and it calms me.”

 

•  •  •

 

We have used horses to do our work, fight our battles, race for us, carry us. It is the few that still run wild, though, that send a thrill down our spines. We have no claim on them, yet a long and regrettable history has placed us in a position where we must “manage” them. Now, like newlyweds, we have to learn how to be part of their lives without changing who they are.

“What would the world be,” the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wondered, “once bereft / of wet and of wildness?” I ask Larry Norris what would be missing if they stopped visiting the horses. “The interaction,” he says immediately. “The joy you feel when you find them.” As he lets himself imagine the loss, emotion fills his voice. “To know what we know about them and have seen what we have seen and not get to experience that again? It would be devastating. It would be like your kids movin’ off to Hawaii. You would miss them so much.

“When I go down to Eminence, I drive too fast,” he adds, “because I’m always in a hurry to get there. Going home, I drive a lot slower.”

Though Holden has won awards and exhibited at galleries, he puts his photos of the horses online where anyone can grab them for free. “People say I post too many photographs on Facebook, and maybe I do,” he says. “But when I see a comment about being housebound because of illness or age and being grateful for seeing wild horses—or freezing morning mists or blue herons—well, that tells me I need to post a few more.”

His memories can be painful—childhood trauma, two divorces, old regrets. “But I can forget all that when I’m surrounded by those horses,” he says. “Nothing else matters.

“When I go down to Eminence, I drive too fast,” he adds, “because I’m always in a hurry to get there. Going home, I drive a lot slower.”

I nod, understanding but not expecting to feel the same longing. Back home, I unpack, take a luxurious shower, have a good dinner—and realize all I want is to be back in Shannon County, trudging through cold rain, searching for what is wild and precious.

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