Jeremiah was born in a holding cell and raised in prison. He never walked shoeless through rolling, windswept sage and greasewood; his hungry stomach never ached for saltbrush or winterfat through the long, snowy seasons, none the less, his neck still displays the tattoos that are given not long after birth. Characters freeze branded on the left side of his neck proudly label him a mustang. It denotes those born in the wild, descendants of the Conquistadors and Genocidal Armies of the Republic, of surefootedness, and whole lot of character; it’s a prerequisite into the ‘Stang Gang. And here at Three Peaks Ranch in Western Wyoming, it means you likely came from prison.
September 2019–“Shit” David turns his attention from his saddle bags to the sound of my cursing.
“What is it?”
“I put my bridal in the back of the Subaru.”
“Are you certain? How’d that happen?”
“Errrrrgggh, I think I thought it was Pistol Pete’s and we weren’t going to need it.”
“Can you call them?”
“Nope, even if I had the driver’s cell number and left a message she wouldn’t get it until she was way out into the sage. Too long to wait.”
“Can you ride him without one?” David asks gesturing toward the long, lanky face poking its head over the rusty steel rails of the trailhead corral.
Despite me being the instructor, not even the junior instructor at that, I maybe have ridden a bridle-less horse once, and not for very long. We are two days into a weeklong pack trip and the thought of riding the young, bay mustang without a bridle feels daunting. “He is a pretty good horse” I reply, holding my reservations close to my chest.
Dave and I had just evacuated another student due to a family emergency. We rode to a trailhead and rendezvoused with a driver who picked up the student and their gear and headed back to the ranch, a two hour drive on rough winding roads through lodgepoles, meadows, willows and mountains. Our plan was to ride back into the mountains, ten or so miles, and join the rest of our crew at a new campsite.
Without a lot of other options, I led the 10 year old gelding out of the small corral and tied his dirt and manure stiffened lead rope with a slip knot. “Guess I’ll have to try. How much time do you think you need before we can re-throw this load onto Pete?” I gesture at the horse behind me.
“Just let me finish this sandwich. Want some?” he stretches his hand out, passing me roast beef, onions, and mustard on an everything bagel. With a smile and thanks, I grab the offering and start re-saddling Jeremiah while his long lips make moves for my morsel.
Three Peaks Ranch is a fully functional horse ranch owned and operated by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Situated in sagebrush steppe flood plains, the eleven plus buildings are spread out over 120 acres bordered by both federal and private land and the East Fork River. Named for dramatic peaks (Geike, Raid, and Ambush) that thrust faulted above the Wind River’s East Fork Valley, Three Peaks has been in NOLS’ hands since 1972; it contains the most continually occupied building in Sublette County, Wyoming, and is on the register of National Historic Places. Purchased with a check written on the spot, Three Peaks has, for the past 48 years, provided re-supplies for month-long NOLS backcountry courses in the Wind Rivers and been a base of operations for wilderness horse packing courses that spend two plus weeks in the mountains, teaching novices how to pack, live, and camp with horses in the wilderness.
Horses are ubiquitous in the Rocky Mountain West, so much so, that I frequently find myself driving laser beam highways of Central Wyoming, past ranchettes, second homes, and cattle ranches and wondering for what the heck they actually use the horses. None-the-less good mountain horses can be hard to come by and Three Peaks has no need for a horse that isn’t good in the mountains. In the spring of 2005 the manager of Three Peaks decided to take a chance at a biannual mustang auction at the Wyoming Honor Farm, a horse training facility located at a state prison in Riverton. She came home with Three Peaks’ first mustang, Squirt.
The Wyoming Honor Farm (WHF) is a minimum custody facility and is part of the Wyoming Department of Corrections. Since 1988 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is tasked with maintaining appropriate mustang herd management levels on the range that they manage, have partnered with WHF to provide wild horses for inmates to train as part of their rehabilitation. In part because of this program, Wyoming Department of Corrections has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. These gentled mustangs are then put up for sale to the public twice a year at auctions; in just over 30 years, this relationship has resulted in the adoption of almost 4,000 horses. And that is how Jeremiah came to Three Peaks.
Foaled from a mare captured on the White Mountain Herd Management Area, less than 65 miles away, Jeremiah came into this world in 2008 at the Rock Springs BLM wild horse holding facility. Birthed as a lanky, gangly, knobby kneed, placenta covered bay, the only thing that has changed is that the placenta has been licked away. His tall frame and long head still put him head and shoulders above the herd.
Even as a newly gentled and acquired mustang, Jerry was a standout. Sometimes. Earning compliments from experienced and longtime riders was par for the course in the early days. Soon after his acquisition by Three Peaks in 2011, Jeremiah was prepped to participate in the Wyoming State Fair’s Mustang Days, along with fellow WHR mustang adoptee, Wyatt. Horse trainer, farrier, lifelong equine aficionado, and equine massage therapist Jim Culver was instrumental in taking Jerry from the young, just gentled Mustang to the bold, intelligent ride he is today: “I thought Wyatt would shine, but he ended up getting beat up in the stalls and couldn’t participate–too sore and had bites everywhere–Jeremiah shone instead, winning his class – which I think was something about ‘less than a year of riding and ownership’. We won a shiny buckle for it! He also did the obstacle course event and did super well.”
Occasionally a student ride, predominately an instructor ride, and frequently, due to his height, a challenging horse to pack, Jeremiah always delights. Longtime NOLS/Three Peak Ranch employee, Ari Hertz remembers him this way: “like a baby, I have seen that Jeremiah explores the world with his mouth; I have often come across him with that dopey, eyes half-closed expression on his face and something completely inappropriate hanging out of his mouth” seemingly saying “sorry, not sorry.” His friendly nature combined with a young, curious personality, an awkwardly long face (even for a horse), and a keen intellect make him a crowd favorite.
Dave and I finish putting loads onto Pete and tighten down our saddle bags and slickers. I untie Jeremiah’s slip knot, wrap the grimy lead line around his neck and tie the free end back to the halter with a bowline. Dave slides his bridal over Smoke’s lowered head and we prepare for the long ride back.
We start winding our way back through the lodgepole, aspens, and sage, tagging along Pistol and Poncho. Smoke and Jerry carry us northward, back toward the people and the herd. I am embarrassed to tell the lead instructor, Shari, about my bridal mishap, but the sensitivity and responsiveness to mild foot pressure and gentle neck raining that Jeremiah displays leaves me wondering why I ever shoved weirdly concocted pieces of metal in this horse’s mouth in the first place.
Present Day–Over some Woodford Reserve (on the rocks), Jim waxed poetic about Jerry’s early days. “I rode him on his first re-supply trip into the Winds; he lead the whole way (many horses are herd bound and it can be hard to get them to effectively be at the front of a line, going into the unknown). I remember him keeping his calm when the rest of the horses went rodeo wild over something. . . geesh, yeah I don’t know what. . . that’s long forgotten to the wind.” He takes a sip of the whiskey, wrist twisting the square glass, spinning the ice. “Yeah, while the others went crazy, he just kind of stood there. But he had his quirks too and he had this kinda regular practice of falling asleep as a pack animal and toppling over, but then he’d just get back up, shake it off and keep going. Crushed my co-workers guitar once though” Jim chuckles. “Yeah, that was a strange thing to get used to.” It was through these moments that Jeremiah built his reputation as a trust worthy mountain steed and as a typical young quirky mustang. Jim wrapped up his reflections on Jeremiah with a smile and a clinking of the ice in his glass before downing the last swill; “he’s a pretty special horse in a lot of ways.”
Clag hangs low on the foothills and the light breeze drives sprinkles into my tattered, hair covered jacket. Of the thirty-eight horses clustered densely into the loafing shed, fifty percent are mustangs. I set my hand thrown mug of masala chai on the fence post and use both hands to bend and crack the ice out of the hose. I remove a glove with my teeth and twist the hose onto the spigot. I pull up the handle; my bare hands disagree with the cold metal. Water rushes into the hose, its less than perfect connection resulting in the usual fine mist at the tap. A few heel stomps on the still frozen rubber and the water begins dribbling into the trough. I grab the cup and make my way through the gate. Jeremiah shuffles toward me as I wander northward through the herd,. Behind him, his best friend Bridger, a smaller bay with a white star, follows. Jeremiah shoves his nose and head forward, quivering lips seeking the sweetness of the chai; I sidestep enough to wrap my arms around his neck, burying my face in his slowly disappearing winter coat. A kiss, a hug, some warmth. I scratch his mane and between his ears. “How’s it goin’ Jerry?” I ask, knowing full well I won’t get an answer.
Featured Image: Jeremiah (r) and Bridger at Three Peaks Ranch.