I was born in that most unfortunate time for birthdays in this culture, smack dab in the dead zone between Christmas and New Year’s. Nobody wants to have parties then; they are partied out and waiting only to rally one last time on New Year’s Eve. Kids born around this time of year get a single “Christmas AND birthday” present, unlike those born in times of holiday famine like August (unless you count the old pagan celebration Lughnasadh/Lammas, which no one does except me and a select few of my choicest friends.)
But I was fortunate: I grew up in northern Nevada. Yep, you heard that right. It was great. For the winter holidays, my folks and I would get into the frosty car with a thermos full of hot chocolate, and drive around the desert to see the Xmas lights that people had erected on their houses. There were competitions between entire neighborhoods to see who could put up the most spectacular light show. And the desert air is so crisp and clear that each light shone gloriously, no matter how small.
But the main reason it was cool to be in Nevada for that is that after the periphery tour, we had the downtown casino lights to go see as well – which, in my child’s mind, left all of the homemade Santa tableaux in the dust. They were spectacular! My parents thought this a ridiculous idea since these lights are up year-round, but they endured indulging my desire once or twice.
Instead of complaining about the lack of official parties, I used to pretend to myself that the light show was all in honor of my birthday. Even if it’s silly, still I think there’s some psychic benefit to be had from turning a story toward maximum joy.
One year, when I was grown and feeling nostalgic for this ritual after my folks had moved away, I asked a friend to take me around to see the holiday lights on my birthday. He generously opened the door of his nice pickup truck, and off we went to Hidden Valley. This was the ritzy area of town where the wealthier folks really strutted their holiday stuff.
As an aside, I always wondered where people keep all the decorations during the off season – I mean really, you’d almost need a second home just to store it. There were enormous 12′ Santas complete with sleigh and the full contingent of plastic reindeer; rows and rows of huge light-up styrofoam candy canes lining their walkways; artificial trees large enough to sport beach balls as decorations; several windows full of animated dolls all lit up, running lights spelling out “Merry Christmas” and “Joyeux Noel” and “Feliz Navidad” and “Ho Ho Ho” and “He Is Risen!” but interestingly, we never saw “Happy Hanukkah” or Merrie Solstice” or “Have A Pleasant Enough Kwanzaa.” Nevada is a conservative state, after all, albeit with libertarian dreams.
But I digress.
So we’re driving around, looking at the lights, which really were spectacularly beautiful; colored gems glowing like hope in the clear crisp air. Sometimes I love American excess. And suddenly, I saw a horse in the front yard of the house we were looking at. There was no fence. “Whoa!” I said (no pun intended). “Someone’s horse got out. We should help. He could get hit.”
“That’s a wild horse,” my friend said. “They’re a nuisance out here.”
“Stop!” I urged.
He did. It was, after all, my birthday.
I got out of the truck and walked slowly toward the horses, taking a sort of edgewise path toward them so as not to startle them.
When I got closer, I could see that there were a number of them: they were a small herd. Their hooves crunched in the snow and their breath steamed in the cold air. The people in the house a few feet away remained oblivious to their night visitors, sealed in behind their closed curtains. I felt amused by the horses’ apparent enjoyment of the taste of winter lawns and hedges. This was one of the best uses I’d seen lawns put to yet.
I slowly approached the horses. The head stallion moved to check me out, keeping himself between me and his mares, ready to give the call to flee, never taking his eyes off me.
He lowered his head to catch my scent. I decided to make it easy for him. I stopped moving and deliberately breathed a slow breath out in his direction. He stopped. Then he gave a breath. He took a small step closer. I mirrored him, taking a few slow steps closer too. He backed up a step, then stopped, but stretched his neck in my direction.
For maybe five minutes, we slowly came toward each other in this dance. Bit by bit, he let me approach. Once I reached out my hand toward him, but he didn’t like that, so then I kept them at my side.
When I got within a few inches of him, I stretched out not my hand but my head. I looked him in the eye, and then I breathed into his nostrils like horses do with one another. He looked surprised. He reared up a bit, then settled back down, snorted, and breathed back into mine. It was then my turn to be surprised, as we continued to breathe into one another’s nostrils, sharing this breath.
He did not smell like a regular horse. He was also shaggier than a domesticated horse, and stockier in build than I’m used to seeing. Mustangs are descended from Iberian horses, so it’s said. He was indeed special; something different and wild. Perhaps it was his diet that gave his breath this distinct scent, or perhaps something of his mixed genetic code, or of his wild spirit – who knows? I just know that this silent sharing of breath was one of the most lovely birthday gifts I could ever receive, and I felt that it was a very positive omen for my new year of life to come.
We stayed together for what felt like a long time, or perhaps outside of time, just breathing. He then let me gently touch his soft nose and rough burred mane with my hand.
My friend, emboldened by my fortune with this horse and the continuing nearness of the herd as they witnessed their leader’s response to me, decided to approach as well. He, too, wanted to experience communion with a wild stallion or mare. But when he came within around ten feet of us, they suddenly scattered and ran.
This was many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. Growing up in Nevada, the wild mustangs had always run in my imagination. Now I knew one much more intimately, as well, and felt blessed by the encounter.
For years now, the wild horses have been captured by the government agency Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and sold off to the highest bidder who can use them as they will: love them as pets, break them for use as laborers, or, after one year of ownership, sell them as pet food. The BLM rounds them up with helicopters, deliberately causing terrorizing stampedes in which many individuals get harmed and families are destroyed. After capture, despite a real attempt to give good care, numerous horses die in the holding pens.
To me as a native Nevadan, it’s a bit heartbreaking to see the mustangs penned up out there in the desert where they used to roam free, their own sovereign nation. They are pictured on the Nevada quarter-dollar, a symbol of our own freedom. Some say they are an invasive species, which would be technically true since they were brought to this continent by the Spanish sometime around the year 1500. For this reason, they say, the horses have to be removed. Of course, most of the people who are saying these things are not exactly native to the area either. The real reason for the capture is economic: the feral horses compete with subsidized cattle for the sparse grazing available on our federal lands.
But many feel solidarity with the horses, and are working to keep them free. One such is the popular childrens’ author Terri Farley, who was also briefly my writing teacher years ago. It was she who brought my attention to the following article from the Lompoc Record, July 30, 2010:
Wild horses, elder stallion friends "Commander" and "General." (Photo by Laura Leigh)
Return to Freedom wins control of 8 wild stallions from BLM
“Eight wild stallions captured this year in a Bureau of Land Management roundup in Nevada’s Calico Mountains have been rescued by Return to Freedom’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary near Lompoc.
Return to Freedom placed the winning bids for the horses in an online BLM auction, said Neda DeMayo, founder and CEO.
“These elder stallions represent leadership and wisdom for the Calico herds,” said DeMayo. “These noble horses, once free on the range and now held captive, symbolize the tragedy of the federal wild horse program.”
Return to Freedom will try to reunite the stallions with their mares and restore, if possible, some of the family bands that were destroyed in the BLM helicopter stampede, she said.
“This rescue is a gesture of restitution for what has been taken from these horses and an affirmation of our commitment to fundamental change in the BLM wild horse program,” DeMayo said.
Between Dec. 28, 2009, and Feb. 4, BLM captured 1,922 horses from five herd management areas in the Calico Mountains Complex in northwestern Nevada. More than 140 horses died as a result of the roundup and an additional 40 heavily pregnant mares spontaneously aborted, according to DeMayo.
In April, Return to Freedom partnered with Soldier Meadows Ranch, which owns lands and grazing allotments adjacent to the Calico Complex, to offer a proposal to return many of the captured horses to the range. The proposal would provide a cost-effective model for on-the-range management of wild horses in order to avoid mass roundups and removals every few years, DeMayo said.
Although BLM did not respond promptly to the offer, the agency has recently indicated a willingness to meet, she said in press release issued Friday.”
To learn more about the wild horses and their current situation: http://www.wildhorsepreservation.org