Emily Herbert takes to the saddle to see mustangs run wild and free in peace and safety on the epic plains of Nevada, thanks to one gutsy woman’s vision
Published Country & Townhouse, London
Evening is creeping onto the plains of Nevada as we ride out, the distant mountain ranges blushing rose in the dusky light. We follow the straight back of Clay Nannini, more comfortable on a horse then his own two feet, his black cowboy hat a familiar outline. Our ponies shiver with excitement, eyes trained on the dust cloud billowing in front of us, nostrils flaring. All of a sudden, Clay lets out a whoop and spurs his horse on, our ponies leaping to follow. Through the dust I can make out flashes of grey and dun, the herd ahead of us streaming and ducking like a multi-coloured shoal of fish. It’s not everyday you gallop after 400 wild mustangs on the move, and it is a moment of pure, unadulterated magic.
I’m riding on the plains of Mustang Monument Eco-Resort and Preserve, covering 900 square miles in northeast Nevada. 600 mustangs have been awarded freedom and a lifeline here, saved from the slaughterhouse and spending their days existing under an all-American duck-egg blue sky. And they have Madeleine Pickens, philanthropist, entrepreneur and activist, to thank.
Petite, with a swathe of immaculate platinum hair, 67 year old Pickens epitomises ranch glamour in her fringed suede capes and cowboy boots. Her accent, a hybrid between a soft Texan burr and a discernible British clip, belies her origins.
Born in Cairo of a British father and Lebanese mother, Pickens grew up a lover of the American West ideal, devouring westerns throughout her childhood in France and England. Working first as a stewardess for Pan Am she then launched her own company, supplying air hosts for private planes. While married to Allen Paulson, the founder and owner of Gulfstream Aerospace, she bred champion racehorses. Later, her attention shifted to the preservation of wild horses with her then third husband, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens. Together they led the fight to close the last slaughterhouse in the US, and in 2008 purchased the Nevada land with the goal of providing a safe life for as many mustangs as possible.
The road to the monument has not been easy. Local ranchers, whose livelihood depends on grass for their cattle, hold a deeply rooted dislike for the roaming mustang. The population of mustang has dropped from two million a hundred years ago to a current 40,000, a number the cattle ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would like to see decrease further. In 2008, the BLM announced Government plans to cull 30,000 of the wild mustangs, a report that spurred Madeleine into action.
“I have the resources here to keep the Mustang sustainably, at a fraction of the cost they are currently draining from the tax payer,” Madeleine says fiercely.
“Here I grow all my own hay and grassa. I have 19 springs and 28 wells plus a natural spring that provides 3,300 gallons a minute, so water isn’t an issue. Now we just need the people to visit.”
Purchasing the mustangs and the land to accommodate them was only the start of her vision; Madeleine’s dream of a resort, bound in luxury, heritage and history, would give the mustang a sustainable future and afford awareness and tourism to the echoing plains of Nevada.
“Tourism is the ultimate goal for us to continue our fight,” Madeleine explains over cocktails in the speakeasy style saloon.
“People want a pretty picture and we’ve got plenty of that to show them.”
And what a place to visit. Bright, hand painted tepees and discreet wooden safari cottages are licks of colour in the sweeping vista. They are sumptuously decorated and surprisingly spacious; a king size bed holds court, wooed by patterned rugs, antique furniture and giant candles that exudes ranch luxury. It seems deeply romantic, where luxe meets idealism, history nods at culture and philanthropy greets creature comforts with coffee and a wink in the morning.
Saddling up for our first ride under the blue wash of sky, I am handed the reins of Montana, doe eyed and chunky of rump, his sturdy station hand disposition heralding him the most perfect steed. And why is he called Montana?
“Well, that sure is where he hails from,” the tobacco chewing ranch hand says. But of course, silly me.
Sitting atop in the western saddle, deep and spacious as a well-loved armchair, I marvel at Montana’s skill as he picks his way through the rocky terrain of Spruce Mountain. As we climb higher in the country they call high desert, I am again struck by the sparseness of the landscape and the harsh reality that would have met the pioneers who first eked an existence out here.
Head cowboy Clay pulls back from the front to check our group and I’m interested to hear how he compromises between the ranchers and Madeleine’s vision. A realtor with several real estate offices who aided Madeleine with her land purchase, the cowboy strikes a fine balance between his own blood and his job.
“I like Madeleine,” Clay drawls.
“The way to describe her is ready, fire, aim. She jumps in feet first and is real tough. I like that she’s got grit. Coming from around here, there’s a lot of animosity towards the mustang, as they don’t have a real use. I’ve grown up with the ideals of the ranchers but I understand the advocates.”
He looks just as cowboys should, with a lopsided grin and a dry humor, articulate under his Stetson hat.
“There is evidence of prehistoric horse remains not far from here in Wells,” he continues.
“So we’ve had horses here for as long as man has been here. I’d hate to see that history and importance go by the wayside.”
Upon reaching the summit our horses are hobbled and we settle down to the superb picnic Madeleine and her square jawed operations director and former US Navy Seal Monty Heath have ferried up in camouflage painted 4X4s.
Madeleine, glamorous in an embroidered poncho and sweeping hat, is surprisingly candid.
“Out here, it’s like when you’re sitting on an airplane next to somebody,” she says.
“You end up telling complete strangers all your secrets, everything about your life. I feel empowered here, doing what I am doing. I want to see this project through. I think if you don’t give something back, well, shame on you really. You can’t always keep on taking. And I have all this,” to which she sweeps a slim hand, silver cuff glinting, a casual wave at the enormity that spreads below.
“I want to share it.”
After scattering for baths we reconvene in the saloon for cocktails, roping lessons, and an all American feast. After dinner entertainment comes in the form of two Native American lads in full beaded regalia, demonstrating their song and dance before a crackling fire. The eerie notes of the Native American flute, hanging on the cold still air, induces a momentary timeless feeling.
In early morning light, we join Clay for the daily mustang feed run on the back of a creaking timber trailer pulled by two draught horses. Taking the reins while Clay loads the trailer, I am allowed to drive the horses that trot at a click of a tongue towards the herd of mustangs. We make a wide circle slowly, pushing hay overboard and watching the herd’s hierarchies as they squeal and whinny, shaggy coated in front of the mountains.
The space that Madeleine has wrought out here, wrangled from the steel blue sky drum and the breath of the mountains, holds a piece of magic that we all crave. The mustangs, free to roam and run, are safe to live this seamlessly and we, tiny in what they call God’s country, are permitted to drink it in and take a little piece of it home.