These programs introduced me to Hollywood's version of the Wild West, and horses had the starring role. Each episode, whether it was The Roy Rogers Show, My Friend Flicka, or Fury, was an episode in morality. Life at my house was confusing, often psychically and physically dangerous, but these programs offered me a temporary if only partial emotional escape. I could begin to believe that the evil I had to endure might not be my fault. If your parent was an outlaw, or even murderer, it didn't mean that you were, too. I remember how Roy had to convince a gun-wielding boy to turn his bank robber father in. He counseled the boy that he had a choice and that he needn't follow his father's example. In an earlier blog I mentioned that I carried a yellow plastic ruler in the back pocket of my jeans. Roy Rogers taught me the Golden Rule--that little six-inch measuring stick was my personal golden rule and traveled with me wherever I went, a constant reminder that I had to treat others as I wished to be treated.
Off screen, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lived their on-screen values. They adopted six children and worked tirelessly on behalf of children at risk through their Happy Trails Foundation.
So, what does all this have to do with mustangs? Quite a bit. Through the late eighteenth century mustangs lived on the peripheries of the vast tracks of land so much of which would end up being checker-boarded by thousands of miles of barbed wire. And, similarly, the mustangs were often on the periphery of these weekend westerns. In one, a mustang herd might be in need of protection from "the killers," men who seek to trap and sell the horses to slaughter. This is how I learned the term "box canyon." The killers would herd mustangs into a box canyon with three sides of sheer rock and then quickly set up a fence across the one open side. In certain episodes a mustang stallion might come onto a ranch and steal some of its mares. These things happened in real life. In fact, they continue to this day though on a much smaller scale.
Flicka, as the story line goes, is a mare from an untamable line of mustangs. She is considered to be loco! But Ken saves her life and an inseparable bond is created. One series carried the name of its equine hero: Fury, King of the Wild Stallions was a mustang. In the opening few episodes we learn that he gave his heart to a boy named Joey Newton when Joey saved his life from an evil ranch hand. That man had lashed Fury terribly with a bullwhip; Fury jumped out of the corral, knocked Joey unconscious in the action, and headed back out to the plains. In the end Joey runs after Fury and saves his life. Of course, in future episodes, Fury returns the favor multiple times. Here's the YouTube of the introduction that I saw before each episode:
How I longed to have a horse who could transport me to this kind of freedom and to these adventures. I was sure that if I lived on a ranch out west then I, too, would be able to have such a bond with a wild horse. If only my father was a rancher instead of a philosophy professor at a college in New York City. (What was philosophy, anyway?) Even as I came to understand that these humans and horses were actors, I still envied them. Not only did they act in open western spaces and go to school right on the set, they were famous!
Of course, no child viewer of these programs could fail to notice that the lead stars were never girls but always boys. Dale Evans may have been called the "Queen of the West," but she was clearly Roy Rogers' backup. Roy's golden stallion was named Trigger but Dale's horse, a buckskin, was Buttermilk. Trigger did numerous tricks, but Buttermilk's repertoire was scant. Buttermilk was only able to untie Dale partially when she was being held by stagecoach robbers. Roy's German Shepherd Bullet had to finish to job.
The dialogue was often dismissively sexist. I frequently heard, "Aw, you're just a girl"; "Girls can't do that"; "Go 'way, this ain't no job for a girl." When a woman was trying to get a cowboy to do something for her, she would often lower her head and coyly state, "Of course, I'm just a poor, weak woman." I coped with these limiting societal barbs by declaring myself a tomboy. Every once in a while a series would have a rebellious, strong-minded girl determined to have her way, and sometimes--and it was just sometimes--she did. Okay, better a tomboy than one of those girly girls evolving on my block. Incredibly athletic, my good friend, eleven-year-old Sharon, suddenly, and inexplicably to me, started intentionally missing ground balls and striking out during the baseball games we held in a nearby vacant lot.
I have remained interested in mustangs. Most people know these equines as the descendants of the Spanish conquistadores who ruled much of the western hemisphere. The blood of the Lusitano, the Andalusian, Spanish barb and Jennet run through their veins. But most herds are not only derived from those breeds. When farming became mechanized, many horses were simply turned out on the range. And when the cavalry turned to tanks, their mounts were either turned loose or shot. Percentages vary. Some mustang herds have much more Spanish than others, while one herd in Oregon--the Stinking Water Horse Management Area (!)--has more draft horse than anything else.
There is an ongoing debate regarding whether the American mustang is a wild animal or feral (a normally domesticated animal that has become wild). If it is a wild animal it legally is deserving of more protection. The subtext of all this is public land usage and the conflict between environmentalists who want cattle--they outnumber the mustang at least thirty to one--off the open range. It is true that cattle are inherently more destructive to our public lands than mustangs. First, as I mentioned, there are many more of them. Second, horses have upper and lower teeth and graze much a like a lawn mower. They crop the grass in a way that permits it to continue growing. Cattle, however, have no upper teeth. They graze by wrapping their long tongues around grasses that, if they are growing in damp or wet soil, or are young and have an immature root system, the cattle can uproot entirely. Additionally, cattle are ruminants, so plants and their seeds must go through three stomachs before their remains become a patty. A horse has only one stomach, so many seeds remain viable as they move through, and finally out of, a horse's digestive tract. A horse herd is simultaneously fertilizing and reseeding an area as it travels about.
Finally, horses range much farther from water sources than do cattle. Cattle tend to camp out in a comparatively more confined area, often causing significant bank erosion and fouling the water. Horses nibble and move on.
It is interesting to note that mustangs are more adept than cattle at handling harsh winter conditions. They instinctively know to dig deep in the snow to uncover grasses, but cattle do not. Often the cattle that survive a tough winter are the ones who have learned to follow mustangs and to consume the uncovered provisions the horses have left behind. Sadly, climate disruption has led to even harsher winters and summer droughts. In the past, mustangs managed to cope with inhospitable seasons but now they can't, not on this scale. Additionally, while mustangs are adroit at finding food, shelter, and water, herds and family groups are often prevented in their efforts by stockade fencing, barbed wire, and the increased introduction of extraction industries like coal and natural gas and their accompanying road development. It's common in some areas to see a family group of mustangs grazing on lawns or wandering between backyard pools and swing sets. Some herds have begun to starve. The Bureau of Land Management has been trying its best to capture the horses most in need and to ship them to facilities where they are fed, wormed, and vaccinated.
The following is a beautiful clip of mustangs. But notice how fences prevent them from going where they wish:
Thank you for reading the Windflower Weekly.
See you soon---- Ainslie
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