Certainly, they must have known I was here long before I noticed them. My little trailer sitting on high ground in the midst of grey-green sagebrush is visible for miles around. When I first saw them, over two miles distant, they appeared as slow-moving, dark spots in an otherwise almost-dissolved texture of receding sagebrush—four cows, I assumed, moving south, probably from a nearby basin waterhole. My attention was on a cell phone call, though my eyes, as they always seem to do out here, were scanning horizons. I thought of checking with binoculars but preferred to focus on the conversation. When the call was complete, they had disappeared and I went on with my day.
Considering the lack of snow and rain, I was surprised that cows were coming into this part of the high desert. It was an especially dry spring and the rancher whose cattle these would likely be had just checked the nearby waterholes and found them mostly empty. Feed too, was scarce. All his cattle should now be out on the desert far to the North where more snow fell.
For the next few days I wondered about them and finally, not seeing more of a herd, decided they must have been strays and sent a text to the nearby rancher’s cell phone but never heard back—probably he doesn’t text. I let it go.
Three days later, the same dark spots appeared again in the distance. This time, picking up the binoculars, I saw correctly—five wild horses. I could tell the stallion by his size but even more by his guardian role—aloof, standing still and at this moment facing my camp while the others grazed; the protector. The smallest of the five, tight against its mother, was the right size for this year’s foal. I was happy to know there were wild horses nearby.
A few days after that, I went for a long walk to explore the southern edge of a three quarter-mile wide basin. Until you come to its edge, the basin is invisible because of the abrupt way it sinks beneath the flattened contours of the surrounding landscape. In this country, where you can see out over almost everything, that makes the basin an adventure. I took binoculars thinking there might be new birds and was rewarded. While crossing the center by its dry waterhole, I got to watch a sage thrasher sit on the top of a tall sagebrush cleaning his wings and tail—a perfect display of body parts.
On the way home, headed north after exploring the dry southern drainage, which in wetter years would have channeled water from the southern plateau down into the basin, I was cutting across the basin floor close to the rocky rim of its eastern edge. The walking was easy, flat and free of rocks so I could walk and at the same time, look sideways at the far western edge of the basin that I had never explored.
Resolving that the western rim would be the destination for a future walk, I faced home, stepped up my pace and then briefly scanned the sloping rim to my right.
Whoa! Five wild horses stood statue-still, looking directly down at me. They were half way down the nearby slope of the basin between two jutting rim-rock outcrops; a couple hundred yards away at most. No question, they were those I had seen out in the flats and whose fresh tracks were in the dusty earth where I’d been walking. They might have been watching me much of the morning.
Now, way closer than ever before, I could also sense their curiosity. I too stopped, turned toward them and stood for a good ten minutes. Then, arms tired, I sat down on the ground, cross-legged, elbows on knees steadying the binoculars and still watching.
The stallion was a rich chestnut with long jagged black mane and tail, black legs from the knees down and a small white star perfectly placed on his forehead just below black ears. The mares were lighter brown with few markings except one forehead blaze. The foal was an almost perfect copy of the stallion excepting the star that was elongated to a white stripe. As individual animals, they were each beautiful in their own way, though the stallion was somehow remarkably so. He was beautiful in his integration, strength and power. And, he was beautiful in his context, his independence—being out here, living wild and caring for his little band.
While I sat and watched, he walked from one side of the band to the other, always standing apart and always a few steps closer to me than the others who now seemed only mildly interested in my presence and who would occasionally lower their heads and look for the sparse grass. The foal moved a few feet from its mother and lay down. No one was going anywhere.
When about twenty minutes of watching each other had passed, I decided to leave and hoped to do so without threat or disturbance. I slowly stood up and, politely averting my gaze, deliberately looked north, away from them, toward my previous direction of travel.
After a few steps, hearing something behind me, I stopped and turned back. The stallion was charging obliquely downhill at top speed, toward an intersecting point just ahead of me—mane flying, tail with hair, that had touched the ground, now streaming out behind him and dust swirling up on all sides. For a moment, the dust engulfed him as he made a dramatic stop just short of where our paths would meet. Now, fifty feet away, he stood and forcefully looked at me, his body shining and flashing in the brilliant sun. Then he circled me, not completely, but in arcs, back and forth about 100 feet to the right and left of my line of travel. He moved in this path several times at high and low speeds and did so in each of his possible gaits except walking. At each turn, he wheeled and in a few of the faster turns rose on his hind legs. Watching this lean muscular body beneath its scintillating coat, the changing gaits, the rhythmic, perhaps exaggerated, patterns of leg motion and the horizontal flaring tail was a stunning vision of perfection, of animal energy and beauty.
I did wonder, ‘Why is he doing this’ and I’d guess there is a behavioral answer but I didn’t care to explore that explanation. He didn’t feel threatening and whatever such explanation might suggest, it could only be half the story. The other half, ‘Why this display of such extraordinary beauty?’ or even, ‘How could it be that he is so stunningly beautiful?’ these were far more important. Was it his intent to be beautiful? Was the beauty in his wildness? In his precision? Was it the privilege of being here; was it the honor accorded? Why such an overwhelming experience of beauty?
Something, unique to that moment, permitted me to see him differently—as if time were deepened, stretched or stopped. How could time be stopped, yet his exquisitely patterned movement continuing? How could there be motion without the passage of time? It was as if the precise, still images of captured motion presented by Muybridge’s classic The Horse in Motion were somehow viewed in flowing motion rather than in discreet still increments, yet, I could still see all the detailed information otherwise available only by a careful analytical viewing of stopped images. I was seeing much more, maybe faster somehow and deeper, but certainly in a way I had never seen before. Is this what it means to really see beauty?
When his performance was finished, he became fully quiet, turned and without looking back, effortlessly trotted back up the slope to his waiting band. From there, he watched as before. I watched too, happy, overfull with an expanded and grateful heart. Then I resumed walking toward the north slope of the basin.
As the distance between us increased, he led his band down the slope and westward into the basin, headed, I assumed, for a different part of the desert where grass and water might be more plentiful.
I didn’t want them to go. I wanted them to stay nearby, even at a distance, to continue to deliver their beauty, as helpers, or even just as reminders.
Later that afternoon, I looked up from a book and they were there, specks, off in the east, nearly three miles away on the flat, silhouetted against the sky. They did not go west after all and did not leave. They were still here, distant, and barely visible even with binoculars, but a joy nonetheless.
And then again, this morning, they were there in the extreme distance. Later, even when I was sure they had finally gone off the far side of the eastern plain, I saw them; this time, walking less than a quarter mile away. Walking and watching. When I stepped outside my trailer, they switched to a slow easy trot and dropped out of sight, down into a nearby basin.
I didn’t want to disturb them but I did want more of them and to get close again. So, I set out on foot in a big half-circle through shallow ravines and swales, hoping to get behind them on the down-wind side of where I believed they might be. An hour later, crouched behind sagebrush I managed to see them; this time, without being noticed. They were in the bottom of the basin they had entered an hour ago, close to its west rim. He was standing with his back toward me, knees locked, head down facing the other four who were lying in the soft dust, two with heads up while the mare and her foal, slightly separate from the rest, though touching each other, were stretched out flat and limp—surely asleep. The positions and postures of each were somehow so expressive of a fundamental and pure sweetness, peace and safety that my heart melted and I reluctantly retreated, afraid I might be sensed and disturb them.
Continuing to walk another mile or so, I decided to go down off the high ground to check for water in the waterhole near where I had first seen them. Looking back, before going over the crest, I saw him watching me; he was alone, up on the flat now, above the basin where they had been resting.
I’m glad I went down to the waterhole, there was lots of water, not enough to support a cattle herd but plenty for the nearby antelope, coyote, rabbits, birds and these wild horses. While last year this hole was dry by August, hopefully the water will last longer this year—maybe so.
Climbing back up out of the waterhole and heading back toward my camp, I crested the same rise and again could see miles into the West. And there they were, only a mile or so away, all five coming toward me on the same track that I was using to return home. They stopped, I stopped, and then we both resumed walking toward each other, closing the distance between us to less than a quarter-mile.
This time, I saw him suddenly leap forward and again he came full speed and stopped—close enough that I could hear his breathing—powerful but soft exhalations. Like a skilled show horse, he delivered another extraordinary performance, filled with exuberance, prancing and spinning. Again, he captured and thrilled my heart. Almost blind to his moves, I was caught by the pure abstract perfection and engulfed in a wave of expanding love, first for him, then for all creatures, then for everything everywhere.
When he was finished, he lightly trotted back to his band and together they headed off to the same flats where I had first seen them days ago. I was left with an overflowing heart and a quiet mind, but also a kind of emptiness, a deep longing.
I walked straight back to camp, and in so doing, dropped down into the basin and passed through their afternoon rest stop. Somehow, even the prints in the dust where he stood and they rested and napped were sweet; they too spoke of the beauty and harmony I had seen.
That evening, the entire sky darkened with an almost unbroken cloud ceiling. Moments before sunset, the sun, dropping beneath the cloud, lit up its rippling bottom and filled the entire desert—horizon to horizon—with intense rosy light. Looking east, to the distant high plain, against the glowing pink wall of distant mountain snow some sixty miles away; five wild horses were silhouetted, tiny but huge.
Do they know of their gift, of the gratitude and deep longing that fills my heart? Do they know the nature of the beauty they have shown me? I think that somehow, they do, and I choose to believe that they live as authentically as I saw them—deeply embedded in the Beauty of being—and that for them, there is no separation, no longing and no need for gratitude; they are complete. I believe it is that completeness that I long for.
© B. Witham 2013