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Mustangs on the Mountain

Destined for slaughter, a herd of wild horses find reprieve -- and a home -- near Wye.

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If you've never been in the midst of a large group of horses, you should try it. Even if you've been around a solitary horse or two, even if you've ridden in the past, nothing quite prepares you for the experience: Several tons of flesh crowding in on matchstick legs, their coats rippling with color in the sun and their backs — if you could somehow freeze the muscle inside from its unending, tidal, fluid movement — like loamy hills. They smell of dust and straw and that singular, not-quite-unpleasant horse smell — musty and wholly animal; strange to anyone not used to it.

If that wasn't enough, these horses, kept on the 40 acres of John Houston Eccleston “Excy” Johnston's nonprofit Wingspur Wild Horse Sanctuary near Wye, are about as wild as you'll find on this side of the Rockies. Captured by the state of Nevada in the high desert, just weeks away from a European or Asian dinner plate when Johnston bought them off a “killer buyer” after getting a tip from a mustang rescue organization, they still have the great majority of their wildness about them: their instinctual hierarchy; their wariness; their own language of lip trills and eye rolls and head shakes that only they completely understand. For a city boy, standing among them — the horses snorting hot breath over my tape recorder and trying to eat the notebook out of my hand — is to be simultaneously terrified and in awe of the beauty that nature can create when we aren't looking.

Their caretaker (“owner” doesn't fit these creatures by a mile), Excy Johnston, is an unlikely cowboy. A scion of old money from Maryland — his family made a scandalous amount from procurement contracts with the Union Army during the Civil War — about all that was left of the family fortune by the time Johnston was born was a rambling estate in Baltimore and his handed-down mouthful of a name. When Excy was 8, his father, pining for the excitement of the West, bought a ranch near Prescott, Ariz. and moved his family there. In short order, Excy became a horseman. His silver-spoon past was sometimes at odds with the rough-and-tumble young ranch hand he became. The summers he was 16 and 17, his grandmother convinced him to come back East to fulfill what she saw as his social obligations. Those summers, Johnston split his time between button-down functions and riding broncs at New Jersey's famous Cowtown Rodeo.

“I would go to deb parties all week, and then go ride a bronc at Cowtown on Saturday night,” he said. “It was really a gas. You'd have your tux on one night and then the next night you'd get out there and ride a bronc.”

Though he admits that rodeo was an addiction, there was a problem: he wasn't very good at it. Seeing the broken old cowboys who had been in the game for years, he decided the safer course was to seek an education. That choice soon landed him at Texas Tech, where he received a degree in architecture. After graduation, he hung out a shingle in Austin.

Johnston's designs began attracting attention and commissions from the start. He met his wife, Amy Gray Light — then an editor at Architecture magazine — when she was assigned to edit a feature on a project he had designed. During the 1980s, his growing reputation allowed him to travel all over the United States and Europe to where his houses were being built. Then, in 1992, after Amy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that she's still fighting, Johnston moved to Arkansas so they could be closer to her family.

Though Johnston said that architecture was very good to him, the time he had to spend away from home was taking a toll. “I was having a good time with it, but I couldn't get away and I really missed the West and my horses,” he said. “Amy and I talked about it, and she said well, it's so hard for you to leave, why don't we bring some of the West here and give some of (the wild mustangs) a home, and you can have some horses.”

In 2002, Johnston adopted two “federal horses” — mustangs captured by the Bureau of Land Management — and had made connections within the wild horse community. Then, in 2004, he got a call from the non-profit wild horse rescue group Least Resistance Training Concepts (LRTC), who said they knew of 30 horses that needed a home. Captured by the state of Nevada, the horses had already been marked for slaughter, though the buyer had agreed to hold them for three months on his Iowa farm to see if a home for them could be found. Though a state-by-state, on-again-off-again ban on horse slaughter in the United States is now in effect, in those days there was no such ban and the clock was ticking. When their reprieve ran out, the mustangs were headed to one of three U.S. horse packinghouses, with the meat shipped to France, Belgium, Scandinavia or Japan for human consumption.

Once Johnston made the decision to adopt some of the horses, he went through the capture records and picked out those that had been caught while feeding together in baited corral traps.

“Typically, if you've got a group of horses that are coming in to eat, they're from the same family. So when they asked us to help rescue these horses, I asked for the capture records,” Johnston said. “I just went through the records and found horses that were caught together to come up with that number. We got two families, essentially.” Keeping the families together, Johnston said, was important to him.

Eventually — after signing papers saying he wouldn't sell the horses for slaughter or for rodeo bucking stock — he accepted 13 of them, paying off the killer buyer and around $125 each to cover the paperwork generated by the non-profit rescue organization and veterinary fees associated with gelding the males (which happens to all the wild horses placed with sanctuary homes — both, Johnston said, to keep down on the males fighting and their tendency to make little horses). Since then, an extended visit last year by a down-on-his-luck friend and his stallion — a horse, Johnston said, who just wouldn't stay in his corral — has blessed Wingspur's mustang herd with two new colts.

It hasn't been all springtime and sunshine, however. Though the mustangs in Wingspur's main herd are close to as gentle as wild things can be — a tribute to Johnston's habit of coming out every day to just hang out among them like another horse — a newcomer who arrived last spring wasn't so kind. One of 100 wild mustangs given to horse trainers all over the country as part of the Mustang Heritage Foundation's Mustang Makeover competition, Othello is a chocolate-brown lump of muscle, mean and hair. With the horse signed over to Johnston last June, the instructions were simple: see how much training could be done in a year. Johnston knew it was going to be a chore from the start.

“He was a real ‘I will hurt you' horse,” Johnston said. “You've heard of the fight or flight reflex? His was ‘fight.' ”

Attempts to integrate Othello into the larger herd led to wicked fights. When Johnston tried to put the mustang in with an older, domesticated horse he had used to calm wild horses in the past, the body language was clear. “(The older horse) begged me to take him away from him,” Johnston said. “Which tells you a lot about the personality of this horse, that another horse doesn't want anything to do with him.”

Finally, while trying to get Othello used to being around a rope in a closed corral, the horse turned on Johnston, crushing him against a fence before using its front hooves to paw him. In the midst of the fray, Johnston became tangled in the ropes and was dragged. Though he didn't spend time in the hospital, he was laid up for three weeks, and couldn't go back to training horses for over a month.

Though most people would have considered the glue factory about then, Johnston — true to his non-physical, no-punishment theory of training — went the other direction, spending three days in 24-hour contact with the horse, including sleeping beside Othello's corral on a lawn chair. Though he still keeps a wary eye on the horse any time they're on the same side of the fence, the result has been a grudging respect between the two. When we spoke, with the Mustang Makeover event in Ft. Worth — and an auction where, as per the rules of the contest, Othello will be sold to a new owner — less than a week away, Johnston was seeing slow but positive results from “clicker training.” Pioneered by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, the method involves giving a click and a treat anytime the animal exhibits good behavior, and ignoring bad behavior. Though he has come to like Othello, Johnston admits that he won't shed any tears when he's gone.

As you might imagine, the upkeep of a small herd of horses costs a good deal of money. To that end, Johnston has already received non-profit status from the state, and is in the process of finishing the paperwork to get non-profit status with the IRS. Though he long since gave up his architectural practice and licenses, he has designed a series of environmentally friendly cabins that will be built alongside the large, almond-shaped lake at the center of Wingspur Sanctuary. The plan is for guests to be able to rent the cabins and stay among the horses, with all proceeds going to the non-profit, to be called Wingspur Wild Horses, Inc.

The first of the cabins is almost finished: a sloped-roof mast of a building with a dock that cantilevers out over the water. Reminiscent of the adobe houses of Johnston's Southwestern childhood, the cabin is constructed of timber framing and straw bales covered in a thick layer of red clay mud. Inside and out, Johnston has done most of the work himself. With money tight, he and his wife are considering selling their home across the street — a refined architectural extravaganza Johnston has lovingly built over the past 15 years after starting with a soulless box of a house — and living in the completed cabin in order to fund the construction of the rest. They've hired a business analyst, who figured out that with all three of the proposed cabins rented and some donations, they should just be able to keep things afloat.

As for the larger problem of unwanted horses, new laws in Texas and Illinois that closed the three American horsemeat plants have actually managed to make matters worse. Before the slaughterhouses were shuttered, Johnston said, 100,000 horses a year were killed for meat in the U.S. — wild horses, old racehorses, unwanted riding stock. Since the American slaughterhouses were closed — even though the USDA estimates that some 30,000 American horses per year still go to slaughter in Mexico and Canada — that leaves 70,000 unwanted horses per year that either need homes or end up neglected. Sanctuaries like Johnston's — both for unwanted domestic horses and wild horses — are quickly filling up. Just as quickly, the pool of donations and grants is being stretched thin.

Though he's been approached to sell some of the wild mustangs at Wingspur — the big red gelding he calls Hombre and some of the colts — Johnston has resisted the offers. Though he could surely use the money, his reason is closer to the heart than the wallet: he doesn't want to break up their family. Standing in the valley near the pond, at the foot of the sloping pasture where the mustangs are serenely grazing under a sky that finally promises to wash the browning grass with rain, Johnston said that he's happy to just let them be.

“We're just making a home for them,” he said. “We just want to let them be as natural as they can.”

For more photographs of Johnston's mustangs, click here.

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