THE FLINT HILLS NEAR CASSODAY — A thousand horses come pounding, thundering across the prairie, nostrils flared and snorting, manes and tails flying in the wind.
It is one of the most iconic living images of the Old West: wild mustangs running free across the prairie.
For the past 10 years, it has taken place each day within the Kansas Flint Hills.
These mustangs descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish more than six centuries ago.
And by the 19th century, the horses were just as much a part of Kansas wildlife as bison and wolves, mountain lions and bears.
But with Euro-American settlement, the horses quickly disappeared from Kansas, along with other forms of wildlife.
By the 20th century, the horses had been pushed deep into Western states and traditionally ran wild on federally controlled lands in 10 Western states.
But a decade ago, a handful of ranchers in the Flint Hills began contracting with the Bureau of Land Management to bring the horses back home to Kansas.
And with the contracts, the wild horses have begun to make their presence in Kansas known.
All told, more than 7,000 horses now run free over 60,000 acres in the Sunflower State. They are mares and geldings. No stallions — so the herd populations remain the same.
"The productivity of the grassland," said Pat Williams, long-term holding facility manager for the Bureau of Land Management. "The problem was finding ranches large enough to accommodate the number of horses."
At first the bureau wanted to sign contracts to lease land with ranchers who had room for 2,000 head of horses, said Williams, who is based in Kansas.
"The East doesn't have those kind of ranches," he said. "And the West — a lot of those ranches lease public land, so that leaves the Midwest. That's why you see the ranches in northeastern Oklahoma and here. You get to Texas and the carrying capacity isn't near what it is here."
And what is here is a snorting, stomping mix of bays and sorrels, blacks and palominos, pintos and whites crowding around Steve Vestring's pickup as he delivers a round bale of alfalfa hay.
His pickup has a siren, and as soon as he flips the switch, equine ears perk up and a flight of energy comes stampeding to his truck.
"These horses are a part of our heritage, and I wanted to help keep them going," Vestring said. "They needed a home."
Tim Rogers, who works for Vestring, said he hopes there never comes a time when he doesn't see the wild horses roaming the Flint Hills.
"You think about the way it used to be — when the buffalo roamed out here, and then you see these wild horses roaming. ... They are free."
'In the country of the wild horse'
"I rode up the timbered Creek and in the big grass and brush soon saw where large bands of horses had sought shelter and feed during storms. I naturally supposed we were near some Indian camp, but on looking for Indian signs I found that not a brush or twig had been cut nor a campfire made on the creek within two years. I then realized that we were in the country of the wild horse."
—James R. Mead, "Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875"
For Native Americans, the horse transformed the prairie, allowing them to hunt farther and faster, haul belongings and ride into battle.
It symbolized power and wealth.
For early settlers, the horse not only was used in transportation, but pulled plows and hauled freight, and was often the key element in making hard-won dreams come true.
From the beginning of the earliest settlements, the wild horses were a wonder.
On Jan. 1, 1859, a Baldwin City newspaper reported that several herds of wild horses remained upon the western portions of the Delaware Reserve in Kansas and some existed in other reserves and unsettled portions of the Territory. The paper also reported that only the poorest and slowest of the horses fell prisoner to humans.
"Continual efforts are being made to capture these wild horses, by organized parties. They succeed in one way or the other, and sometimes shoot them when they fail to take them alive. They have been thus thinned out; and are fast decreasing. ... In a few years they will all be gone."
And within 20 years, that was nearly true. On Aug. 22, 1879, the Lakin Eagle advertised:
"A rare chance for invalids and pleasureseekers to spend a week among the herds of wild horses, buffalo and antelope of Kansas and Colorado. ... Here is an opportunity for all to get a sight of those wonderful animals that they have only been acquainted with in books and legends, and to breathe the pure and exhilarating air of the West. ... The herd of WILD HORSES spoken of elsewhere is held within about a mile of Lakin, and will doubtless be an object of interest to all newcomers."
Early Kansas trader James R. Mead found large herds of wild horses near Medicine Lodge. And Bazine, in Ness County, was an early wild horse trading center.
The wild horses running on the ranches in the Flint Hills are descended from workhorses Spanish conquistadors brought with them in the 16th century. Some of the stock escaped to live in the wild. The free-running horses were called "mustangs."
As settlers came across the prairie, other breeds of horses, both saddle and draft breeds — Morgans, Percherons, Belgians and Clydesdales — escaped or were turned loose to join the herds.
Along creeks and across ridges, the wild horses of the Flint Hills keep watch, mindful of predators or strangers. On a recent afternoon, a lone coyote scampered quickly — not lingering for any horse hooves to find him.
Much of the credit for the nation's herds of wild mustangs goes to Velma Johnston, a Nevada animal-rights activist also known as Wild Horse Annie. During the 1950s, she led a national movement to stop the removal of wild mustangs and burros from public lands and was successful in the passage of the Wild Horse Annie Act of 1959. The Wild Free-Roaming-Horse and Burro Act of 1971 gave the Bureau of Land Management the authority to manage the wild herds.
The wild horses are now federally protected and cannot be sold in slaughter auctions, said Williams, of the bureau.
The bureau has approximately 13,900 horses and burros in short-term facilities and 27,600 horses in long-term pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Ranchers submit bids to the bureau offering to care for the animals. Most are paid about $1.30 per animal per day.
More than 38,400 wild horses and burros roam in Nevada, California, Wyoming and other Western states.
In Kansas, the 60,000 acres leased for mustangs are divided into grassland holding pastures, havens for older horses to live out their days. Some can live to be 30 or older.
On the range, there is a pecking order with horses. It's a place where color matters. Blacks, bays and sorrels dominate; white and paints bunch up, one rancher said.
Whites often have bite and kick marks.
"When we have wind and rain and snow, the hills create protection to let the horses get out of the wind and find shade," he said. "One of the advantages to having them in the Flint Hills is that the flint rock is sharp enough to keep the hooves trimmed off."
The horses will often work together.
"They will fight flies together," said Mike Larcom of Reece. "You cannot drive them in the timber in the summertime. Horse and deer flies will keep them away from the timber."
The old mustangs are creatures of habit. When it's cold, they don't like feeding on the creek bottoms. They like being on top of ridges where they can see what's coming toward them — and on those ridges, it's not uncommon to see for 10 miles or more.
"They have their favorite places to water," Larcom said. "When we first got them, we worried about keeping water open for them (in winter). But I've seen 200 head find water with a hole about as big as a plate. They take turns keeping the hole open with the use of their feet and tongues."
The largest majority of horses are housed by the Shadow 7 LLC, a contract between the bureau and two ranches, the Shadow Valley Ranch and the 777 Ranch, which straddles Butler and Greenwood counties. It covers a 10-square-mile area — and is all on private land.
"Most people are not aware these horses are out here," Larcom said. "We want to keep it that way. We try to be private; it saves a lot of headaches. These horses are wild horses. They are just starting to get used to our pickups. We've handled them enough, we don't have the problems we once did with them running off."
Some of the horses look like purebreds, while others have tiny, short bodies and big heads. Most have matted manes and tails from tussles with cockleburs.
Some of the mustangs are descendants of the U.S. Cavalry herd in north California, big bays and sorrels without any hint of color.
"They have family groups," Larcom said. "They will bunch together and if you stir them up, they can't wait to get back together."
On the Kansas prairie they have survived hail, blizzards, freezing temperatures and the blazing sun.
"These horses are tough, very tough," said Kathy Miller of Eureka. "I was home when we had the blizzard and that one morning when it was 23 degrees below, they were outside in all of it. They are tough."
The horses' future
As the ranchers' contracts come up for review, there is always concern whether the program will continue.
So what is the future of wild horses in Kansas?
"Just look at what they are doing in Washington and see how they cut the federal budget — that's what you watch," said Craig Miller, a rancher near Eureka.
The bureau's Pat Williams said it is always a concern.
If the horses leave, there will be those who will miss them dearly.
"It will be a sad day if we lose our horses," Mike Larcom said. "I'll be on a truck with them."
And if that day comes, much of the legacy of Kansas may go with it.
Go almost anywhere in Kansas and the influence of the wild horse is apparent by the names on Kansas maps — Wild Horse Creek runs through Stafford County; the Wild Horse Corral, a spot in northwest Greeley County, is where wild horses were driven into a native stone cave and captured. And then, look at the numbers of high school sports teams like the Macksville Mustangs, Salina Central Mustangs and Southwestern Heights High School Mustangs north of Liberal.
For centuries the horses of Kansas have carried soldiers and farm boys, cowboys and gunslingers alike across the prairie.
They symbolized independence.
"The wild horse is more representative of who we are supposed to be — how we are seen in the world as Americans," said Jim Gray, publisher of the Kansas Cowboy and a sixth-generation Kansan and rancher in Ellsworth and Rice counties.
"That sense of freedom, that wild spirit of adventure is what symbolizes the wild horse," Gray said. "It is everything we as Americans are supposed to be — that ability to take on everything that comes at you and survive, and survive with style. That's what the wild horse has done for centuries."