There were increasing numbers of many, many small herds of wild mustangs on the Red Desert plains of south central Wyoming during the 7 decades prior to 1930. However, there were very few mustang runners that had caught even one wild horse during those prior years.
Even after some very savvy cowboys had developed successful methods of catching several wild ones in one attempt, it was still very difficult work and took expert horsemen coupled with a determination that only a few good cowboys possessed. Also, before that time few of the large herds of the Northern Wyoming grasslands had yet to venture down toward the southern plains and closer to the more populated towns along old Highway 30 (I-80 today).
The southern plains are known as the Red Desert, which encompasses about 1/3 of the entire state area. The Red Desert has sufficient water holes, natural springs and snow lakes which can sustain more wild mustangs then there ever will be, though some of that water is as far apart as 50 miles. It also has huge wild rice grass and sage areas that can provide feed for hundreds upon hundreds of herds; these areas are also spread out but much more abundant than the water holes.
The wild herds, then and now, all know exactly where the water holes and the natural springs are. They also benefit from hundreds, maybe even thousands of random spring time snow lakes that support the best grass areas far into the summer months.
Before the 30’s the herds in the south may have been much more numerous than the herds on the northern plains, but they generally had no more than 10 to 25 head in any one herd, where their northern counterparts would number as many as 100 head or more, with each herd dominated and lead by one beautiful and notorious Stallion.
Further, the shear vastness of the southern plains provided that the many wild herds there were seldom ever seen by anyone. On the contrary, in the northern plains where large ranches were being established, the wild herds were becoming more and more an obvious nuisance.
The ranchers in northern Wyoming did not understand what to do with these large herds of mustangs running on their graze land. They began to view them as thieves stealing feed that their herds of cattle and saddle horses needed. They began shooting at, and sometimes hitting, the wild ones. This put pressure on the mustang herds to move, and with the Bighorn Mountains to the west and the Black Hills to the east, the most natural and logical direction of migration was south. By 1936, most of the wild horse herds of Wyoming were on the Red Desert or the vast areas east and west of the Desert, but still below Thunder Basin.
Horses became loose and wild almost as soon as horses were first introduced to the plains Indians. During inter-tribal battles horses often lost their rider and many of those were left to fend for themselves on the plains. Some horses just wandered away from the large Indian herds and became wild. When the Indian Wars began in earnest during the 1860’s, horses were abandoned on the frontier on a daily basis.
Indians and soldiers who lost their lives in battle usually lost their horse. Pack horses where lost by eastern immigrants over the years from 1860 to 1880 that totaled in the thousands. From around 1864 to 1878 specifically, the plains Indians could have lost as many as 100,000 tribal herd horses when they were either ambushed by the Army in their villages or were forced into battle while the warriors were trying to protect their village non-combatants and get them to safety. Even, when the Indian tribes were prepared for battle, at which times they always won, they would kill many soldiers and their army horses were left to wander, and become wild.
After the Civil War the few good Generals the Union Army had retired. The ones that stayed to lead the troops on the frontier were a ruthless group that abided by the motto, “a good Indian is a dead Indian”. They had no problem with killing women, children and the old men. Generals Crook, Miles, Sherman, Sheridan, Custer and Harney were all known to use the tactic of attacking non-combatants as a way to win against the fierce Plains Indians. This tactic of warfare of attacking villages of “civilian” Indians caused the release of thousands of Indian herd horses. During these village attacks the US Army would shoot as many Indian horses as they could and chase off the rest.
American Indians that were part of the horse culture had skill at breeding-up their horses and choosing the very best of the best for their prized herds. So, the Indian horses that got loose and joined up with the wild herds helped breed-up those herds. By the time the great depression and the devastating Midwest draught years of the 30’s caused farmers to relocate and find a new way of life, there may have been as many as 300,000 wild horses on and around the Red Desert. No one really knows for sure how many there were, as the only people who had seen them up till then were mail plane pilots.
More than a few of these displaced farmers and their families found their way to Wyoming. They found work on the large cattle ranches and the coal mines, and a few that were horsemen tried their hand at wild horse running. Capturing wild mustangs was called “running” because the safest way to capture them was to chase them for as many as 20 to 30 miles towards a trap with relays of mounted riders. This practice would tire out the wild bunch which made it more possible to herd them into a hidden corral trap in one of the thousands of box canyons and draws that are in the Red Desert.
This way of capturing mustangs was humane for the wild horses but very dangerous for the runners. The wild ones knew every washout, canyon and sinkhole on the desert. They were very aware of the tricky terrain, which provided them with a home and places to hide. If they mistakenly ran into a 10 foot deep washout at full speed the crash would surely kill them.
The cowboys were at a great disadvantage concerning the dangerous terrain. When they were chasing a wild herd at full speed they didn’t know if that long dark line up ahead coming at them at 45mph was a shallow washout or a gully 20 foot deep. Also, they would have very little prior warning if a herd might turn while being chased. Horse and rider could be killed if they got hit by a wild one at 40mph.
If you wanted to be a wild horse runner in the 30’s, the first thing you had to do was to find 4 or 5 other cowboys with the same desire. Then you and your companions had to work for as long as a couple months in the spring time building a good secret corral trap in a box canyon near feed and water. The corral building process involved moving as many as 100 railroad ties and hundreds of yards of cable from one of the towns along Highway 30 out to your secret corral location. Sometimes the corrals were located as far as 100 hundred miles from the nearest town. The logistics problem was made more difficult because it usually required several horse wagon trips or many small truck trips to move the material and provisions you would need while on the Desert.
Once the corral was built you might be able to use it for no more than 6 attempts before you would have to disassemble it and build it again at a new location. The reason being, the wild herds in the area would learn where your trap was and your secret was out. Many runners had more than one corral trap and would rotate their use so the wild ones wouldn’t get to know their location.
At this point you have to know that the runners were seldom successful at capturing an entire herd in their corral traps and they were successful capturing wild ones at all about 1/3 of the time. The mustangs would be near exhaustion after being run for more than 20 miles, but that didn’t suddenly make them become stupid. Even if the runners were successful enough to not lose the wild herd before they entered the trap, at best they lost about half the herd before the cowboys could get the gates swung closed. The reason being that the front half of the herd had seen that they were in a trap and would be on their way out of the trap at the same time as the back half of the herd was entering.
This was all a very confusing and dangerous moment for horses and cowboys because at least a few cowboys had to be in close proximity to the gate while they waited until the back half of the herd was in the trap all the while the front half of the herd was escaping, and the gates they had to close were as long as 25 foot on each half. The gates were made of small pole uprights and usually three strands of large cable (barbed wire was never used as it could easily entangle and injure or kill horses and cowboys). On top of it all the gates were very heavy.
On some occasions the cowboys did capture the entire herd, but it wasn’t usual. The point being, the horses they usually lost near the trap was now educated on where the trap was. It would be a foolish effort trying to capture any of that bunch again with the same trap. The cowboys had to know how to identify certain herds and individual horses, which was pretty tough with thousands of horses in the area.
The Stallion leaders were the standout horses because they were faster than they were good looking, and they were usually beautiful horses. Very few of the Stallions were ever captured because it took a concerted and well organized effort to do it. During a chase most of the Stallion leaders were fast enough to drop back in the herd and push the mares and colts at the back by biting them on the rump, and then easily step on the gas to stretch it out and pass the entire herd to go back leading. And they did this while the herd was strung out a mile or more running at full tilt across the desert.
Because the Stallions were so fast they were only at about 80% effort while being chased; they did not want to run away from their harem of mares. But, if need be, anyone of those herd Stallions on the Red Desert could tap into that unused energy at will and run right away from any usual horse.
The cowboys always said the herd Stallions had heart, which gave them an advantage the normal horse didn’t have. That heart was the reason they were the leader of the herd. That lead position was hard fought for and it proved they were the mightiest of the herd. They absolutely dominated the rest of the herd and were also prepared to fiercely protect them when needed. Cowboys and saddle horses alike were occasionally injured from being kicked by a lead Stallion while running at full speed. The payoff for every horse captured, broke and delivered was about $18.00 throughout the 30’s decade.
The great Frank “Wild Horse” Robbins did capture one of the most famous lead Stallions. That horse was “Desert Dust”, an unusual Palomino of great stature. Frank did not want to break Desert Dust so he was used for breeding purposes for a couple of years and then was let go on the desert to be wild again. While Desert Dust was on Frank’s ranch near Douglas, WY, toward the end of World War II, a movie was made about the stallion.
Content Sources: Biography of “Wild Horse” Robbins. The Jake Price family story, “Wild Horse Country In Wyoming”, by Jack Price. The Lakota Way, by J.M. Marshall III.