Dayton Hyde ran away from his Michigan home at age 13, bound for his uncle's Oregon cattle ranch, and his life has been packed with adventure ever since. A rancher and conservationist, he's been named a First Hero of the Earth by Eddie Bauer and an Amazing American by People Weekly.
Hyde's 15 books are filled with a love for wildlife and the wilderness, and his efforts to preserve both. Don Coyote, the unforgettable story of his friendship with the much maligned coyote, was one of the top books of the 1980s, and remains a perennial bestseller today. His latest is a big-hearted memoir, The Pastures of Beyond.
In 1988, Hyde turned his beloved ranch - Yamsi - over to his kids, and moved to South Dakota to found the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where he lives today. At age 80, Hyde is, he says, "still ridin' horses, still ground-breaking colts, still coming in at night exhausted and filled with ideas for the next book."
His next book? About wild horses, of course. "Horses taught me a love of freedom. They're a part of our Western heritage. They speak to me of running free and going where I want, when I want. That's why I love wild horses with such a passion and why they are so special. They know no master. They are part of the wind."
Meet an extraordinary trailblazer, Dayton Hyde.
TTR: When you left home at age 13, what were you looking for?
Hyde: Horses. In northern Michigan there weren't many, due to the severity of winters and the ever-present summer flies. My uncle, who had 7,000 head of cattle and several ranches, wrote that his men had captured 30 wild horses, and they were starting to break them. It was just too much for a kid to resist! I hopped a freight [train] and headed west.
TTR: What were the horses like?
Hyde: When you captured a wild horse from those herds, it was of wonderful quality. The ranch was surrounded by Indian reservations, and they would round up wild horses, train, then sell them. They had a real stake in quality, and they'd get rid of horses that weren't sound. Often, the Indians would buy a high-quality Morgan or Thoroughbred stallion, and release him into the wild to improve the herds.
TTR: How did your riding skills evolve?
Hyde: Painfully! I discovered that after a few days of riding, there was no hair left on the inside of my legs! And it's never returned.
TTR: What lessons did the ranch hands teach you?
Hyde: Since I was taught by a bunch of drunks and murderers, I learned not to drink and not to kill! Seriously, they taught me a work ethic more than anything else. Even today, my work on a ranch is my pleasure, too. I have nothing to retire from because, in my mind, I've never really worked. I've run the ranch, and written books - things I loved to do. I'll be working horses and writing until the end of my days.
TTR: Tell us about the horses you rode.
Hyde: I had a gray named Smokey, who'd buck every morning when I climbed on. He bucked high and long, and because I could stay on, I felt like a much more skilled rider than I really was. A big, bay named Sleepy taught me about staying in the saddle. The first time I rode him, he ducked his head, bucked, and I very quickly found myself eating dirt. But when I learned to lean back and stay with him when he bucked, it gave me a world of confidence.
TTR: Your latest book, The Pastures of Beyond, is filled with larger-than-life characters. Tell us about one of the most memorable.
Hyde: When I left Yamsi for the rodeos, I was befriended by a guy named Slim Pickens. He was about six years older then me, and when I started rodeoing, he was already an established star: a bronc rider and clown. He was discovered at a rodeo and became a Hollywood star. He's also in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. It was natural that he became my hero, and in time, a great friend.
TTR: When folks call you "a conservationist," what does that mean to you?
Hyde: I went to the University of California at Berkley, but my great, universal education was at the ranch in Oregon. I looked all around me and saw mismanagement and a misunderstanding of nature, and the ramifications of ignorance. Early on, I developed the philosophy that man doesn't have dominion over the earth, rather he has a responsibility to it.
At the ranch, we were surrounded by the reservation and national forest, and the government agencies did terrible things, like building too many roads, or clear-cutting forests without replanting, or allowing streams to dry up. I awakened to the fact that our system simply wasn't working. I had seen the enemy and the enemy was us.
TTR: Do you see an improvement today in land management?
Hyde: No. Today, we know more about what we need to do, but we're not doing it. We still have the idea that the natural world is here for our exploitation. Housing developments don't grow food.
TTR: When did the plight of the American wild horse first capture your attention?
Hyde: In 1970, when it became clear that the act to protect wild horses was going to become law, people who had cared for them panicked. A lot of wild horses were shot. In the past, ranchers fed wild herds throughout the winter and appreciated them. In the spring, they harvested weanlings and turned them into wonderful saddle horses. But when the government planned to take over, some worried that the government might also take possession of adjoining lands, so many wild horses were shot on sight. That hurt me deeply.
TTR: What did you do to help the wild horses that were being shot?
Hyde: I left my gates at Yamsi open, and the local wild horses came in. They ate hay at my place and were safe. Eventually, I closed my gates, and we took care of them. When I went to northern Nevada to buy cattle, I saw a government holding corral filled with captured wild horses. They were sad and dejected. My life functions on anger, and I got mad. I thought about coming back at night, throwing the gates open, and setting them loose. Then I realized they'd only be captured again. I called my kids to tell them they had to take over the ranch - I had something to do.
TTR: How did you end up in South Dakota?
Hyde: The governor of South Dakota, George Mickelson, heard about what I was doing. He'd already read my books, and appreciated my philosophy. He took me up in a helicopter to look at this beautiful land. He feared that it would be subdivided, developed, and lost. He hoped that if I started a nonprofit organization to save wild horses, they could run free, and it would be a way to save the land, as well as the horses, for future generations. That's exactly what I have done.
TTR: What's the history of the land?
Hyde: Here, the Cheyenne River flows in the four cardinal directions, which has made it sacred to the Indians for many generations. Historians estimate that 2,000 Native Americans mined this land for flint over 14,000 years ago. They left their artwork behind. In addition to our devotion to wild horses, we also have a devotion to this sacred land. We're dedicated to preserving both.
TTR: How do you keep the sanctuary going?
Hyde: It's a struggle - and very expensive. I don't deserve all the credit - a lot of fine, caring people have helped. Susan Watt saw us on [ABC's] 20/20 10 years ago, came to volunteer, and now is the manager. Individual volunteers, foundations, and trusts also support the wild horses. Whatever money we have beyond operating expenses goes to buy more land for more horses.
To keep it going, we take in tourists. This is a spectacular setting, with incredible wildlife, pine trees, mountains, and open prairies - a feast for the eye! We've been the location for movies, like Hidalgo and Crazy Horse. We also have a herd of registered Paints and Quarter Horses, and sell their colts to support this place.
TTR: Tell us about some of the horses.
Hyde: We've got a wonderful stallion we call Painted Desert. His mother was a captured BLM [Bureau of Land Management] horse, Painted Lady, just a gorgeous mare. She must've slipped through the adoption program because she was older. She had Painted Desert, a Medicine Hat stallion, by a wild stallion. We've kept him as our principal stud. He sires Medicine Hat foals, and we sell some of them to help support the sanctuary.
TTR: So, you allow wild horses at the sanctuary to breed?
Hyde: Not until about 10 years ago. We noticed that the mares were restive and unhappy. They'd keep looking over the fence and getting out when they could. When we finally put out a stallion or two, those mares would "granny" the few foals born each year, and everyone was much happier. We keep many of the fillies, and when we have colts, we sell them as weanlings or make certain that local 4-H kids have a horse. The young horses adjust very well. Sadly, we've found that adoption of the older wild horses often ends in tragedy. You get a sad-eyed horse who remembers being free.
We've found that when we cross one of our Quarter Horse stallions with one of these wild mares, we get a tremendous horse. And smart! I can train four of these mustangs in the time it takes to train one domestic horse. This mustang blood can improve our domestic breeds.
TTR: How do horses from your sanctuary do in new homes?
Hyde: At weaning, foals leave here, go out into the world, and do wonderful things. One half-mustang we sold to a girl in Ohio just won at the state fair. These horses have stamina and intelligence, and the good trainers that have come into contact with them just love 'em.
TTR: In general, what do you think about what's going on with wild horses today?
Hyde: There's too much emotion and too little knowledge on the part of many of the horse-rescue groups. I often wish they'd learn more before they go on the attack. If they're going to criticize, they should also come up with a solution.
The 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act was difficult for the BLM to deal with and to enforce. In a way, it also removed the main predator - man. If you remove the predators, you doom a species. There are some fine, caring people in the BLM, but their hands have been tied.
There's also a lack of communication between the ranchers and the horse groups. There wouldn't be wild horses today if it hadn't been for the ranchers taking care of the herds in tough conditions. At Yamsi, some of our best horses were half wild.
TTR: Can America's wild horses survive?
Hyde: We need more places set up so wild horses can run free. There's a serious deterioration of range, and it needs to be managed better. There needs to be drift fences, so wild horses can be humanely gathered without helicopters. Helicopter roundups are traumatic to horses and cost about $1,500 per head.
Here, wild horses have a great range, yet they live close enough that people can come and see them running free. Maybe there's a compromise, where we don't have the vast herds of the old days, but small herds on land where they can be protected and preserved. They need a bountiful environment to stay in good condition, and herd management to maintain numbers and good genetic health.
The government spends $30 to $40 million a year on the horse program, mostly on salaries and research. They could take that money and set up wild horse ranges, and private sanctuaries could benefit.
TTR: If you could have four people - living or dead - spend an evening with you around a campfire, who would you invite?
Hyde: Al Shadley, certainly, a good and wise man who worked at Yamsi. Slim Pickens. Mel Lambert, the rodeo announcer who also played the tug boat captain in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And Dick Blue of Wenatchee, Washington. He's a great horseman, storyteller, and gentleman. If you put them together, you'd have some pretty good stories.
TTR: What's your idea of perfect happiness?
Hyde: Being where I am, working with the wild horses. I wouldn't change a darn thing.
To learn more about the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, call (800) 252-6652 or visit www.wildmustangs.com