By: Randy Tucker
To the casual observer, the high pyramids of horse manure seem strange. They’re not common, but you can find them in the open spaces of the Shirley Basin and Gas Hills of central Wyoming.
These piles have a purpose. This area, along with the Red Desert a few miles to the southwest, is home to a growing number of wild and feral horses. You might wonder what the difference is between a wild and a feral horse. The quick answer is that there really isn’t a difference at all.
Horses are not indigenous to the Americas. They arrived with Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century.
They didn’t catch on in the Amazon Basin since they were fair game for jaguars, alligators, and the indigenous people living in the area. They did prosper on the vast grasslands of the American prairie.
No one knows the exact time the first “wild” horses appeared on the Great Plains, but it’s likely they escaped from expeditions by Hernando Coronado in his vain quest for Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold.
There was no magic kingdom with gold-lined streets as Coronado wandered into modern day Kansas, but there was the tallgrass prairie, perfect habitat for escaped horses to thrive.
Over the intervening centuries, the horse moved north and west from the Kansas plains. The last tribe to move from foot to horseback is thought to be the Blackfoot of Montana. Historians working with anthropologists estimated 1780 as the time the horse reached northern Montana.
Whatever the year, the horse transformed the life of the indigenous people of the plains.
In diary after diary, U.S. Army officers lamented the difference between “Indian ponies” and their own mounts.
An Indian pony was shorter, stockier, had a larger neck, and was stronger overall than the cavalry horses that pursued them. A classic book, “40 Miles a Day on Beans and Hay” by author Don Rickey, Jr. is now approaching 60 years since it was first published in 1963.
I read the book as a 20-something. Its story of the arduous life of an enlisted cavalryman was fascinating.
Further research led to my discovery from many established sources that an Indian pony could thrive on the tough native grasses of the plains and Rocky Mountains. Government horses, often broke down, had to be fed grain to keep their energy up, and by the late period of the Indian Wars in the 1870s and 80s, a mounted Army unit carried as many as three spare horses for each soldier.
The wild horses I spot frequently east of our home in Riverton, Wyoming are primarily recently released domestic horses. Sadly, when horse prices plummet, many clueless owners dump them in isolated areas, like the Gas Hills, Sweetwater Basin, and Shirley Basin. Most of these animals die a horrible death of starvation, but a few survive. The ones that survive earn the title of “feral horses.” These make up most of the “wild” horses of North America, though there are a few in the Pryor Mountains of Montana, and the Red Desert of Wyoming that have been free-roaming, truly wild horses for several centuries.
This brings me back to those three to four-foot-high pyramidal piles of horse road apples. Those piles are warnings to other horses, and to humans as well. That’s how a dominant stud horse marks his territory. The process is similar to dogs, wolves, and coyotes marking their territory, and grizzly bears. A big boar bear will scratch high on the trunks of pine and spruce trees. If you’re ambling through the National Forests just west of our home and spot scratches 9, 10, or even 11 feet up on the side of a tree, there’s a bear, a big bear in the area.
I encountered an angry “alpha male” stud horse one time trout fishing in the Gas Hills, but my story pales in comparison to my late friend Jake Korell, famous in our area as “Trapper Jake.”
I had a string of brook trout when I was heading back to my truck from Sage Hen Creek back in 2006 when I spotted a big horse on the horizon. I was about 200 yards from the truck, and he was a half mile away. When he started to gallop towards me, I knew what he was up to. I took off as well. I was a bit younger then, and a 200-yard sprint wasn’t much, but the prospect of facing an angry wild stallion unarmed on foot didn’t intrigue me. I beat the snot blowing 1200 pound stud to the truck by 30 seconds.
I had my Taurus .45 ACP in the cab but never thought of using it. This was his territory; I was the intruder. He circled the truck a few times, snorting and stomping, then headed out when I started the engine.
Jake wasn’t so lucky. Jake lived an amazing life. Born in 1914, he passed away at 98 years old in 2013.
I visited Jake often, always enjoying his stories of early life in Wyoming.
Jake was born in Lincoln, Nebraska but came to Wyoming as a two-year-old and never left. He grew up in rural Goshen County near Lingle but dropped out of elementary school in third grade after a teacher threw him out of class one day for smelling like a skunk. Jake was sprayed the day before checking traps near his home.
He began working on ranches and as a trapper. It’s his work as a trapper that found him face to face with a black stallion with malice on its mind.
Jake was running a trap line as a young man during the Great Depression. He was working the same Sage Hen Creek area for beaver, skunk, bobcat, badger, coyote, and fox, only over half-a-century earlier.
Jake drove a sheep wagon, an early camper trailer of the plains, behind a two-horse team, out to the Gas Hills to set up camp. His only companions were a couple of border collies and his prize possession: an 1894 Winchester .30-30.
Jake said times were tough, and often he didn’t have enough money for .30-30 shells. He was down to only one as he worked the trap lines. When he encountered a trapped coyote, badger, or fox, he often finished them with a wooden bat or a piece of rebar, but he carried a .22 revolver as well.
That afternoon he had the .22 with him, as well as the .30-30 when the stallion spotted him.
Jake was a long way, several miles from his wagon, and his dogs were off on their own.
“It was a good thing the dogs were away,” Jake said. “They weren’t much of a match for that stud.”
His .22 was pretty useless against a wild stallion with its blood up.
Jake had one .30-30 cartridge left in his lever action rifle.
“I waited until that big bastard was almost on top of me,” Jake said. “I knew I only had one shot. It was him or me, and if I missed it was me.”
At 20 feet, Jake shot the charging stallion in the chest. The big horse flipped up, but his momentum carried him past Jake.
“I had to jump out of the way,” Jake said. “Even though I killed him he would have broken one or both of my legs if he hit me.”
It was from Jake that I learned to look for those big piles marking a stud horse’s territory: the higher the pile, the bigger the horse.
It’s something I look for every time I venture into the Gas Hills. Whether to hunt rocks, look for pioneer artifacts, or to watch sage grouse in their mating dances, it’s wise to look for those warning signs.
For people who claim you don’t know crap, you do if you look for these signs.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at email@example.com.