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Original Issue

The dying thunder of hoofbeats

A roundup on the prairies of Idaho may be the beginning of the end for the wild horse of the West

For four days the wild horses ran, trailing streamers of Idaho's dust—dust the gray-white color of leaf smoke and heavy with the smell of crushed sagebrush, wild mint and prairie grass. Conglomerate breeds of mustang, Thoroughbred, Apaloosa, Percheron and Indian pony, they came by the dozens and by the scores: clattering over the rimrock; skidding and poking down the blood-red scab stone set like tiles on the walls of Payne Creek canyon; splashing through the Squaw, the Wickahomey, the Shoo Fly creeks; stumbling in the faded ruts of the old Wells, Fargo stage route to Silver City, Nev.; drumming in a jig trot across the stubble of a dry lake bed in Duck Valley. When, at last, on the fourth day, the drive ended at the pine pole corrals, the horses and the men who had led them stopped and sagged. The sun sank behind a butte and was gone. And a wrangler, drawing a checkered sleeve across his forehead, said the days of the wild horse are running out. The West, he said, will seldom see another roundup like this one.

If this were indeed the end for the wild horse, the end had been a long time coming. The animals pawing and nickering uneasily in the corral on the Riddle ranch in southwest Idaho had had the run of the place, a quarter-million-acre place, for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, through their cayuse and mustang progenitors, they held claims on the land much older than those of the pioneer Riddle family, which arrived in Duck Valley with their branding irons eight decades ago.

But now the U.S. Government, dismayed by the insatiable appetite of the wild horse on the shrinking range, assesses the rancher a half dollar each month (or twice as much as for cattle) for every horse grazing on federal lands. Like nearly all livestock men in the dry West, the Riddles need the grass and water on the adjoining federal range to stay in business. "So you can take it from there," says Ed Riddle, who operates the ranch with his brother Bud and another partner. "The demand for wild horses is dying out. We couldn't get them broke good if the demand was there because there aren't enough men nowadays who know how. And the Government raises hell if we leave the horses on its range. We figure we have to sell now for what we can get while there's still anything to be got."

There were more than 200 horses roaming the Riddle ranch when the roundup started, and five men had gone out to find them. Bud Riddle, 37, was in charge; an articulate, good-humored and thoughtful man, he manages the 3,500 cattle and the saddle horses on the ranch, and spends most of his days on horseback. With him were Hubert Egan, 49, a solidly built man of the Paiute Indian tribe whose somber face is as dark and as tough as cordovan leather and whose Chevrolet hardtop is as colorful as war paint; Willard Egan, Hubert's teen-age son, who speaks Paiute to his father, English to horses and white men; Roy Ramey, 28, a transplanted North Carolinian who has wrangled horses and cattle for 10 years and who respectfully asks to be remembered as a buckeroo (the word cowboy, says Roy Ramey, should be reserved for "the showoff sissies in the rodeo" and for the loafers who wear their blue jeans rolled and ride the stools at the drugstore); Harry Ivie, 58, a sort of buckeroo's buckeroo who has ridden herd most of his life and who is spindly, weather-beaten, conversationally at ease with "yep" and "nope" and unshakably fixed once mounted in his saddle.

Notwithstanding the enormous size of the Riddle spread—a complex of six old ranches opening out onto government lands—the horses were not hard to find; the main herds had occasionally been seen, though at a distance, by the wranglers working the cattle. Out behind the land which had belonged to the old Quarter-Circle DO, for instance, ran a band of geldings, rounded up and branded when they were colts. Another gelding band was in the canyons between the Quarter-Circle DO and the Flying H. North of the YY ranch there were mares and colts, under the control of an outsized white Percheron stallion, and a similar band grazed somewhere behind the Bar 11. The plan was to pick up these larger herds first and then to gather in the smaller ones on the drive back to the YY, the Riddle headquarters.

The roundup began after breakfast, and one day was much like the other. In twos and threes the men rode their saddle horses at a walk into the plains, over a landscape unmoving except for the heat waves shimmering from the earth and, now and then, a bounding antelope, a flushed sage hen or a skulking coyote.

Never fast enough

They found some of the wild horses serenely cropping the brown bunch grass in the pocket of a dead-end canyon, some drinking at their watering hole, some already alerted and moving away, over the rimrock and out of sight—moving fast but never fast enough or purposefully enough to outdistance and outguess the riders circling their flanks. The riders branched out from either side to collect each small band and to coax it, with shouts and waved hats, into the main body. The horses resisted, but when escape appeared hopeless, most gave up and turned as the men turned them, falling behind Bud Riddle, who was riding point for the herd. A few, the daring, tried again for their freedom, peeling off and making for the high ground. But the outriders were too quick.

At midafternoon the column halted on a plateau. Two riders dropped over the hill to search for the mares and colts thought to be near by. The men left, behind to guard the captives eased from the saddle and sat in the shade of their mounts. The smoke from their tailor-made Camels curled above the knee-high sage as they talked about horses, cattle, roundups and water, of which there was none for five more miles.

An hour, hot and still, went by; horseflies buzzed, tails switched and a jet plane traced incongruous vapor trails in the cloudless sky. Then, over the rim, the mares and colts appeared, the riders at their heels, and melted into the waiting herd. The jig-trot gait was set again by Harry Ivie, who now took over the lead.

At sundown the fourth day they were at the corral, a maze of circles and chutes and gates. The wild horses hesitated at the entrance, sure that the next step would be the wrong one. But the whistles and the yips of the men were on every side. The horses filed, bewildered, into the enclosures and the gate rattled shut. Slowly the trapped animals began to walk in random circles. Colts nickered for their mothers and fought their way, heads high, through the squeeze of bodies and the tangle of legs around them. A gelding peevishly bit the withers of a passing yearling. A stallion eyed another, twisted himself and bitterly threw a challenging but now senseless kick.

Though the roundup itself was over, the work of the men was not. On the morning of the fifth day, Bud Riddle, mounted, moved into the corral with a swinging rope and, after three passes, lassoed the Percheron stallion. But the stallion pulled Riddle down from his saddle, and the rancher's high-heeled boots skipped in puffs of dust across the corral before the stallion calmed down. Perched high on the corral fence, a narrow-eyed man whose first name, Orval, was tooled in relief on his caramel leather belt, watched, amused. He was a buyer from out of town and he wanted the whole lot of 225. But Riddle had already advertised an auction sale in the Boise Idaho Statesman and would not discuss the private offer.

Snorting, kicking and weighing

For two more days the wranglers sorted the horses, driving them three at a time into a confining chute, where paper numbers were glued to their rumps. Then, one by one, they were herded onto a scale as big as a stall. "One thousand fifty," said Bud Riddle. "Sorrel. Saddle horse. Gelding. Flying H brand. Let him out." The sorrel snorted, kicked back his hind legs and bolted for the adjoining paddock. The pinto taking his place blew angrily through his nostrils, pawed and pounded the scale's flooring as his weight was recorded.

At the auction on Sunday there were 20 buyers who were ready, failing market or not, to bid. Orval took 45 and shipped them off to Utah to be converted into saddle horses and rodeo broncos. Two men from Kansas City bought 28, a man from Oregon 25 for ranch work. The Riddles retained 75 mares and colts to work the ranch's cattle, burning on the Flying H brand. Only 12 had the bad fortune to be sold for slaughter.

On Monday morning the men who had worked the herd went back to the main business of tending the cattle. And Mrs. Earl Riddle, the mother of Ed and Bud and the matriarchal boss of the ranch, spoke the mind of everyone who had known these horses and seen them taken from the range. "I hated for this to happen," she said. "The horses were wild and we seldom caught a glimpse of them. But we always knew they were out there. The times change and now the ranch is changing."

So, for that matter, is the old West.