By John D. Taylor, Hot Springs Star
March 22, 2016
HOT SPRINGS — When Susan Watt, Executive Director and Program Development head of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and The Institute of Range and the American Mustang moved from Florida to South Dakota 28 years ago she didn’t quite know what she was getting into.
Now, more than a quarter-century later, as Watt reflects back on the satisfaction she feels in having helped Dayton O. Hyde achieve his dream of creating a sanctuary for wild horses, she can bask in the warm glow of satisfaction.
Watt described herself as something of a radical when she was teaching school in the Deep South during the tag end of the Civil Rights crusades of the 1960s. And it was some of this kind of spirit – shaking your fist at the powers that be – that eventually led her to South Dakota and taking on the challenge of saving some land, the history of a ranch and keeping horses alive instead of turning them into canned dog food that led her to helping Hyde achieve his dream.
Hyde ran away from his Michigan home before World War II, and ended up at his uncle’s Yamsi ranch in Oregon. There, he learned how to ride horses, work cattle and be a cowboy. He eventually got into rodeos, bronc riding at first, later clowning – with Slim Pickens, when he was a rodeo clown, well before movies like “Dr. Strangelove” or “Blazing Saddles” made him a famous actor. Hyde also was a professional rodeo photographer with his work appearing in Life magazine.
Things changed for Hyde following World War II – he is a veteran – especially after he took over his uncle’s ranch after his uncle’s death.
Hyde raised a family on the ranch and continued what his uncle and the Yamsi cowboys had taught him, expecting to spend the rest of his days as a rancher and a writer – Hyde has written 15 books for adults and children and contributed hundreds of magazine articles, too.
However, in 1987, Hyde was in northern Nevada, buying feeder cattle for the Yamsi, when he saw hundreds of captured wild horses being held in government pens.
With his love of horses, his heart went out to these animals.
“I owed these horses something,” Hyde has said. “All my life as a rancher I’ve been riding mustangs, training them, using them. I needed the horses, but some part of me always hated to pull them in from their freedom. I have one ache and pain in my body from every horse I ever met, but so many memories, so much joy.”
Determined to free these animals, Hyde turned the ranch over to family members and set out for Washington, D.C., to find out what could be done.
For the next six months, he met with federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) people and haunted the halls of Congress to get permission to start a large sanctuary where wild horses could be free. His idea was to create an Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM) that might raise the money needed to fund a sanctuary.
Hyde hit the mark with BLM, because the agency was looking for an out with wild horses – public outcry over the fate of rangeland wild horses was growing – and in Hyde they soon found one.
To begin his sanctuary, Hyde needed land, prairie land. He was searching in northern Oklahoma’s Flint Hills when then South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson invited him to look over acreage south of the Cheyenne River, near Cascade. Mickelson flew Hyde over this land in a helicopter, and there Hyde discovered 8,300 acres of shortgrass prairie with canyons and the Cheyenne River that were ideal for horses.
Hyde acquired the land and the first wild horses were released in the sanctuary – they were trucked in from BLM rangelands further west – in October of 1988. His dream quickly became a reality.
However, the early days were no picnic.
During the early 1990s, the sanctuary struggled to get on its feet and maintain finances.
Hyde also worried about BLM taking the horses back. To prevent this, the sanctuary had to acquire legal title to the animals, so sanctuary supporters were asked to adopt the horses, with the understanding that the horses would remain on the sanctuary.
In 1992, the sanctuary acquired the Cox family ranch, adjacent to the original 8,300 acres. This increased the sanctuary’s acreage and added the Cox family’s ranch house as a sanctuary headquarters, a visitors center and a gift shop.
To fund this, Hyde maxxed out credit cards, begged loans from friends and applied for and won two grants: a $60,000 grant from Phillip Morris, and a $10,000 grant from Brach Candy.
Two years later (1994), a mustang stallion was added to the 300 wild mares on the sanctuary, to offer the herd a “more natural life.” The birth of foals calmed the mares, made them easier to handle, and created the formation of bands within the herd. The stallion was quite a happy lad, too!
These and other efforts brought more “unadoptable” BLM horses to the sanctuary, creating a necessity to provide the animals with additional forage, which upped the sanctuary’s expenses again.
Two movies – Crazy Horse, a made-for-television movie; and Hildago, a Hollywood movie – both filmed on the sanctuary, helped spark more tourists to visit the sanctuary, which augmented income.
Today, the sanctuary is one of Hot Springs’ top tourist destinations, according to Watt and Karla LaRive, Communications Director and Cultural Relations Liaison.
Today, the sanctuary includes a total of about 14,000 acres. And while Hyde remains the head of IRAM and the sanctuary, Watt, his friend and companion is the daily energy that flows into the sanctuary.
Hyde says the sanctuary couldn’t survive without her.
Watt grew up in Alabama, and earned University of Alabama degrees in Home Economics and English.
Her path to the sanctuary is equally fascinating as Hyde’s.
After marrying her high school sweetheart, an Air Force man, she began teaching mentally-challenged children in Alabama. The couple would later adopt three children.
Watt, like a lot of young girls, had some horsey ambitions, but didn’t get her first horse until later in life, after moving to Texas. It was a swap, Wayne, her husband, could have his motorcycle; Susan, her horse.
Tragedy hit Watt hard during the 1990s. She lost her daughter and Wayne, having served as his caregiver for a protracted illness.
Exhausted, Watt sought a new direction for her life.
After a visit to Africa’s Serengeti, the Tanzanian national park famous for its wildebeest and zebra migrations, Watt wanted to work at a wildlife sanctuary.
She first saw Hyde on a television news program, and desired to connect with him, which proved a lot harder than simply picking up the phone, because Watt was unfamiliar with the West, with mustangs, even the BLM. She also discovered Hyde, who worked outdoors from dawn to dusk and disliked telephones in general wasn’t easy to get hold of.
When she finally did connect, Hyde told her to do some research, read his books.
She first came to the sanctuary in December of 1995. The ground was white with snow, and she stayed the weekend. After this, she drove back to Alabama, packed her things and drove back to South Dakota with her dog and parrot.
Today, Watt has a hand in everything on the ranch – she takes people on tours, mails out information, handles tractors, and basically runs the place.
There are three focus points in Watt’s current efforts, she says:
•Maintaining the habitat and a home for the horses.
•Offering the public a showcase destination to experience wild horses
•Economic development focused on tourism in the region.
Watt and LaRive talk of the healing work that goes on at the sanctuary, people healing horses, horses healing people, and how this is a never-ending cycle of giving. And that has certainly proven true with Watt.
“I’m here for protecting the land, the horses and the people who come to visit us, and the history that is here,” she said.
LaRive talks about the Lakota concept of tiyospaye, the extended family that forms among people of like interests, all of them linked by the power of sunka wakan, the horse.
Hyde certainly knows his dream remains in capable hands.
For more information about the sanctuary, visit the website http://www.wildmustangs.com/