Mustang Monument is as far as you can get from a cowboy camp-out. Its glamorous tepees are kitted out with four-poster beds and have a 24-hour butler service. However, the wild mustang horses are the real stars of this nature-communing show.
A long cloud of dust swirls through the sweeping valleys. “Look at ’em go,” says cowboy Monty, pointing at the mustangs thundering across our path as we tore through the scrubland at 70mph in a high-powered all-terrain vehicle trying to catch them.
There are few things more thrilling and heart stirring than seeing these wild herds, once slaughterhouse-bound, roaming the prairies.
Surrounded by red canyons and big skies, the backdrop to Mustang Monument: Wild Horse Eco Resort in a sleepy Nevada backwater is pure Wild West fantasy. Everything feels as surreal and sensuous as a Wes Anderson movie set: from the hand-painted storybook tepees down to the colourful indigenous cowboys and Indians that populate the ranch. But the original dream of Madeleine Pickens, British businesswoman, philanthropist and animal-rights advocate, was to create a sanctuary for wild horses rather than a boutique eco-retreat.
Dressed in weathered Stetsons, chaps and spurs, Pickens and her ranch manager Clay Nannini greet us in a dark parlour. Inside the turn-of-the-century farmhouse, we join them around a long communal table — awash in sunlight and laid out like a medieval banquet — and Pickens recounts her long-simmering battle with the almighty cattle ranchers who view the wild horses as pests. “I wanted to save the horses, but then I thought it’d be lovely to create a sustainable ranch to share with others,” she says.
Most US mustangs, rounded up by the thousands, are bought by kill buyers and shoved into long-term bare-bone holding pens at public expense. Pickens says that her ranch alone can save taxpayers as much as US$3 million a year.
Serene and secluded, Mustang Monument is as far as you can get from a cowboy camp-out. Each of the glam tepees is kitted out with four-poster beds with patchwork quilts, distressed antiques and hand-woven rugs. The rustic-chic wood cabins have plush furnishings, freestanding baths and porches with rocking chairs; both come with 24-hour butler service. Despite the luxuries, the essence of the retreat is communing with nature and good old-fashioned adventure.
The next day, just as the sun rises over the Ruby Mountains, Clay, horse-whisperer extraordinaire, invites us to serve breakfast to the wild herd. Up a dusty track, rattling along in an old wagon pulled by two beautiful black-and-white draft horses, we jump off and start distributing hay to the hungry masses shyly gathering round us. Soon, hundreds appear from every direction — pintos, paints, grays and palominos — their manes shimmering, gently whinnying and calling out to each other.
“It’s amazing how easily corrupted they are,” says Clay. “I remember when they first came they were terrified and wild-eyed, kicking and stomping like dragons. Mustangs are very adaptable and tough because they’ve had to be, surviving famines, droughts, wildfires and a harsh climate for generations.”
Later that morning, Clay takes us riding with his two sheep-herding dogs in tow. “There’s everything out here: bobcats, wild elk, ghost towns,” he says, leading everyone up the dusty, curving trails past silvery-green spruces and sagebrush.