By Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Verge
August 28, 2016
As an adult who survived public schooling, I am aware that science generally demands objectivity of its practitioners. As a girl who "adopted" a mustang out of an overwhelming sense of duty and fate, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more beautiful in this world than Champagne Lady, the wild mustang.
Like all classy women, Champagne Lady is of indeterminate age. I met her when I was 12 years old, on a road trip with my parents and three sisters, which began in upstate New York and culminated in the Black Hills in South Dakota. We went to the horse sanctuary there because, to be honest, there's literally nothing to do in the Black Hills except look at the Black Hills (you can spend a while doing that, and I highly recommend it!) and "pan for gold" in cheesy guided tours of defunct mines.
Also, all girls love horses. This is a fact. Horses are beautiful, and graceful, and they can pop your head like a melon if they want. What is there not to love, other than the fact that horses can't give interviews declaring themselves feminist allies? Not their fault. Horses are great. Horses want me to be the CEO of the world.
Champagne Lady is a genetic rarity, according to the founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Dayton O’Hyde. She is… the color of champagne, and she has green eyes. Her mother was killed by a mountain lion and she saved her own life by rudely following mares around and drinking their milk against their will.
She is one of 600 mustangs that live on the 11,000 acres that make up the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota. The Sanctuary was established in 1988 with support from the governor of South Dakota and the Bureau of Land Management, which was eager to find a solution for what was considered a significant problem. The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 had declared wild horses, "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people," but it hadn't laid out any plan to take care of these horses, which were being starved out by frequent droughts and extreme habitat loss.
The National Park Service is responsible for some wild horses, including the ones that rome the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and the famous Assateague mustangs off the coast of Virginia, but they can't care for them all. So, Dayton O. Hyde, a former cowboy, established the private non-profit behind the Sanctuary. It's sustained by income from occasional film shoots (like Hidalgo and Crazy Horse), cobbled-together private grants, and for the most part, individual sponsorships.
When I met Champagne Lady, I begged my parents to let us take home one of her foals. Based on my experience with feature films, breaking a mustang and making it your BFF was the best way to both discover yourself and to avoid being constantly alone. I wanted a coming-of-age story with a sweet little chestnut who would toss me around a bit but probably not actually kill me and also eat apples out of my hand. My parents said, "You are only 12 but you are already the most irresponsible person we've ever met in our lives, it is unreal." More or less.
But they did let me "sponsor" Champagne Lady, which I did initially with my own hard-saved birthday money. They renewed the sponsorship every year on my birthday until I was a sophomore in college. The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary just kept sending my mom the paperwork, so she just kept filling it out. I joked that I didn't even know whether Champagne Lady was still alive, but accepted the pony-themed calendars I received every December. Who doesn't love a good calendar!
Over time, the fact that Champagne Lady even existed or that I had ever seen hundreds of wild horses standing just a rickety wooden fence away from me felt less and less real. Sending money stopped feeling important. The Black Hills didn't seem like an actual place. I forgot she existed until we started making plans for The Verge's Wilderness Week and I was forced to think hard about the last time I had seen something truly wild.
Coincidentally, a high school friend of mine decided this year that she would buy a pick-up truck, drive across the country, and start her art career in Montana, painting landscapes in Yellowstone National Park. She agreed to make a pit-stop for me in the Black Hills, and sent me some grainy, distant iPhone photos of Champagne Lady and her new foal, Laddy. She's still a babe, and I sort of miss her.
Living in New York City, where I complain daily about the lack of fresh air, open land, or swimmable water (I grew up in the Finger Lakes wine region, where conservation is a matter of good business), it's easy to forget that something like the Black Hills and a scrappy little thing like Champagne Lady are still out there. I imagine that's one of the biggest reasons people struggle to care about conservation. A horse that might still be kicking 1,000 miles away, some mountains that I can't picture anymore, and a yearly package of customized return labels are not exactly powerful totems. It's a struggle to make the wild feel urgent when you're completely separate from it.
I hope I can spend the rest of 2016 trying a little bit harder.