Spirit Of The Black Hills
The Trail Rider|JanuaryFebruary 2017

The 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, near Rapid City, South Dakota, is home to small herds of rare Spanish Mustangs. We take you on an inside tour of this windswept sanctuary.

Audrey Pavia

From the moment I first learned of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, I knew I had to go there. Online photos showing windswept South Dakota landscapes dotted with grazing horses were only part of the attraction. The 11,000-acre sanctuary is home to small herds of rare Spanish Mustangs, being preserved for future generations. As a Spanish Mustang owner and a devotee of the breed, the sanctuary called to me.

So one recent spring, my friend, Cathy Blakesley, and I left Southern California for Rapid City, South Dakota, the closest town to the Black Hills with a commercial airport. I’d made arrangements for us to stay in one of the two guest cabins at the sanctuary.

After driving about an hour from Rapid City, we arrived at the sanctuary entrance at dusk, and followed the road three miles through rolling hills to the Visitor Center and our adjacent cabin.

Beautifully decorated with Western touches, our cabin faced the slow-moving Cheyenne River, which serves as the primary source of water for the sanctuary’s horses. After settling in, we drove into nearby Hot Springs for dinner and came back to the sanctuary for the night.

The next morning, Cathy and I stepped outside our cabin door and looked across to towering canyon walls. The river flowed quietly past, with pine and cottonwood trees lining the banks. As we walked to the Visitor Center, we began to take in the developed part of the sanctuary.

The adjacent Wild Horse Café and Ole Time Ice Cream Shoppe had just opened, and the gift shop already had visitors.

Beyond the small buildings were a few corrals with horses, along with a chicken coop and a pen with white peacocks. Beyond them, chestnut-colored cows grazed. Just to the south, a large paddock held dozens of horses.

Special Refuge

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary offers tours of the areas where the horses live. We were introduced to our guides, Karla LaRive and Gary McDowell, and several other guests. We all then climbed aboard an old school bus for a two-hour tour.

Karla proceeded to tell us about the sanctuary as we drove into a wooded area. As we came over a rise, we saw our first group of horses. An older gray mare was the first to glance up from grazing to look at our bus as we approached. Named Angel, the mare had been saved from the kill pen several times before ending up at the sanctuary.

“No one wanted her because she was ugly,” says Karla. The mare wasn’t well put together, but she had a kind eye, and her gentle nature was clear to see. Karla explained that not all the horses at the sanctuary are mustangs. Sometimes, they’re horses that just had nowhere to go. Like Angel.

A beautiful buckskin gelding with scars all over his body stood near Angel. Karla explained he’d been abused before finding refuge at the sanctuary. In his previous life, he’d been beaten repeatedly with a shovel.

Although learning the stories behind these horses made me sad, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed that they’d found their way to this beautiful place.

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