The wild horses of Desert Dust

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The ghost of a handsome palomino stallion races across the ridges of Wyoming’s Red Desert. For back in his home, he his king. He is Desert Dust, perhaps the most famous wild horse of the West.

Desert Dust’s story is one of legend perfect for the movies. In the late thirties and early forties, the palomino proved too elusive for commercial horse wranglers rounding up mustangs in the Red Desert for market, until 1945 when Frank Robbins of Glenrock, Wyo., helped catch him.

On that day, another man, Verne Wood, took a photo of the wild horse standing defiant against a backdrop of red rock. That photo circled the world and came to epitomize the character of the American mustang.

Desert Dust was spared the fate of the slaughter house, so often destined for other captured horses. He went on to become a famous rodeo horse, drawing crowds to tiny towns, only to die a legendary death when a passerby shot then mutilated the horse while he was grazing in a pasture.

The story of Desert Dust helped inspire the movement that led to the passage of the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959 and later the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Today the largest herd of wild horses in Wyoming roams the Red Desert with more than a thousand mustangs in Adobe Town alone. Virtually from corner to corner in the Red Desert visitors stand a good chance of seeing the flash of mane and whip of tail signifying a mustang.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

All romanticism and glory aside, the horse still lives with a hoof in two worlds as debate rages over whether the animal should be considered native or introduced. See the recent National Geographic article, Mustangs: Spirit of the Shrinking West, for  a thorough look at how the BLM is trying to manage wild horse numbers and the arguments for or against protecting the mustang.

They are often either a symbol of freedom or menace. In the Red Desert especially, the horses are the big animals on campus, and those who view them as introduced see the mustang as an aggressive competitor of resources with native wildlife like pronghorn antelope. Their hooves batter the ground and teeth rip roots from the soil. And the BLM spends tens of millions of dollars to keep the horses alive when they cannot survive by the whims of nature alone. (See Ted Williams’ article, Sacred Cows, Audubon Magazine, 03/2006)

Management efforts of the horses right now are very similar to the days of Desert Dust’s capture. The BLM uses helicopters and wranglers to corral wild horses, though they’re destination is adoption rather than slaughter. But especially now, with a poor economy and rising costs of feed, owners are growing harder to find.

At least for now the wild horse still has a home in the Red Desert, and as my heart battles with my head on where I stand with the mustang, I’m certainly glad I got to see them running free across the desert.

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

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12 responses to “The wild horses of Desert Dust

  • Topics about Animals » Archive » The wild horses of Desert Dust « Notes from the Big Empty

    [...] moheim added an interesting post today on The wild horses of Desert Dust « Notes from the Big EmptyHere’s a small readingTwo wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their … [...]

  • Rachel

    Hi,

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Your photos are lovely and capture the light and feel of the sky very accurately. As a native Montanan living in New York City, reading your blog helps me feel connected to the areas I grew up in.

    Thank you!
    Rachel

  • Andee Foutch

    My father grew up in Rawlins in the 40’s. Tonight at dinner we were talking about the photo of Desert Dust he keeps in his workshop. It was really cool to find your site and more photos + information on Desert Dust. Thank you.

    Conner

  • moheim

    Thanks for the comment, and I’m so glad that this post connected with your family. You dad comes from a place that is so rich with the history of the West!

  • Robert

    What is your favorite place in the world (as of right now)?

  • Thomas Thornal

    My uncle was Frank “Wild Horse Robbins” I enjoyed reading about Desert Dust I heard a lot about him from my dad growing up.

  • moheim

    This is perhaps the coolest comment I’ve ever gotten for the blog. Thank you for reading, and letting me know of your family history.

  • Doug Price

    Thanks for an interesting story. My dad, Jack, was part of the crew, along with Mr. Robbins that rounded up Desert Dust. He’s also written two books, based on his experiences as a young hand chasing wild horses on the Red Desert. Interesting reading and lots of pictures from that erra, including those of Robbins and Mr. Wood. “Wild Horse Robbins” and “Wild Horse Country in Wyoming”

  • Alden

    Where did you find the information about Desert Dust being shot? I’ve looked everywhere but I can’t find any other source that says the same.

  • milt

    i ran horses with frank robbins an loved the desert , take offence to it being called the big empty what do you epxpect houses on top of one another,i hope it remains like i remember it i found remains of indian encampments an coverd wagon ruts

  • moheim

    I’m humbled to have a colleague of Frank Robbins comment on here. I totally agree with you. My hope with this blog, though it’s called Notes from the Big Empty, is to help dispel the myth that there’s nothing there in the Red Desert. It’s a remarkable rich place, and hopefully will not become overrun with development, residential, energy or otherwise. Thanks for reading.

  • milt

    i would like to find out where i can connect with thomas thornal , im well aquaited with his dad befor he died, an of course heard him often talk of his son thomas.an matador.

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