The Masters of Black Mountain

What can you learn from a herd of wild horses Plenty.


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Bob Stone steps out of his half-ton Ford pickup, slides his hands in his pockets, and surveys the mud with apprehension. “They were here last night,� he says, looking for tracks. “Well, we’ll go out to the east and see.� Yesterday, when Stone had been here in the hilly backcountry roughly 20 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo, he’d seen them — eleven mares, two foals, and one stal-lion — the Black Mountain herd, the only wild mustangs remaining in coastal California. Now it looks like the horses have moved on, maybe to another pasture near here, but just as likely up into Black Mountain.

RUNNING FREE :  The mustangs at Black Mountain are the only wild horses in Coastal California. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo By Christopher Gardner
  • RUNNING FREE : The mustangs at Black Mountain are the only wild horses in Coastal California.

#During the drier months the herd can often be found at the only lake in this section of Los Padres National Forest. “In the summer they come in when the lake is smooth,� Stone says. “They all go out, clear up over their knees, and they drink and drink. They drink for like three or four minutes — real slow.� But now, during the winter, when the herd frequents the seasonal streams that run through the numerous canyons dropping away from Black Mountain, it’s harder for Stone to spot them. He’s checked, with no luck, two places where they can sometimes be found, and now he thinks they may have headed up to higher elevation, into the thick chaparral where they’d be nearly impossible to locate.

Stone has special permission to drive here in the foothills of Black Mountain. Only authorized vehicles are allowed; otherwise access is by foot. He gets in his truck again and heads east toward another pasture. This may be one of those days when even he, the expert, doesn’t get to see the mustangs. He creeps along the Forest Service dirt road, checking for tracks, and then pulls over for a closer look. “Doesn’t look like they came this way,� he says. He gets back in and turns to head west. It’s a slow pursuit, but even notseeing the horses is a pleasant reminder that these mustangs run free.

Driving past an old shack where the legendary Bethal brothers once lived, he stops again. At the side of the road he finds what he’s looking for: a cluster of U-shaped indentations in the mud, including a set of miniature prints. “The one foal,� he says. “It couldn’t have been born more than three or four days before this seven-, eight-, nine-inch rainstorm we just had. I saw him after the storm and he looked just as bright as can be. He was standing in a little creek with a grass bottom, just beating the water with his hoof, like, ‘This is an interesting toy to play with.’ The reason that’s significant,� he adds, “you see the horses that are bred now, and just by nature they’re raised on a small acre or two, and by the time you ride them, when they’re two or three, some won’t cross water, they’ll be frightened by all these things that are so natural. So these colts make — if they’re gentle and broke — they make terrific trail or mountain horses.�

Stone had left his home in Santa Margarita early this morning and had driven east on Highway 58, twisting through a chilly linger-ing fog, and headed toward Black Mountain, a trip he makes once a week, sometimes more. He first saw the Black Mountain mus-tangs in 1968; nearly four decades later he’s still entranced. By now he knows the lineage of each horse, but he hasn’t given them pet names; he doesn’t even touch them. “I sup-pose I was caught up in the romantic aspect — you know, wild horses, and then the history of these, that they came from working stock. What’s funny to me is they say these aren’t pure mustangs. Well, mustang means mixed breed, so how do you get a pure mustang?�

Some twenty miles by road from Santa Margarita, Stone had pulled his pickup off the highway to unlock a metal cattle gate. After carefully closing it behind him, he bumped along a dirt road that follows Shell
Creek up to Black Mountain. He had driven slowly, with one hand on the wheel, past blue oaks and gray pines, and through another series of gates as frisky Herefords played in front of his truck. The stand of gray pines reminded Stone of his days as a forest fire-fighter. “They have a long needle, and when the wind blows through them it kind of whis-pers,� he noted. “It’s like gentle surf. When we had fires and we had to sleep during the day, which wasn’t easy to do, I’d always try to get below one of these gray pines and hear the wind blow through those needles.�

Stone would be the only person entering the horse territory this way — through private property — and it was extremely unlikely he’d encounter anyone at Black Mountain, though he keeps an eye out for hunters and other trespassers who find their way into the area, which is virtually sur-rounded by private land.

  • Photo By Christopher Gardner
  • ON THE MOUNTAIN : Bob Stone at Black Mountain

#The hoof prints near the Bethal homestead have re-energized Stone. He snakes the truck up a steep ridge. A jackrabbit darts across the sandy road. As the pickup climbs, a panorama emerges — foothills dense with brush and spiked with oak groves ascend to Black Mountain, which rises 3625 feet to the south like a squat Buddha. Stone takes in the vista and recalls the Highway 58 fire of 1996. It was as severe a conflagration as the veteran forest-fire fighter had ever seen, and it transformed the land into a moonscape. Stone helped in the emergency relocation of the entire herd. “It singed their manes and tails,� he says soberly. That was the only time the horses had to be removed, and for a few weeks they lived in captivity near Pozo. In the decade since the fire, the chapar-ral has grown back vigorously, but wizened black skeletons of trees still poke through as stark reminders.

Stone parks at the crest of the ridge, gets out, and marches through the shoulder-high chaparral, his cowboy
boots crunching under foot. Then he stops. Silently he surveys the shallow canyon below.

Los Padres National Forest is vast, covering 1.75 million acres that stretch from Monterey to Santa Barbara. Black Mountain lies within the Santa Lucia Ranger District, whose headquarters office is in Santa Maria. The mustang herd roams over some 6500 acres of unfenced land that provides both food and sanctuary. Countless canyons cut through the foothills that rise to Black Mountain, which lightly crowns the north end of the La Panza Range. The region forms the headwaters of numerous creeks including the Huerhuero, Toro, Yaro, Shell, Indian and Fernandez, all of which feed agriculture land for miles around.

Gazing at the canyon below him, Stone whistles, a brief rush of air escaping from his lips that announces his arrival. Far below, dark chestnut freck-les move slowly in and out of the shadows and bright sun-light. At last the mustangs.

With his hands comfortably squeezed into his jeans pock-ets, Stone begins to make his way down to the horses. Six feet tall, he’s built solidly, and the only sign of his age, 65, is a silver beard trimmed tightly to his face. His robust health, he says, is a result of good genes and a life spent breathing clean country air. For 20 years he battled fires for the U.S. Forest Service, then he became a wilderness ranger with the same agency. For the better part of 40 years he lived in the forests of Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Even though he’s now retired, he still does trail work — for fun.

Stone bounds over a narrow stream, an unnamed tributary of Shell Creek, and the herd’s lone stallion, now aware of a human’s presence, kicks up his hind legs and sprints up a hillside, through a cluster of oaks, toward the mares and foals. His hooves pound the earth, thumping like distant mortar fire, briefly inter-rupting the quiet Black Mountain morning. The mares are unfazed by Stone’s approach, still 60 feet away, but the two foals — one two weeks old, the other only a week — wake from their slumber and seek their mothers.

The Black Mountain herd is composed mostly of bays, dark brown horses with black manes and tails, but there is one sorrel mare and a few chestnut mares as well. “Some of the original stock here is from the late 1800s, from the Bethal ranch,� Stone explains. As the herd begins pacing to the west, he slowly walks behind them, keeping his distance. “The gene pool was so shallow that we introduced other wild horses — some from Nevada, others from northern California — to give it new blood.�

The mustangs shine like polished leather in the sun. Their tails and manes are longer than those of domesticated horses. Stone says he doesn’t know why they don’t grow winter coats. Two of the mares are thick with preg-nancy, and one horse, an inquisitive chestnut mare with a white blaze down her face, walks within ten feet of Stone, as if to say hello. After fifteen minutes of trailing the herd, Stone comes to a halt under an oak tree and lets them slowly amble on to another grazing pas-ture. He heads back up to his truck, ruminat-ing as he goes. “Some people feel it with hors-es, and some don’t,� he says. “It’s part of the history, part of the Old West, and Hollywood. I think that’s all part of it. Horses have been so much a part of our history, unfortunately mostly for war. They’ve done so much for civi-lization, allowed us to do so many things.�

Stone functions as an unofficial liaison between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which co-manage the animals. The Black Mountain herd is much smaller than others in the West, kept to no more than 20 horses total, and only one stal-lion — their territory could not support more. Because it’s so small, the herd is a low priority for the BLM. The Forest Service, on the other hand, is charged with managing public lands, not livestock. Stone’s long history and famil-iarity with the mustangs make him a valued asset for those agencies. His wife of four years, Melody Fountain, is a resource officer for the Forest Service, and coincidentally is the official responsible for overseeing the herd.

Last year BLM and Forest Service officials were scheduled to round up a few Black Mountain colts for adoption as part of the program to manage the West’s mustang herds. (See sidebar, page 8.) Two days before
the planned roundup, Stone found himself alone with the herd at a BLM corral next to the lake. “By Wild West standards a Black Mountain roundup isn’t very exciting,� he says, explaining that it consists of simply luring the horses into the corral with some hay. Sensing an opportunity, Stone began slowly weaving in and out of the herd, qui-etly guiding the horses this way and that. Soon the colts were in the corral and their mothers outside. It was about as stress-free as a roundup gets, and Stone did it all on his own. Two of those colts now live on a ranch 20 miles away, and are in the capable hands of Irv McMillan.

McMillan’s ranch house sits near the mouth of Gillis Canyon, a rugged expanse of arid hills and arroyos near the eastern edge of San Luis Obispo County. The canyon runs east-west and is traced by a dry creekbed that comes roaring to life when heavy rains fall, as happened six weeks ago when McMillan and his wife Coralie measured almost four inches in two days. McMillan’s home, which is less than a mile down the canyon from the original family homestead, lies well above the creek on a tongue of earth that, eons ago, slid off a nearby hillside and settled into a stable mass — a natural house pad.

  • Photo By Christopher Gardner

#The nearest store is a Mexican market about five miles away in Shandon.On a recent morning, dust and pollen spar-kle in the early light like floating diamonds as McMillan hikes up a steep hill behind his house, heading for a ten-acre fenced pasture holding his young mustangs. A rope halter and a bag of alfalfa grain are slung over his shoulder. The sharply angled sunlight casts long shadows down the canyon, and he stops frequently to admire the view. Tall and sure-footed at age 62, McMillan moves easily up the grade, still slippery from the rain. Blue jeans, a Western-style work shirt, and a well-worn cowboy hat mark him as a stereotypical rancher, but the similarities end there.

Very little about Irv McMillan is typical.His day starts early, but he always makes time to watch journalist Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! on satellite TV. He may be the only man in these parts tuning in to Goodman’s radio and television program that leans left and pushes hard in its critical coverage of the war in Iraq. (His brother Don, who lives farther up Gillis Canyon, has also become a fan of the program.)

This morning McMillan isn’t pondering the insurgency in Iraq; he’s thinking about the rains, predicting when the grass will be coming up, and considering where on his 1200-acre ranch he’ll graze the cattle (he keeps 25 head of Hereford and other breeds). After intense rains, he says, “you can almost hear the grass grow.� A subtle carpet of green is showing on the hills, but it isn’t yet audible.Three years ago, while trekking around Black Mountain, McMillan came upon another hiker, a rare encounter in that inaccessible part of Los Padres National Forest. The men were close to the same age, and closer still in their interests: Both were searching for the mountain’s wild mustangs. It was the first meeting between McMillan and Bob Stone.

A friendship immediately developed. Says Stone: “The kind of people you meet in the backcountry are the kind of people you want to get to know.� McMillan and Stone stayed in touch, and when the mares gave birth last year, the two headed for Black Mountain to check out the foals. McMillan soon learned he could adopt a colt, and he jumped at the chance, hoping for a horse that would be good in rough ter-rain. “There were a couple of horses I didn’t want because they were kind of — they were obviously leaders,� he recalls. “They did a lot of biting and kicking. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that. Then there were some that were really kind of more docile and tame. They didn’t show much spunk.

The ones I was really selecting from were kind of those in the middle.�The two colts McMillan adopted were born nine months ago. He remembers see-ing them for the first time, but so many years have passed that he can’t remember the first time he saw what he calls the Bethal herd, after the two cowboys whose work-ing horses eventually became the masters of Black Mountain. McMillan met the Bethal brothers when he was a kid, and they left an impression. “They lived close to the land,� he says, breeding their horses and hiring out to retrieve cattle that had escaped from local ranches. Lifelong bachelors, they made their home in a shack on the mountain. “One of the Bethal brothers, and I think it was Jim, he had a growth on his cheek. Big growth. They never cut it off, and it hung down there like a golf ball,� McMillan recalls with a laugh. “It was something that a kid like myself, I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. They’d come into town.

Fred was kind of the leader of the brothers. They’d go through town just like they go up a trail, one about twenty foot behind the other. I doubt very seriously if they had a change of clothes.�When the Bethals died some 30 years ago, their horses were already running free, and their ownership was thrown into question. McMillan’s uncle Don created a stir in 1968 when he penned a column in the Paso Pressrepeating rumors that the Black Mountain herd was going to be eradicated. Public concern for the horses’ welfare prompted the U.S. Forest Service to respond: Not true. And so what began as an informal promise to protect the herd evolved into today’s offi-cial policy, which now includes the annual roundups and adoptions of mustangs.

Peering up the path behind his house, McMillan makes eye contact with his mus-tangs, Jiminy and Cricket, who stare back at him, then calmly continue grazing. “They’re brothers and they’re about as opposite as you can get, except they look a lot alike,� McMillan says as he approaches the animals. “At this point, I don’t know if the names will stick, but I call them Jiminy Cricket. Jiminy’s the one with the wart and Cricket’s the other guy.�Cricket, who has dark brown legs and a lighter brown body, immediately comes to McMillan, though Jiminy ignores him. Jiminy is dark brown with thick legs, knees like enormous fists, and a mule’s ears. “People say he looks like a mule, and he does have big ears, no doubt,� McMillan grins. “I love those ears.�

 The most prominent feature, however, is the wart that hangs like a prune from Jiminy’s chin. When McMillan saw that wart, he thought of Jim Bethal. The name followed.“Good boy,� he says as he draws near and begins rubbing Jiminy’s mane and scratching between his ears. Deftly he slips the halter over the horse’s ears. “Good boy,� he repeats in his deep, gravelly voice, gently guiding the horse downhill toward a circle pen, where he’ll work with the colts.Cricket follows close behind, and along the way comes upon a barbed-wire gate McMillan had unfastened and let fall to the ground. Cricket gingerly tiptoes through it. “See that? That’s just great!� McMillan exclaims, adding that many domesticated horses would get caught in the wire and injure themselves — further proof that the wild ones haven’t had all the good sense bred out of them, that his boys will be confident on mountain trails as pack horses.

McMillan’s approach to breaking a horse bears little resemblance to the traditional practice of physical intimidation and brute force, which American cowboys have used for many generations. He won’t call it “whis-pering,� but it’s similar to the training meth-ods popularized by the book and movie The Horse Whisperer — except that McMillan learned his techniques from satellite televi-sion. “That’s where I basically picked it up,� he says. “This farm channel on the satellite. There are lots of different trainers but they all have the same basic philosophy of [using] pressure. That’s something they all under-stand and talk about.� (McMillan, of course, grew up on this ranch and has been around horses all his life. He watched his father train many young horses, so his experience runs deeper than the Farm Channel. “He was good,� he says of his father, “and he got to the same place, but it was not a very pleasant experience — for the horse especially. He never spent any time training me. It was just like, ‘Well, you’ll figure it out.’ It wasn’t until I was 60 that I figured it out.�)

In addition to working with horses at a much younger age, these new methods call for the application and removal of mental pressure or tension. The process has been unexpectedly successful and rewarding for McMillan. “The whole challenge to the human is to recognize how to apply pressure, just the right intensity, and to release it,� he says. “The most important thing is how to release it and when to release it. The educa-tion takes place the moment you release pres-sure.

Up in that chaparral, the colts survived in a pecking order already, so they do know how to respond to pressure.�McMillan wants the young mustangs to know it’s better to give in to pressure, and that once they do, there will be no tension. “Their natural instinct is to reject pressure, to flee from pressure. But it’s amazing that you can actually override that instinct. That, basi-cally, is the whole process — to teach them to give in to pressure, to relax and to give in to pressure.� Inside the pen, when McMillan stands next to Jiminy and the colt begins sidestep-ping away, he keeps his hands on the horse’s back and walks with him. Jiminy seems ner-vous and keeps shuffling, but McMillan stays with him until he gives in to pressure and stops. Then McMillan pets him and mur-murs, “Good boy.�

While working through a few more exer-cises in the pen, it occurs to McMillan that he should teach Cricket how to come. “Maybe if  I do this,� he says, and puckers up to make a loud kissing sound in Cricket’s direc-tion. At first the horse is clueless and takes a step backward. McMillan continues the kissing sound. When Cricket takes another step back, McMillan adopts a harsher tone. “Nope,� he says sternly. Then the horse starts to step forward, giving in to pressure. McMillan keeps kissing the air and quietly says, “Good boy,� encouraging Cricket. More kissing until Cricket takes a full step: “Good boy!� McMillan’s encouragement intensifies, and soon Cricket walks up and stops directly in front of him, looking at him intently with both eyes, just as McMillan has taught. “Everything’s a step,� he says. “You’ve got to build, you just keep building.�

Ater the training session, McMillan heads back to his house, a low-slung, one-story structure that is more than mere shelter for him and his wife Coralie; it is a reflection of their personal philosophy, which places a high value on self-reliance and conserva-tion of natural resources. The home is completely off the electrical grid and is constructed principally of recycled mate-rial. Panels of photovoltaic cells on the roof provide the main power source, though a generator is available for backup.

The house is heated by a passive system cen-tered around a south-facing, glass-walled sun room. A slate floor sits atop the soil and many plants grow directly from the ground. A large open shower occupies one corner while a vintage, single-fin surfboard hangs from the ceiling. During the day the room becomes hot and humid, even in the cool winter months. After the sun goes down, windows between the sun room and the main house are briefly opened. The hot air rushes into the house, then the windows are closed.McMillan built the house by hand over 12 years, using wood scavenged from a variety of sources.

The ceiling was once a set of bleachers at the Paso Robles High School football stadium. The roof is supported by massive redwood beams that once braced the train tunnel on Cuesta Grade. McMillan obtained much of the wood dur-ing the three decades he owned Western Cabinet Work, a custom-cabinet company in Paso Robles, before permanently mov-ing to the ranch in 1998. Coralie proudly shows off a finely crafted hutch in the mas-ter bedroom, the last cabinet her husband made. It is built into the wall and features a grain bin, hinged at its base, that swings open for storage.Resourcefulness and ingenuity are traits McMillan inherited from his father, Ian McMillan, a rancher and naturalist who acquired the Gillis Canyon property in 1936 and raised cattle and hunting dogs until his death in 1990.

The elder McMillan was well known for his studies of Central Coast wildlife (he was a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and wrote a book on the California condor) and for his pioneering work as a conservation-ist and environmental activist. He served on the California Parks and Recreation Commission, where he played a key role in establishing Montana de Oro State Park and strictly limiting vehicular activity within its boundaries. At the ranch one of his projects was to create a habitat for quail by planting numerous shrubs and spruce trees to attract the birds. Years later the habitat boasts one of the region’s most healthy quail stocks. His papers are held in a special collection at the Cal Poly library.

It’s not uncommon to see roadrunners, coyotes, jackrabbits, deer, and of course quail from Irv and Coralie McMillan’s front door. His father, he jokes, cared more about quail than cattle. Today much of the McMillan ranch is part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which rewards ranchers for enhancing native spe-cies and protecting environmentally sensi-tive lands. The burgeoning wildlife fostered by the program has become invaluable to the McMillan family.Irv McMillan doesn’t have to worry about the future of the sprawling ranch.

His father created a trust that has passed ownership to his two children and their five cousins. All of them intend to keep the acreage intact and continue the tradition of conservation. McMillan’s son Wade, a third-grade teacher living in Los Angeles, says he won’t be moving to the ranch any-time soon, but daughter Crystal, a Santa Barbara lab technician expecting her first child, would like to raise her family there. That prospect pleases her father. He can see himself riding Jiminy and his daughter rid-ing Cricket as they explore the ranch or head out to the Carrizo Plain, where they’ll take the horses for backcountry pack-ing. He can also see his future grand-children riding the mustangs. “They’ll be great kids’ horses,� he says.When he picked up the colts last year from a BLM facil-ity in Ridgecrest and brought them home, the energy in Gillis Canyon was palpable. “It was exciting,� recalls his wife Coralie. “It was kind of like having kids.� For her husband the excitement has not waned. “It’s just such a darn luxury to spend time with these colts,� he says. “They just continue to amaze me at how easily they are taught, and we’re just evolving together as far as being taught and teaching.�

McMillan has kept a journal of his daily training sessions with the horses, docu-menting the successes and failures. Initially he thought it would make for dull reading, but to his surprise his daughter and others have already requested future installments. “He’s very modest about it,� Crystal says of her father’s journal, adding that it reveals his “appreciation of the natural world. He loves the small wonders of life.�Among those wonders are the lessons his wild mustangs are teaching him. “You can’t fight a horse,� he muses. “It seems like we’ve made a big, big advancement in that knowledge. But we haven’t made advance-ments in dealing with our own human natures. In other words, we’re still fighting these damn wars, but we know that isn’t working. We’re still fighting wars, even though we know we can’t fight a war with a horse. What the hell?�

Since passage of the federal Horse and Burro Act in 1971, the Bureau of Land Management has been responsible for managing the nation’s wild mus-tangs. Monitoring the size of herds is a key component in maintaining the health of the horses and the western lands they roam.

To strike the right balance, the bureau annually removes a certain number of horses and puts them up for adoption. Despite a modest price of $125, the animals are not finding new homes. According to recent BLM estimates, there are approximately 32,000 horses and burros in the wild, but a whopping 24,500 are in captivity awaiting adoption.Mustangs culled from the Black Mountain herd are taken to a BLM facility in Ridgecrest, where they receive medical atten-tion and a freeze brand on their necks. Then the BLM makes it easy for those wishing to adopt: The agency offers free delivery service up to 150 miles away.The backlog of mustangs has led to concern that they may be adopted by com-mercial interests and slaughtered for their meat, which is consumed in parts of Asia and Europe.

Last year Congress responded by cutting off funding for federal horsemeat inspectors, effectively halting the trade. But just last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced implementation of a protocol that will re-establish horse slaughter at three foreign-owned plants (two in Texas, one in Illinois). Under these new USDA regulations, foreign-owned companies can bypass federal inspection by hiring their own inspectors.

Even though is it illegal to kill branded horses adopted from the BLM, animal activ-ists, including the Humane Society, worry that third-party transactions and foreign inspectors could lead to the slaughter of American mustangs.For information about adopting BLM wild horses see



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