Link to Chickasaw Past
When Jones was nearing the end of his life in the late 1990s, he told Rickman he would give him all of his horses and land, as well as leased land, if the younger man would promise to look after the horses for the rest of his life. Rickman promised and assumed the chairmanship of Jones’ organization, the Southwestern Spanish Mustang Association in 1998. Jones passed away at age 93 in 2000.
By then, the herd had increased to about 600 head. The timber companies evidently believed that they could co-exist with the horses, Rickman said, because no problems surfaced; the horses continued to run free and thrive without any human assistance. Rickman says that occasionally, a few members of the herd would roam onto private land, and if the owners wanted them removed, they would call Rickman who would oblige them.
It wasn’t that big a chore, he says, because by that time, he had established a relationship with many of the horses. They knew him and would come when called.
All of this changed, according to Rickman, in 2007, when one timber company (out of several that owned the former Choctaw-Chickasaw land) informed him and several other lessees that they must get the horses off their property by February 2008. The company’s property included Blackjack Mountain and the area around it, a portion of which shares a boundary with Rickman’s land.
Considering the terrain and untamed nature of the horses, Rickman considered this to be an impossible demand. Still, he tried, and over the next three years was able to capture about 400 mustangs and remove them to his 200-acre ranch, where he managed his own small herd. He says he placed as many horses as he could as soon as he could. But despite the almost ruinous expense of feeding and maintaining so many horses, he wouldn’t place any horses with people who weren’t committed to preserving the bloodline. People who wouldn’t look Rickman in the eye and make the commitment would leave with no horses.
The timber company sued Rickman and eight other ranchers with leases for approximately $840,000 in alleged damages in federal district court in Muskogee. But the parties settled and according to one provision all of the horses left on Blackjack Mountain after February 8, 2010, would be subject to seizure by the wardens of the state wildlife department and would be disposed of as the department would see fit.
So at the beginning of this last winter, Rickman was faced with the financial burden of feeding and caring for several hundred Spanish Mustangs. He made it through with some help from his friends and neighbors. But every time he found some horses new homes, including a few Chickasaws, a few more wild ones would turn up one way or the other.
The settlement also prohibits Rickman from capturing the horses on the timber company’s land. But that hasn’t stopped him from setting up salt traps around the property’s perimeter, to lure the horses into captivity. But by capturing them, he will actually be liberating them from whatever action the timber company or wildlife department eventually takes.
Chance to Preserve Indian Horses
A few months ago, Rickman approached the Choctaw Nation for help with finding ranchers willing to care for and preserve the horses that he cannot continue to keep. An article about the horses appeared in the tribal newspaper, Bishinik, and as a result, Rickman was able to place additional horses. Even T. Boone Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, helped place a few of the horses, according to Karen Jacob, who wrote the article for the paper.
Kennedy Brown, chair of the Chickasaw Historical Society, saw the article and brought the matter to the attention of the society’s board of directors. Board member Mike Cornelius contacted Rickman and invited him to make a presentation to the board last fall. Brown told me that Rickman came prepared with articles, documentation, and an obvious passion for preserving the Spanish Mustangs. “There is no doubt Bryant Rickman is a credible person,” Brown says. After word got out about Rickman’s expertise and plight, Cornelius arranged some donations of feed and hay to help see Rickman through the winter. The CHS board also expressed interest in researching the possibility of the Chickasaw Nation acquiring some of the horses.
Recently, Rickman has placed many horses in small increments, five here, twelve there. But he still needs to find homes for up to 100 head in his possession. He says he has always taken good care of all of the horses he had contact with and all of them have tested negative for diseases such as the deadly Equine Infectious Anemia, more widely known as EIA.
Rickman estimates that 100 or more mustangs are still on or in the vicinity of Blackjack Mountain, and he or sympathetic ranchers may capture some in the future. He won’t say “liberated” because he believes that the ideal place for them is right where they are. But while it may be ideal, it is not the best, not as long as the company means to rid the timber land of them.
It was incredible to learn that wild horses still exist in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, I made the discovery about the Spanish Mustangs as commercial interests are threatening to curtail their freedom. As Rickman says, it reminds him of what happened more than a century ago to the former owners of the land, the Choctaws and Chickasaws.
Those horses, Rickman says, are like remnants of the two tribal cultures still roaming on the land where their ancestors thrived for generations. But this probably won’t last much longer.
Persons wanting to help preserve Spanish Mustangs may obtain more information by contacting Bryant Rickman at 580-743-1991. Much more news and information may be obtained on the website of the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association.