Saturday, August 1, 2015
By Lindsay Whelchel
“Come on! Come on! Come on!” Bryant Rickman’s voice is melodic, carrying out over the rocky, brush-covered range at the top of Blackjack Mountain. He is calling wild horses.
And they come.
The Year is 2009
The black stallion is first, leading his band of mares and foals toward Rickman. The forest floor is on fire behind the horses. The smoke rolls over the land in ominous waves and serves as a pressing reminder to Rickman that his horses are literally losing their ground in the fight to preserve a natural and free way of life. Forests are being cleared with fire, and timber companies want the horses gone.
There aren’t fences, and the horses live on age-old instinct, but even so, they aren’t your typical “wild” horses. They are Colonial Spanish Mustangs, whose bloodlines have been purposefully cultivated and conserved since the 1950s when a man named Gilbert Jones moved to Medicine Springs and brought his Spanish horses with him; he also began to preserve the Choctaw horse brought to Oklahoma with the tribe in the Trail of Tears era.
Fast Forward to 2015
Rickman has been working much of his life to preserve the heritage of the Spanish and Choctaw Mustangs in Oklahoma. When the timber company called for the removal of Rickman’s wild horses from their grazing lands in the Kiamichi Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, he had no choice but to comply. It took several years to get them all rounded up safely and off the mountain they called home.
Many people have stepped in to aid Rickman in the preservation of the breed and to ensure their placement in still large, though smaller than their original, acreages. Once off the range, the horses either enter Rickman’s breeding program or find homes with other Spanish Mustang enthusiasts. Rickman makes regular visits to the multiple pastures housing the hundreds of horses to care for them. He also has to track down horses, like old stallions, which escape and lead their mares back to their original homeland on Blackjack Mountain.
“It’s been really a financial drain on our family to have to feed this many horses,” says Rickman, who now must feed up to 1,000 pounds of food each day, plus hay, since the horses can’t run wild anymore. “People think I’m crazy [for taking responsibility of the herd], but I worry about them if I don’t.”
Before Rickman had to move them, these horses ran hundreds of thousands of acres of open land near Medicine Springs, a place likely first discovered by the Choctaw tribe in the mid-1800s and coveted for the spring water’s healing powers. At a time when mustangs held such a stigma that ranchers in the west would shoot them on sight and thousands were being rounded up from the plains and sent off to slaughter, Jones was tracing
their blood back to the horses of Spanish explorers. Centuries ago the Conquistadors came to America on horseback. Over time, their horses were lost,
set free, or stolen. Soon they began to populate the vast, untamed west. Rickman speaks of the theory that the explorers rode big, strong warhorses and took along smaller, hardier pack horses, both of Spanish origin. The idea is that once free, the horses mixed and grew into a tough, enduring breed of horse that became the Spanish Mustangs of today. These are horses that became invaluable to the Native Americans.
Jones recognized the importance of preserving this line of horses, and began selecting those of the purest Spanish blood to add to his herd. When Jones arrived at Medicine Springs in 1958, his herd came to include a direct line of Oklahoma Choctaw horses as well. The Choctaw horse is a Spanish strain that largely originated in the southern United States and carried the Choctaw tribe to Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory.
Like Jones, Rickman, a retired agriculture teacher from Hugo, Oklahoma, has had horses his entire life. His childhood horse was a mare of Spanish, specifically Choctaw, origin. He says that when he was young his family couldn’t afford the big, heavily built quarter horses that were popular, and his friends always made him feel that he had an inferior horse because of her smaller size. Even though his horse could outrun and outlast his friends’ horses, he decided one day when he had money, he’d have some of the best quarter horses around, and he did. Then his son was born. He didn’t like putting him on a large horse, and wanted his kids to ride the same kind of horse he had growing up. That’s when he met Gilbert Jones. It wasn’t
long before the two men were close friends and equal partners in the preservation of the Spanish Mustang. His reverence for the breed is as deep as
“They have no equal as far as I’m concerned on endurance,” says Rickman. These horses are able to carry a man all day long – with no shoes on their hooves and no grain – and still be ready to go the next day. The horses also have a very people-oriented disposition. “They get to where they love you; even though you’re riding them, working them, they’re still your buddy, still your friend.”
Many Americans became acquainted with the endurance ability of these horses in 2004 through the Disney film “Hidalgo,” the story of Frank Hopkins, a gifted horseman and his Spanish Mustang called Hidalgo. The movie chronicles the pair’s success at long-distance racing in America and Arabia in the late 1800s. While some factual details in the story are debatable, the indisputable point is that Hopkins’ love for the Spanish Mustang prevailed throughout his life.
The film’s ending states that Hidalgo’s bloodline can still be found in Jones’ herd on Blackjack Mountain. Rickman explains that it may very well be true, but the film makes it seem like Hopkins let his horses go free in Oklahoma. In actuality, Jones, having heard about Frank Hopkins, selected breeding stock from the Spanish herd that could have produced Hidalgo. As a result, the blood of those horses was still on the mountain, and the Jones family, along with Rickman, worked fervently to ensure that the horses remained pure in blood and type.
As time passed and Jones aged, Rickman took on more responsibilities for the herd. Purity has always been the focus for both men. Rickman says that in 1972, Bob Denhardt, a founder of the American Quarter Horse Association, told Jones, “Whatever you do, don’t ever let anything be added to the genetics of your horses; you have a genetic treasure.” At the time, Jones was heavily involved with the Spanish Mustang Registry until he pioneered his own Southwest Spanish Mustang Association that Rickman chairs today.
The association has had an extensive list of breeders from South Dakota to Virginia, Hawaii, Sweden and Germany. Rickman has sold his horses to a great variety of people, buyers who are “really into wanting to conserve something that’s about gone,” he says. These horses “have touched just about everybody.”
The Rickman home is about one mile off a country road between Antlers and Hugo, Oklahoma. The entryway of the house is lined with a collection of horse bridles. A back room has been converted into an office for Rickman’s wife, Darlene, who handles the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association’s stud registry. The room is filled from top to bottom with meticulously kept records of horse ancestry started by Jones, plus photos of horses and rare antique books Jones collected on the Spanish Mustang and other breeds. The house is surrounded by nearly 300 acres of land on which now live
many of the horses brought down from the mountain. Rickman explains that he “sometimes feels like a traitor” to his beloved horses because they can no longer be free. But at least they won’t disappear altogether thanks to his efforts and supporters of the herd.
To aid Rickman’s burden and further educate people on the breed, the Friends of the Heritage Horse Foundation Herd was founded, named after the resolution by the state in 2014 to distinguish the horses as the Official Heritage Horse of Oklahoma.
“Our mission is to help preserve and promote the horses, and we do that through taking them to shows like the Choctaw Nation Labor Day Festival. We’ve had several invites to speak in the schools, and even take some of the horses,” explains Francine Locke Bray, president of the nonprofit organization.
“We raise funds to help with the feed, vet bills, whatever the horses need, because the only way they are supported is through sales and donations,” she says.
Locke Bray met Rickman after word arrived through a Choctaw publication that he was looking for descendants of families who came to Indian Territory in the Trail of Tears. Jones had documented that Locke Bray’s great-grandfather had owned 1,000 of the Choctaw horses; but Locke Bray, who was living in Indiana at the time, assumed the herd had died out. That is, until she got the message from Rickman. Since their first meeting, she’s been hooked on the horses and eventually moved to Oklahoma for warmer weather and to share in the mission.
Another ally has been Dr. D. Phillip Sponengberg and The Livestock Conservancy, helping to conserve the genetics of the horses.
An effort to help the horses has also come from Jim Stephens and the Fossil River Horse Refuge/Oklahoma Heritage Horse Sanctuary, Inc., established to house many of the horses near their original homeland. From there, the herd can see Blackjack Mountain in the distance and, with hope, keep their free spirits alive.
And when Rickman goes out to check the horses, he still sings out “come on, come on!” and sure enough, the herd will materialize, like smoke through the trees.