Words: Georgie Lane-Godfrey
In the middle of the Nevadan desert, a cloud of dust is rising. Despite the clear, piercingly blue sky, a thunder rolls across the plain, echoing off the mountains in the distance. At once, the horses we are riding begin to stir, dancing on the spot as the air becomes thick with anticipation. And then we see them – the herd of mustangs charging across the landscape, dusty manes and tails streaming in the wind – and we gallop off in pursuit.
But chasing the herd is like chasing a ghost; a hazy apparition in the distance that you can never quite reach. We gallop flat-out across the scrubland, weaving through scraggy bushes and gopher holes, even jumping crevices where the hard ground misaligns. It’s a fast, adrenaline-fuelled ride – the horses we’re astride are former mustangs themselves and you can sense their excitement as they chase down their wild cousins. The horse safaris are run by Mustang Monument, a luxurious eco-resort situated in the high desert of Nevada. Created by billionaire animal-rights campaigner Madeleine Pickens, it operates as more than your average ranch, providing a sanctuary for 1,000 wild mustangs. The horses are all rescue animals, many saved from cramped, government-controlled corrals from where they’re often illegally sold to the European meat market, or to cartels looking to transport their drugs across the borders. Here, they can roam free across 600,000 acres, allowing visitors an authentic glimpse of one of the most iconic symbols of the American West.
Yet Pickens’s altruism has garnered some heavy opposition. Local cattle ranchers object to the competition, viewing the wild horses as pests that threaten their livelihood, while government bodies argue that without a natural predator their numbers will become unsustainable. So heated is the debate that some sabotage attempts have been made, from wires being cut – allowing the mustangs to stray into neighbouring lands – to stallions being planted in the castrated herd so breeding regulations are breached. Pickens has remained undeterred, however, striving to establish the ranch as a luxurious tourism destination in order to spread the word of the mustangs’ plight.
‘We gallop flat-out across the scrubland, weaving through scraggy bushes. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled ride’
For guests looking for the thrill of a fast ride, these safaris really are the best way to get up close and personal with the horses. But adventure isn’t restricted to speed, and riders of any level can hack out over Spruce Mountain to explore the valley’s untamed wilderness. As we follow dirt tracks in the shadow of the pinyon pines, the fragrant scent of wild sage fills the air. It’s eerily quiet. We pass abandoned gold mines and the shells of remote villages, deserted by the pioneers who failed to tame this raw, rugged landscape. Verging off the track onto the hillside, we emerge out of the trees to find a breathtaking view of the Goshute Valley, stretching as far as the eye can see into the blue-skied distance. We also find a sumptuous picnic awaiting us – this is a billionaire’s take on ranching, after all.
But riding doesn’t have to be the only thing you do here. Ex-Navy SEAL Monty Heath runs the more high-octane activities, including rock climbing, shooting and off-road buggy-driving. Your regular GI Joe, he will teach you how to use the ranch’s extensive range of guns, from smaller pistols to larger assault rifles. You fire at targets in the shape of various villains, including zombies and Grand Theft Auto-inspired gangsters, that squirt red paint when you make a hit. But Heath’s military training really kicks in when he takes you out in the Maverick, an off-road buggy complete with roll cage that can reach speeds of up to 70mph. Clad in crash helmets, we career around the dirt tracks across the Goshute Valley, hearts racing and dust flying as we narrowly avoid rolling on every corner.
Back on the ranch, things take on a slower, more swaggering pace. Mustang Monument has a decadent approach to ranching, with its Ralph Lauren-adorned cottages and sumptuous hand-painted tepees. The candlelit dinner is taken in traditional communal style, with everyone swapping saddle stories from their day’s riding. The four courses of home-cooked food are all hearty – pumpkin soup, roast chicken, corn on the cob, cherry crumble – and are served in typically American-sized portions. After dinner, everyone retires to the saloon – a huge bar that looks like a movie set, with its Western saddle bar stools and country music crooning out of the stereo. Here, the bourbon flows, the tequila gets slammed and, as the night goes on, the talk turns whimsical with the promise of tomorrow. Tomorrow, we’ll catch the mustangs.
Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk) offers a seven-day itinerary with four nights at Mustang Monument in Nevada (mustangmonument.com) and three nights at the Sundance Resort in Utah, from £2,725 per person, based on two sharing and including economy flights to Salt Lake City, car hire, full-board and all activities at Mustang Monument, and room-only at the Sundance Resort