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The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

"For a long time, the American desert has been my beat and my passion. The reasons are many, but really, there is only one. In the desert, the chatter of city life fades away and my own thoughts vanish; I get quiet and I hear things. The beating of wings. The scratching of lizard. The crack of tortoise egg. The whisper of stories that want to be told.

"In 1991, I walked into a bar on Highway 62, the desert two-lane that stretches from Interstate 10 in California eastward into the far Mojave. I had just finished a hike in Joshua Tree National Park. It was twilight. Thunderclouds were rolling in and the perfume of creosote was in the air. Inside the Josh Lounge, people sat at the bar, guarding their pitchers of beer, talking of sports, the weather, local news. After awhile, I heard the first few notes of a dark desert tale. Two girls had been 'sliced up' by a Marine, someone said; probably they deserved it. 'Who were they?' I asked. 'Just some trash,' came the reply. A frequent visitor to the area, I knew there was more to the story, and I vowed to tell it. A decade later, it became my book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave.

"But before I was finished, another terrible tale was unfolding and I couldn't shake off its call. A few days after Christmas in 1998, I was waiting to meet with a source in another desert bar. I picked up the local paper and read that six wild horses had been gunned down in the mountains outside Reno. The next day, the body count had grown to twenty, and by the end of December, while people gathered to ring in the New Year at parties across the land, thirty-four dead mustangs had been found in the scrubby mountains of the Virginia Range. A few days later, three men were arrested. Two of them were Marines and one of them was stationed at Twentynine Palms.

"I was surprised - and then I wasn't. I knew that a number of grisly crimes had emanated from the military base hidden away in that remote desert town. Now, the victims were wild horses and their story also spoke of our history, our heritage, and our land. But what exactly was their story? I wondered as the Reno incident began to take over my life. Why would someone go out and kill the animals that had blazed our trails, fought our wars, served as our most loyal partner? As I began looking into the story, I soon realized that what happened to the wild horses in Reno was about much more than that particular event. It went right to the heart of who we are as Americans.

"With all due respect to our official icon, the eagle, he of the broad wing-span and the ability to see across great distances, of patience born of the ages and majestic flight, it is really the wild horse, the four-legged with the flying mane and tail, the beautiful, big-hearted steed who loves freedom so much that when captured he dies of a broken heart, the ever-defiant mustang that is our true representative, coursing through our blood as it carries the eternal message of America. Many have read Moby Dick, but few - including me, until I began my wild horse research - remember that in his tribute to that which man should not possess, Melville devoted a passage to the other great white, the one that ranged the Great Plains:

"Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions, is that of the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, over-scorning carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild horses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies... The flashing cascade of his mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings more resplendent than gold-and silver-beaters could have furnished him.'

"To see this killing for what it was, I realized, I needed to learn the story of the wild horse before the Reno massacre - the facts of its life along the trail, at war, at play, in our literature and lore, how it got here and where it came from. It was a large and at times daunting endeavor but one that I felt compelled to undertake: quite simply, the horse deserved its own account, and no such thing existed - at least not in the way I wanted to tell it, by traveling with the horse across space and time, right through the entire American saga."    [top]


Produced and directed by John Carver, Wolf Creek Productions, Inc.
Guitar instrumental "Horizon Riders" and "Nomad" courtesy of David Arnson and the Insect Surfers.

Praise for Mustang

“Deanne Stillman's writing, research and inspiration in the creation of Mustang is stunning. When finished, readers will fret over how the U.S. government can continue to allow the destruction of those who have been our brothers and sisters for centuries: America's wild horses.“

— Michael Blake, author of Dances with Wolves and The Holy Road

“Told with passion and skill, filled with drama and dust and fascinating facts, "Mustang" is a worthy addition to the literature of the horse in the American West.“

Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains

“Mustang is a stunning accomplishment. The wild runs through these pages so we understand the gravity of what we have done trying to capture it. Stillman has accomplished what might be impossible, rendering the horse's wild and indomitable nature while testifying to its horrific if sometimes blessed relationship to humans. In writing on behalf of the mustang, Stillman offers us one of the truly worthy challenges of our time.

— Deena Metzger, author of Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing

“In Mustang, Deanne Stillman has written a classic in equine literature, an exhaustively reported and beautifully told tale of the American mustang viewed in the full sweep of his cultural and evolutionary development. The mustang is a national symbol and treasure. And, from beginning to end, now so is Stillman's book-in the end, a riveting, compelling testimonial on why this free-roaming animal must be saved.“

William Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion

“It's been said that the history of this nation was written from the back of a horse. But not until now--with Deanne Stillman's "Mustang" --has that history come to epic life. At once an important, comprehensive study and a spellbinding read, "Mustang" is ultimately a hymn to our homeland. Deanne Stillman makes a compelling case for the preservation of wild horses.

— John Fusco, screenwriter "Thunderheart," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," and "Hidalgo."

“Mustang unflinchingly chronicles the tragic journey that the noble horse has endured in creating the nation we are today. Deanne Stillman's masterfully crafted work demands us to not only examine our American identity but our very humanity. In the reckoning of it all, redemption might be found. A passionate, compelling -- ultimately heartrendering -- book.“

Samantha Dunn, author of Not by Accident

“Deanne Stillman has given horse lovers a remarkable book which includes everything one needs to know about our mustangs. Don't miss it and if you loan it to a friend make him sign for it. He will be passing it along to his friends and you will have to get yourself another one.“

— Tony Hillerman, author of Dance Hall of the Dead

“Like the best nonfiction writers of our time (Jon Krakauer and Bruce Chatwin come to mind), Stillman's prose is inviting, her voice authoritative and her vision imaginative and impressively broad...[Mustang] is an invaluable history.“

Pam Houston, Sunday LA Times Book Review

“A stampeding, crusading history of horses in America during the last half-millennium...a spirited defense of the wild horse, as well as a rousing, sweeping account of the horse from the arrival of the conquistadors, who would not have been able to subdue North America without it...a well-written, welcome work of history and advocacy.“

— Kirkus Reviews

“This extraordinary epic of the wild horse is a true American tragedy. Without the horse, neighter the Indian nor the white man would have conquered the land, yet this beautiful animal has been rewarded with brutal massacres and incredibly inhumane slaughterhouses. Stillman tells the infuriating but inspiring story of the destruction and survival of a noble icon perfectly - you'll never forget it.“

— Penthouse

“A stunner and a heartbreaker.“

NPR's "On Point"

“Brisk, smart, thorough, and surprising.“

Atlantic Monthly

“Deanne Stillman has crafted a fascinating narrative with all the grace and power embodied in the wild horses that once populated the Western range by the hundreds of thousands . . . There is no 'happily ever after' in Stillman's magnificently told saga.“

Albuquerque Journal

“Well-researched and written, and might well be essential reading for Westerners.“


“This urgent, compelling and unforgettable book builds a convincing case that wild horses are an essential part of both our national history and character.“

— Larry Cox, King Features Syndicate

“Powerful...As Stillman writes, 'America is bleeding.' In the case of Mustang, it is right from the heart.“

Orion Magazine

“Particular books both define a topic and become the defining book on that topic. I am thinking of John McPhee༥m>Oranges, Jessica Mitford༥m>The American Way of Death and Mike Davis༥m>City of Quartz and today add to that list Deanne Stillman༥m>Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.“

Andrew Tonkovich, KPFK's Bibliocracy

“Don't Fence Me In.“

the Texas Observer

“The Killing Fields.“

The Economist

“The History of our Horse.“

Seattle Times

“An impassioned epic history...Stillman is at her best when telling such modern mustang sagas as that of Velma 'Wild Horse Annie' Johnston of Reno“

Dallas Morning News

“Unfettered West...“

Denver Post

“A book of passion about the wind-drinkers...“

Indian Country Today

“Billings Ties Abound in Mustang.“

Billings Gazette

“Wild Hooves“

Tucson Weekly

“Paradise Mislaid“

Phoenix New Times

“ imagery is a hallmark of Mustang...More important though is the chronicle provided, for the days of the wild mustang are fleeting... “


“...a powerfully written, very moving book...“

Electricpolitics podcast

“...could be the most important work in the past 40 years for calling attention to the plight of US wild horses...“

“An exhaustively researched, eloquently written wake-up call.“

Pasadena Weekly

“...for your summer enjoyment another fantastic book about horses...a poignant account...I can't put it down...“

all material © Deanne Stillman, 2002-2020
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