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Saving the mustangs

Saving the mustangs

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LANTRY, S.D. - The smell of sage fills the air and prairie dogs chirp as the battered white truck bounces over the arid scrub grass field. Karen Sussman scans rocks, fence lines, tree stumps and low spots, looking for the vague shape that might be her missing foal.

"I'm searching for straws and imagining that's a horse with its head up," she says, driving toward what turns out to be just one more tree stump.

Finally, she parks the truck, gets out and folds her arms. A foal away from the herd for a day has little chance of survival, and Sussman looks worried as she turns in a slow circle, searching the pasture. Nothing.

Later, Sussman stews over the lost foal as she feeds Sultan, a stallion recovering from a leg wound. "Now you can see what a neat horse he is," she says. "That foal would not have died under his care." She whispers tender praise: "That's my boy, that's my little boy," and leans toward the muscular stud, who stretches his nose toward her to accept a kiss.

The kiss is Sussman's reward for another long day and night caring for more than 350 horses, most of them wild, on her 680-acre ranch near Lantry. For nearly two decades, she has run the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, an organization founded to save wild horses in the United States.

One goal is to save herds threatened with elimination and slaughter, and the bulk of the animals here are in three herds. Two have intriguing historical roots. The Catnip herd is descended from U.S. Cavalry horses of the 1800s; the Gila herd, which came from Gila Bend, Ariz., is believed to be descended from horses brought to the continent by Spanish conquistadors.

One mark of Sussman's devotion to the animals: She has named almost all of them.

Sussman, a petite, blond 60-year-old, is a registered nurse who still works one weekend each month at a hospital in Eagle Butte. She acknowledges that her relationship with these wild horses is unusual.

"Now how many people would just sit here with ... a wild stallion?" Sussman wondered. But these creatures - who tear each other's hides with bites and kicks - follow Sussman through pastures and stand still to be petted or have burrs pulled from their manes.

Sussman adopted her first wild horse, a black mare she named Shooting Star, in 1981. The mare was too wild for her 14-year-old owner, but not Sussman. She bonded with the horse in a way, she says, that changed her life.

Over time, she became involved with the rescue society and became its third president in 1989.

The organization is privately funded, and caring for the horses can be costly. With South Dakota in severe drought, Sussman has had to truck in hay from far away, and it's costing her $3,000 a week - more than double the cost of a couple of years ago.

She has a hands-off policy for minor injuries in the herd, but severe injuries require veterinary care. Sultan, who was hurt fighting another stallion, ran up a $2,500 bill for three weeks of care that included electroshock therapy on his knee.

To defray costs and encourage understanding of the horses in their natural habitat, Sussman, with the help of volunteers, provides up-close tours of the horses in their pastures. Donors can sponsor a horse, an orphaned foal, a band or an entire herd. Sussman hopes to find a financial angel to help purchase more land so the ranch will be less dependent on hay. She has her eye on a 5,000-acre ranch that she believes would be ideal for the horses and an eco-tourism center she hopes to build around them.

"To see the foals frolicking and the stallions having their skirmishes with each other protecting their bands - it's just a phenomenal sight to be able to watch these horses," Sussman said.

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