Dayton O. Hyde describes the 13,000 acres of land in South Dakota that is home to his Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, along with the wild horses that live there, as “a national treasure.” Hyde himself, an 88-year-old cowboy conservationist, is as precious a national treasure, a hero fighting to the end to protect the land, the water and the wildlife of the American West.
Hyde grew up in Michigan, where his family spent summers on a wilderness lake. “I spent a lot of time by myself when I was young,” Hyde says, his voice gravelly and thick, “and the wildlife became my friends. I determined that wild animals are afraid of people because of their energy fields. I got so that I could make myself into a pack of wet noodles, totally relaxed, and the wildlife was no longer afraid.”
Hyde’s solitary nature led him to write early on, and, in part to experience more adventures that he could write about, he left home at the age of 13 and hopped a freight train to Oregon, where he lived with his uncle on a cattle ranch. It was there that he learned to ride the wild stallions that roamed the area. Today, he says, “Writing is my favorite thing, outside of being on a horse.”
He served in World War II, then worked as a photographer and rodeo clown, before returning to Oregon, where he raised a family while stewarding the waterways and forests of his Yamsi Ranch. He is credited with saving the sandhill Crane from extinction, and has written many books about his efforts to protect the environment.
Like any hero, Hyde is flawed. At the age of 64, he left the ranch and his family behind to set out for new adventure, a move he now realizes caused his children a great deal of pain. “I felt, at age 64, I wasn’t doing anything with the talents I’d been given,” he explains. While riding cattle in Nevada, he came upon a corral of 2000 wild stallions that had been captured by the Bureau of Land Management. “They were a pretty sad bunch,” he says. “Wild horses are a great joy. Like my own freedom, I understood and cherished the spirit of freedom those animals have.”