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In search of wild horses. In a last little pocket of the untamed West, mustangs still roam free

I hadn't been on a horse for 20 years, and I really knew it that first day. Yet Salty, my patient mount, took my inexperience in stride, leisurely keeping pace with the rest of the group. Fed and sheltered by Rock Creek Pack Station of Bishop, Calif., 20 of us city folks tracked and observed wild horses and camped for four days and nights in Inyo National Forest, northeast of Sequoia National Park. Some of us had never ridden a horse before. Others had never been camping.

Our base camp, tucked in a cozy canyon about 60 miles from Bishop, consisted of a cluster of tents, a well-stocked outdoor kitchen, and a primitive but effective shower. Everything was provided by Rock Creek, except our sleeping bags and personal items.

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During many hours in the saddle, we all learned a little about animal tracking - and more about patience - as we rode Rock Creek's trail horses through the dry, dusty canyons of the wilderness area here. Beyond the seemingly endless prairie, the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains appeared about as real as a Hollywood backdrop.

Tens of thousands of mustangs still live in remote canyons throughout the western United States. Their ancestors include draft animals once used for plowing fields, well-bred carriage and saddle horses, and proud Spanish Barbs. The latter arrived in the New World in 1519 when Spanish conquistador Hern'an Cort'es brought 16 sleek North African desert-bred horses - known as Barbs - to Mexico.

Unknowingly, he was bridging a 10,000-year evolutionary gap, for while horses were once native to the New World, they mysteriously disappeared about 10,000 years ago.

Before 1971, America's free-roaming mustangs were on their way to extinction. They were disliked by cattle ranchers for eating precious range grass and proved a popular and cheap resource for pet food companies. Of the 8 million estimated in 1940 by the Department of Agriculture, only 17,000 were left in 1971.

One woman, a Nevada horse-lover nicknamed Wild Horse Annie, almost single-handedly won support for the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thanks to the law's protective measures, today the mustang population has increased to about 50,000.

At noon on our third day, we reached a plateau overlooking a narrow canyon. On the far side about 40 horses grazed. Rather than scare them away by approaching, we decided to stop, eat lunch, and watch them from afar.

After a hurried bag lunch, three of us photo enthusiasts decided to get closer, in search of a better camera angle. Impatient and excited, we hiked across the chaparral separating us from the grazing horses. Gusts of wind blew up the canyon, keeping our scent upwind and unnoticed by the always alert mustangs.

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Finally, we reached the closest overlook. The horses were still 200 feet away, but directly in front of us. They were a ragtag assortment, in all colors and sizes. They grazed peacefully in scattered groups along the hillside.

There were mares with new foals and young colts. Three separate bands became distinct, each with a dominant stallion in charge.

As our cameras clicked, once in a while a horse would raise its head, cock an ear, then return to its munching. After about 10 minutes, we either became careless or the wind shifted, for suddenly one of the stallions detected our presence. The tranquil grazing stopped, and almost like a single organism, the horses moved up the hill, retreating to safer ground.

The next evening, as we sat around our last crackling campfire, the image of 40 galloping mustangs kept crowding out my other thoughts. For now a little pocket of the wild West - before concrete freeways and fences - lives on.

I only hope it's still there the next time I go looking. If you go

Frontier Pack Train leads wild mustang trips at $225 a person. Write: Star Route 3, Box 18, June Lake, CA 93529; phone (619) 872-1301 or (619) 648-7701.

Rock Creek Pack Station offers four-day mustang trips through several universities. Write: Box 248, Bishop, CA 93514; phone (619) 872-8331 or (619) 935-4493.

UCLA: May 16-19, $455. Emphasis on natural history. Contact Division of Science, UCLA Extension, PO Box 24901, Los Angeles, CA 90024; phone (213) 825-7093.

Pierce College: May 23-26, $350. Emphasis on mountain horsemanship. Contact Ron Wechsler, 18916 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91324; phone (818) 349-3309.

University of California, Davis: May 30-June 2, $395. Contact Beth Floyd, UC Extension Program Assistant; UC Davis; Davis, CA 95616; phone (916) 752-6021.

University of California, Santa Barbara: June 4-7, $425. Contact Judy Weisman, UC, Santa Barbara Extension, Santa Barbara, CA 93106; phone (805) 961-4200.

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