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Mustangs on the Mountain 

Destined for slaughter, a herd of wild horses find reprieve -- and a home -- near Wye.

click to enlarge BEAST OF BURDEN
  • BEAST OF BURDEN

If you've never been in the midst of a large group of horses, you should try it. Even if you've been around a solitary horse or two, even if you've ridden in the past, nothing quite prepares you for the experience: Several tons of flesh crowding in on matchstick legs, their coats rippling with color in the sun and their backs — if you could somehow freeze the muscle inside from its unending, tidal, fluid movement — like loamy hills. They smell of dust and straw and that singular, not-quite-unpleasant horse smell — musty and wholly animal; strange to anyone not used to it.

If that wasn't enough, these horses, kept on the 40 acres of John Houston Eccleston “Excy” Johnston's nonprofit Wingspur Wild Horse Sanctuary near Wye, are about as wild as you'll find on this side of the Rockies. Captured by the state of Nevada in the high desert, just weeks away from a European or Asian dinner plate when Johnston bought them off a “killer buyer” after getting a tip from a mustang rescue organization, they still have the great majority of their wildness about them: their instinctual hierarchy; their wariness; their own language of lip trills and eye rolls and head shakes that only they completely understand. For a city boy, standing among them — the horses snorting hot breath over my tape recorder and trying to eat the notebook out of my hand — is to be simultaneously terrified and in awe of the beauty that nature can create when we aren't looking.

Their caretaker (“owner” doesn't fit these creatures by a mile), Excy Johnston, is an unlikely cowboy. A scion of old money from Maryland — his family made a scandalous amount from procurement contracts with the Union Army during the Civil War — about all that was left of the family fortune by the time Johnston was born was a rambling estate in Baltimore and his handed-down mouthful of a name. When Excy was 8, his father, pining for the excitement of the West, bought a ranch near Prescott, Ariz. and moved his family there. In short order, Excy became a horseman. His silver-spoon past was sometimes at odds with the rough-and-tumble young ranch hand he became. The summers he was 16 and 17, his grandmother convinced him to come back East to fulfill what she saw as his social obligations. Those summers, Johnston split his time between button-down functions and riding broncs at New Jersey's famous Cowtown Rodeo.

“I would go to deb parties all week, and then go ride a bronc at Cowtown on Saturday night,” he said. “It was really a gas. You'd have your tux on one night and then the next night you'd get out there and ride a bronc.”

Though he admits that rodeo was an addiction, there was a problem: he wasn't very good at it. Seeing the broken old cowboys who had been in the game for years, he decided the safer course was to seek an education. That choice soon landed him at Texas Tech, where he received a degree in architecture. After graduation, he hung out a shingle in Austin.

Johnston's designs began attracting attention and commissions from the start. He met his wife, Amy Gray Light — then an editor at Architecture magazine — when she was assigned to edit a feature on a project he had designed. During the 1980s, his growing reputation allowed him to travel all over the United States and Europe to where his houses were being built. Then, in 1992, after Amy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that she's still fighting, Johnston moved to Arkansas so they could be closer to her family.

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