Stubbornly Saving Horses 

Text and photos by
Originally published:
June 5, 1987
This World section – San Francisco Chronicle

Wilson Hill Road
Shingletown, Shasta County


In the fall of 1975, Jim and Dianne Clapp and their three children, then 7, 9 and 11 years old, moved out onto the volcanic barrens of Modoc County, 60 miles of dirt road out of Alturas, to teach themselves how to catch wild horses. Jim was running pack stations in those days, over in the Trinity Alps, and had heard the Forest Service was taking wild horses off the public lands. But when Jim went looking for some horses to beef up his pack strings, a man from the Forest Service sheepishly confessed that they hadn’t had much luck with the capture. Jim was the son of a Colorado cattle rancher, had trained horses for a living in Sacramento and had spent 10 years as a government hunter for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Let me catch the horses,” he told the Forest Service. “I’m sure I can do it if you give me a chance.”
Jim’s plan was to return to the Trinitys after capturing the horses he needed that first winter, but by spring he had only one or two animals. “A lot of the local people were laughing at us,” Dianne recalls, and this brought Jim’s stubbornness to bear on the problem. Dianne says that Jim’s stubbornness is his most characteristic quality. Like the tough little dogs that work the horses on his ranch, Jim will bark at the heels of a problem until he has moved it along or it has kicked him silly. Jim sold the Trinity Alps pack stations and stayed out in Modoc County for three years, working under Forest Service contract, devising special capture techniques and custom-built equipment. In all, Jim captured 600 wild horses over those three years, most of them eventually adopted from the Forest Service.

But after the second year of the roundup, the Forest Service boys drove out to the corrals and shot dead 12 unadopted horses—which made Jim feel pretty bad— and the third year they came back to kill 80 more, which is how Jim and Dianne Clapp got into the wild horse sanctuary business. And it’s why Jim spends much of his time these days on the phone, barking at the heels of one government official or another, trying to save the lives of some of the 7,500 wild horses currently in government holding pens and to protect the nearly 48,000 more that are still roaming the public lands.

The Wild Horse Sanctuary, the only such refuge in the country, lies in the valley of Battle Creek, south and east of the decapitated cone of Mount Lassen. Jim and Dianne Clapp own 500 acres here and lease 5,000 acres more – a mix of meadows and pine-oak woodlands, strewn with the puffed-up volcanic rocks that mark this corner of the state. From the road, you see only the little white cottage with the bright blue roof —deeply shaded by overhanging black walnuts— and to the back, a line of white board fences and a barn.

Inside, the house is dominated by images of animals. Wildlife paintings fill the living room walls and line the stairway to the second floor: pictures of quail and antelope and otters and burros and, of course, horses – big horses and little horses, horses in herds, horses with riders and horses alone.detours-4-clapp-17

If Jim were a horse, he would be a mustang, a stringy little desert pony with sleepy brown eyes. Dianne is in many ways his opposite: soft and round, with a quick smile. They have been married 24 years, and Dianne says Jim has taught her stubbornness, has pushed her to speak for the horses. She works out of a little office off the living room and prepares meals in a big kitchen at the other end of the house. Sometimes she does both at once, trailing the telephone on a 40-foot cord from one room to the next, or switching to a cordless phone, bending the ear of some reporter or horse fancier while she warms up the tortillas and beans.

Now she plunks two fat sandwiches and mugs of coffee down on the table by the sofa, while Jim Clapp tells me what he thinks I should know about his animals.

Most of his horses come these days from Bureau of Land Management feedlots—horses that have been herded off the public lands by helicopter and stored in great corrals until they are adopted. The BLM says the horses damage the range and eat forage needed by other wildlife, and must be kept at legally mandated, manageable levels. Jim Clapp says that the horses don’t do anywhere near as much damage as the cattle and sheep on public lands. He says that the horses are a national treasure and deserve to stay where they are.

“There wouldn’t be any America if it wasn’t for the horse,” he says. “The horse is what created this country, bringing the settlers, plowing the fields, providing transportation. All they’ve ever asked is to be left alone on a little bit of arid land nobody wanted.”

Bringing the issue to a head is a December 1986 report to the U.S. secretaries of interior and agriculture—a report that recommends “euthanasia for any animal not disposed of within 90 days following BLM’s certification of its availability for adoption.” According to the BLM, 10,000 horses were rounded up in fiscal 1986; 10,000 more will be taken this year. And while the agency denies it has any immediate plans to kill horses, Jim Clapp believes that such numbers will strain the adoption system to its breaking point and that, for the first time since 1982, wild horses are bound to die.

Jim and Dianne cannot themselves take any more animals than are supported by donations to the sanctuary, and Jim isn’t sure what good it would do if he could. “Why should we continue to take horses and empty the feedlots when the BLM will just round up more horses to kill?” he says.


Jim Clapp is careful to set himself apart from some of his allies in the effort to keep the horses on the public lands. Both he and Dianne seem a little uncomfortable in the role of animal activists. Jim is, after all, a working horseman, the son of a rancher, an ex-government hunter. He knows that resources must be managed and that sometimes animals die. “We’re not humaniacs,” he says. “We’re just ordinary people who were in a position to see something that wasn’t right and decided to do something about it.”

But he also fell in love with the wild horses during those years on the Modoc Plateau, fell in love with the courage and tenacity of the beasts -characteristics he lumps together as the quality of “heart.” So while he may not be a “humaniac,” he is clearly fiercely partisan, as all true lovers are. And though he was the first, he says, to successfully capture large numbers of horses on the public lands, now he would like nothing so much as to be able to put them back.

In the late afternoon, Jim Clapp takes me out through a white board gate to see the ranch. After the dry winter, the scattered grasses here are quickly dying back, and the sun off the red soil tints the air a warm pink. There are about 250 wild horses here now, running in bands to every corner of the ranch, much as they would in the wild. There also are retired Yosemite mules, old government saddle horses, dusty wild burros pulled off the China Lake Naval Weapons Station in the Mojave Desert, a freeloading heifer that simply wandered onto the ranch one day and a wild, woolly goat (its mane as dark as a gathering storm) that once roamed the naval installation at San Clemente Island down off the Southern California coast.

Jim took some of this menagerie off the land himself. Over the years since he honed his skills on the lava rock of Modoc County, Jim has captured tens of thousands of burros, goats and pigs, and the equipment he designed has been used to trap elk, antelope and bighorn sheep. He does this work partly to generate income to support his family and the sanctuary, and partly because captured animals can sometimes be relocated and need not be destroyed. Jim and Dianne and the kids spent two years removing the goats from the steep, cactus-lined ravines at San Clemente Island—Jim and his son living in the Navy men’s barracks, Dianne and the girls bunking with the women. While they weren’t catching goats, Dianne taught the kids their lessons, as she had in Modoc County, persuading the Navy to create a special three-pupil school to make it all legal.


For several years, Jim kept the 80 horses he saved from the Forest Service at the Alturas ranch of a friend, a man named Peter Carey. It was in those years that Jim and Carey worked out the sponsorship formula that still supports the sanctuary today. Thirty-eight dollars a month was what it cost Carey in those days to support a cow. So that was the figure charged to those who wanted to save a horse by putting it to pasture on Carey’s land. When Carey sold his ranch a few years back, Jim moved the sanctuary down to Shingletown. “We came here because it was cheap but still accessible to the public,” he says. “It was remote enough for the horses and had plenty of rock.” Carey’s ranch had not had enough rock to naturally manicure the ho rses’ hooves. “If you’ve ever tried to trim the feet on 200 or 300 wild horses,” Jim Clapp says, “you’ll understand the problem.”

Today, there are only a few wild horses in the ranch yard, standing around the big stock pond north of the barn, lazing in the islands of shade beneath the big oaks. While the saddle horses wander over, looking for a treat, the wild ones skitter away at our approach. Jim teaches me to recognize the wild horses by the “feathering” on their lower legs. This strip of longer hair flying in the breeze above the hooves comes from the farming stock in the animals, many of which are descended fr om horses turned loose on the range after the turn of the century, after the coming of the tractor put them out of work.

With us today is a young woman named Heidi, who has come along to look for a horse. Jim picks out a retired BLM saddle mount for her, a strong animal that has spent most of its life running full tilt after one cow or another. While Heidi saddles the horse and works it carefully up and down the corral, Jim and I sit beneath the cool overhang in the open feed stalls of the 100-year-old barn.

Heidi is a friend of the family, Jim tells me, but he will give a wild horse to just about anyone he believes will take care of it, opening up a slot at the sanctuary for another feedlot animal that might otherwise die. And while the stallions are gelded to prevent reproduction, many of the mares come to the sanctuary already bred, and their foals are given away each year to 4-H kids and members of future farmers groups. In all, he is able to adopt out maybe 40 horses a year.


Later, in the gathering dusk, we toss a dozen bales of hay in the back of Jim’s pickup and drive out into the pasture. Saddle horses trail behind us like rats after the Pied Piper. Across the big stock pond, small bands of wild horses drift down through the pine-covered hills to drink and to sample at a safe distance the little piles of hay Jim deposits around the field. It is early in the year to start feeding hay, Jim says, but the winter was so dry. The hay bill alone this year may reach a hundred grand.

After dark, Dianne cooks a simple dinner, and we sit and talk our way through a bottle of wine. Then I drive the van out through the meadow and park for the night beneath a spreading oak and the briefest sliver of moon.

In the morning, there are wild horses, and I sit silently with a big side door open as they move nearer, cropping the last of the spring grasses to the ground. Among the band are two nursing mares – their milk veins standing out like thick cords beneath the sleek skin of their bellies – accompanied by their tottering foals, which are 1 day old, maybe 2.

For a few moments I am surrounded by horses, wild and domestic. An old BLM cow pony sticks her head in the van door to see if I smell like hay. Then I move and they are suddenly gone, the tame ones spooked by the wildness in the wild ones, and the air is briefly full of dust and the resonant thud of departing hooves.


© 2017 William Poole—text and photos

William Poole’s Detour’s feature appeared between June 1987 and December 1990 in the This World section of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday edition.