Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake
Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.
Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.
Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.
For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.
While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)
Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.
"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.
Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press