By Vance Ehmke
Wheat & More…..or Less
The Old West was officially closed in 1890. But it wasn’t until over 50 years later that the last of the wild horses disappeared from Lane County, KS.
Longtime resident Eldon Wancura, who now lives in Dighton, explains that he grew up on a farm and ranch that straddled the Lane-Finney line west of Highway 23. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, there was a wild horse herd in this area which at that time was still largely open range. There were few, if any roads, and only a very few trails and they were not maintained.”
He says the herd size numbered about 30 head. “They were all colors. There were black horses, white horses, paints, reds and browns, gray horses, sorrels and ever color under the sun. Dad’s hired hand June Riley had caught and broken one of the wild ones, a light gray, and he was better than any of the horses we had. Matter of fact, they were all nice looking, quality horses.”
Standing about 14 hands, Wancura said they’d make good saddle horses. “Every year or so Dad and June would saddle up and run the herd into a 2500-acre pasture of ours where we had corrals. We had the only water around. They’d sort off some to sell usually to people who wanted the horses to break and ride. We had a ’36 or ’37 2-ton Chevy truck with stock racks and we could get maybe eight head in a load.”
They didn’t get much for the horses, maybe $5 or $10 a head. But that was OK. It was in the Thirties and the money was good.
Wancura emphasizes that these were wild animals. “They behaved a lot like our deer today. You could get kind of close to them, but they sure kept their eye on you and if you got too close, they were gone. And if you got them in a corner, they could really get mean. They were the meanest animals I’ve ever seen. Up close and around people, they were very skittish.”
Back then the ranches all had horses. “And one of the dominate stallions from the herd kept coming up to a neighbor’s place at night trying to steal his mares and getting them to break out. The neighbor ended up having to shoot him.”
He adds that every now and then their ranch horses would get loose and they’d head right for the wild horse band. “Horses have a very strong herd instinct —and that made it awfully hard to separate our horses from the wild ones.”
Wancura says the herd was made up most likely of horses that had escaped from area ranches or that had been abandoned. But they fit in perfectly on the big grasslands.
But the romantic days of the wild horse herd were doomed by the high wheat prices in the post war years of the 40s. “You could buy a quarter of land for maybe $500. Then you could bust out the grass and plant wheat and sell it for over $3 a bushel. And it didn’t take long after that….for the wild horse herd to just slowly disappear.”