"There's everything out here: wild elk, bobcats, ghost towns … and horses," says Madeleine Pickens. As we scan the sweeping, scrubby valleys, a swirling cloud of dust heralds the loud, sudden arrival of wild mustangs. About a dozen of them thunder into view, manes shimmering in the fading gold light.
"They were a sad bunch and now they're back on the range where they belong," she says. And I have to agree that seeing these herds, once slaughterhouse-bound, roaming Nevada prairies is a heart-stirring sight.
In June, Pickens, animal-rights advocate and British ex-wife of Texas oilman T Boone Pickens, opens Mustang Monument eco-resort in Wells, Nevada (two-and-a-half hours from Salt Lake City), offering day trips, holidays or volunteering breaks for a fortnight or longer. The work, if you choose to do it, is varied and absorbing, from pitching hay to mending fences, and you get to groom and tend the tamed mustangs. Surrounded by red canyons under big skies, the resort offers a heady mix of glamour and outdoorsiness: guests can stay in luxury tipis with four-poster-beds.
Pickens bought the million-acre ranch as part of a grand plan to create a refuge for the feral horses she rescues from controversial government roundups (where mustangs are held in long-term pens and may be sent to slaughter) and "a sustainable ranch to share with others".
Horses that were born and raised in the wild offer a glimpse of another world. At first I worry about getting kicked in the head or trampled, but the gentleness of the mustangs is calming. And, like humans, they crave companionship. When they stare back at you with soulful eyes, or wander over for a chin scratch, the feeling can be overwhelming. I would stand every day by the corral fence, craving the tickle of whiskers against my neck and a restoring rub against my cheek.
Some of the horses have been tamed by resident horse whisperers Clay Nannini and Tyler Stradley, who offer morning and evening guided rides. "Wild mustangs remind us how to be alive," says Clay dreamily, as he leads us up the curving mountain trails, past fields of wildflowers and silvery-green sagebrush. "It's pretty much a visionary idea: educating people about the plight of these horses while they are enjoying a luxury vacation."
In Pickens's words, the retreat is "an American dream, where people from all over the world can see these magnificent animals, take hayrides, hike through the canyons and explore abandoned gold mines".
In the evenings, there are moonlit cocktails and wood-fired feasts, storytelling around bonfires, and Native American pow-pow dancing. Mustang Monument peddles a romantic recreation of the Old West, a place surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by prairies where wild horses run free.
• The trip was provided by Mustang Monument (+1 888 979 1422, mustangmonument.com). Day visits 5pp, tipis for two ,000 a night, all-inclusive, volunteers (two weeks or more) free. Oak Tree Inn, an hour away in Elko (+1 775 777 2222, oaktreeinn.com) has doubles from room-only. KLM and American Airlines fly from Heathrow to Salt Lake City (via LA) from £627 return
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