President & Executive Director,
Institute of Range and the American Mustang
Dayton Hyde may be the brains behind the Wild Horse Sanctuary he founded back in 1987, but he is quick to clarify just exactly who it is that pumps energy into the place on a daily basis. “This place couldn’t survive without her,” Dayton Hyde says of Susan Watt, his friend, companion and dynamo that keeps the Sanctuary going.
Born in Childersburg, Alabama, Susan grew up Southern Baptist. She attended the University of Alabama and earned a degree in Home Economics and English. Her southern drawl takes some getting used to. When something has to go out fast, for example, Susan tells the volunteers to send it “paaarrrty mail.” “P-R-I-O-R-I-T-Y mail,” Susan laughs. “A lot of people don’t understand my southern accent.”
Susan’s path from the South to the Southern Hills has been a fascinating one. “For the first few years after graduation I taught mentally challenged children. I got married to my high school sweetheart Wayne in 1968, when we were both in college. While Wayne was in the Air Force, we adopted Wendy, our first daughter, later we adopted a brother and sister for her,” Susan reminisces.
Like a lot of young girls, Susan dreamed of horses as a child—but interestingly, didn’t get her first horse until she was 28. “We had moved to Texas. My husband had a motorcycle. He agreed to sell it so I could get a horse. The $350 dollars for the bike bought two horses,”Susan says. “When the kids were old enough we bought horses for them and went on family rides.” The family moved back to Alabama in 1986.
Tragedy struck in 1990, when her daughter Teresa died. When her husband died in 1994 after a protracted illness, Susan, his caregiver, was exhausted and desperate for a new direction to her life. “I went on a trip to Africa. I looked out over the Serengeti and knew I had to work at a wildlife sanctuary.”
“The thought came to my mind of Dayton Hyde and his Wild Horse Sanctuary I remembered seeing him on a television news program,” Susan reflects.
While connecting with Dayton seemed like a good idea, actually getting in touch with him was something else entirely. “I got back to the states, did a little research, went to the grocery store and bought a horse magazine. There was a picture of a mustang from the BLM. I didn’t know what BLM was. I looked it up in an encyclopedia and found out it was the Bureau of Land Management. A phone call to the BLM gave me the information about the cowboy I had seen on television was Dayton Hyde in South Dakota,” she said. She started calling, but couldn’t get an answer. She later discovered that Dayton doesn’t like telephones and his work takes him outside most of the time from dawn to dusk. “It took me a week to get him on the phone. He suggested I come out. He told me to read some of his books before I came.
I went to the library and checked out Yamsi and Don Coyote. That was Wednesday. By Friday I was on an airplane,” Susan smiles, warmth and affection in her brown eyes.
Her first venture into the Black Hills was one she’ll never forget. “It was the first weekend of December 1995 when I entered this world I was to become a part of. There were several inches of snow on the ground. I stayed the weekend. I went back to Alabama, packed my things and drove to South Dakota with my dog and a parrot,” Susan recalls.
During her years as full time volunteer project development director at the Sanctuary, Susan has seen some very moving events. There are countless poignant and dramatic stories and Susan loves to tell them. One is about a mother’s love that is as real for horses as it is for humans. “We assumed Mrs. B was dead. She was an older mustang mare. One day she came across Hell’s Canyon, crossed the Cheyenne River and stood at the gate until Dayton let her in. She had her two babies with her, a yearling and a weanling. Two days later she lay down and died,” Susan says reverently. “She led her babies off the open range back to where she knew they would be cared for.”
There are no jobs Susan doesn’t do on the ranch. She mails out sponsorship kits, takes people out on Adventure Tours to special areas of the 11,000-acre Sanctuary—even drops 1,800 pound round bales of hay to the horses from the tractor. Most of all, Susan is determined to do all that she can for the 500 wild mustangs in the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
“This is one of the last great wilderness prairies where wild horses live out their lives in peace and run free,” she says. “What we do here makes a huge difference.”
Written by John Christopher Fine
• Black Hills Faces Magazine 35