CHUGWATER, Wyo. — Undulating waves of gold rise and fall amid the turbulent sea of the eastern Wyoming plains. Thin white wisps streak across a pastel blue canvas above. The wind eddies in draws and whips through the dormant grass and stunted scrub brush.
Against this stark but beautiful backdrop, Steve Mantle ekes out a life in the tradition of ranchers and cowboys before him who tamed the wildness as much as it would permit.
"Change is the only constant," Mantle said, brushing his hand through wiry brown hair with a dusting of gray.
On the 3,020-acre expanse of land nestled midway between Chugwater and Wheatland known as Mantle Ranch, owner and operator Mantle works to tame wild horses like his father and grandfather before him.
Nothing is easy here, where the West is still won day by day, minute by minute, through grit, determination and more than one swipe of the brow.
But to survive in the 21st century, Mantle must use an amalgamation of Old World know-how, work ethic and modern tools of technology. If change is the only constant, then Mantle has found the answer to its ills: adaptation.
It's a few minutes before 7 a.m. A large black pot of coffee percolates, filling the open ranch house with the strong scent of morning.
Mantle sits before a glowing, flat LCD monitor that rests on an oak desk in a small alcove off the kitchen and checks his e-mail.
Like most computer users, he complains that it is too slow — he uses a 56K dial-up service to connect to the Internet. In the middle of nowhere, some technology has yet to penetrate.
He points his browser to a Web site full of pictures and descriptions of wild horses. It's an Internet adoption, auction-style, run through the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse Program.
People from 12 states, including Wyoming, already have placed bids with a little more than a week to go. About 30 of the horses on the site are in a pasture just a few hundred feet from where Mantle is sitting.
Having gone through each horse to see what bidding action has taken place overnight, Mantle moves back to the kitchen, pours a cup of coffee and pulls up a chair in front of a large window.
Taking a slow draw from the steaming mug, his eyes scan two barns, corrals and the thin creek running through his property.
"And then today, the wind blew," he said.
Coffee finished, Mantle yanks on a pair of boots, a jacket, a ball cap and a black silk scarf.
"It keeps the wind from blowing down my neck," he said.
He steps out and plows through the wind and cold toward one of the barns. He opens the barn, grabs a bag of feed and fills several pails, hanging them from posts throughout the structure.
He slides open a second door that leads to an enclosed paddock that houses some of the horses. While they file in, Mantle goes to fill a couple of troughs with water. First, he has to take a shovel to break thick ice from the overnight freeze.
He repeats the process twice more in different pastures where he has the wild horses segregated.
The morning chores finished, Mantle retires to the ranch house to cook a breakfast of pancakes and bacon for him and his son. Normally, there would be eggs as well, but they have run out and have yet to make the 30-minute drive — half of it over dirt roads — to town to buy more.
While flipping pancakes, Mantle's wireless phone rings with the first of what typically are several calls from potential adopters and others interested in his expertise with horses.
It's an occupational hazard, and more than one pancake blackens slightly while he explains a technique or describes a particular horse's temperament and idiosyncrasies.
When he exits the ranch house to head to the corrals, he holsters a lifeline at his waist — a tool he never leaves behind. In a bygone era, the silvery, metallic object resting on his hip might have been a Colt or a Derringer. But today, if Mantle draws fast it's not to pull a trigger but to push a green button.
He submits to carrying the device "so that I can stay in contact with either people wanting to go to clinics or people wanting to adopt horses."
Rather than turn his back on emerging gadgets, Mantle embraces them as best he can.
"(Technology) is the answer to what we do today as far as marketing (the horses)," he said. "I know just about enough technology to be dangerous. But without it? You're so far behind there's no way to compete."
Mantle maintains his own Web site, regularly updating it with new photos of horses on the ranch. It's a bit of a struggle as he tries to get a handle on a new nemesis that entered his life in the guise of a Christmas gift.
"Now we've got a $400 to $500 digital camera that can do things I don't even know how to make it do," Mantle said.
Even as Mantle and son Bryan herd the wild horses into their pens before bringing them into a big round pen to train, the way they interact with the animals couldn't be more different than the centuries-old methods Mantle learned as young boy.
"My first 14 colts I ever started, I got on all of them lying on the ground," Mantle said. "It was the old, rough school."
It is but another example of adaptation as Mantle had to learn resistance-free training to work with the Wild Horse Program.
"When I got this contract with the BLM, I struggled with learning how to handle horses in a different way," Mantle said. "There was nothing that was presented to me that had any common-sense background to it."
Then at an adoption in Afton, a BLM employee in the Wild Horse Program gave Mantle a VHS tape of Brian Neubert.
That changed everything. He watched it so many times the tape wore thin. He got another copy and continued watching and learning.
He called Neubert, and after several hours on the phone, Neubert challenged him to apply step-by-step the lessons on the tape to one of his wild horses.
Mantle took him up on the challenge. In three hours he was sitting on the back of a gray, 6-year-old wild horse without a halter, petting him.
"When I left that corral, I never left a track in the dirt — I was walking that far off the ground," Mantle said.
It was a starting point, a place from which he would learn and grow to become a recognized expert in training wild horses.
As they cycle through each of the horses and take turns in the round pen, Mantle and Bryan have one goal with each horse: to build on the prior day's work, leaving the horse a little gentler and with a better understanding of the horse-human dynamic.
"It's less physical for you and the horse," Mantle said of resistance-free training. "You have a horse that is way more willing because he's found somebody who's giving him what he's looking for — the relief of pressure."
After lunch, Mantle returns to the horses. Depending on how the morning session went, he might ride a few of the colts or run them through their paces.
Then it's off to fix a barn door or mend a fence. Working a ranch, there's never a lack of projects waiting to be completed.
Sometimes the work seems endless, but the rewards are great.
"It's humbling to live out here. I'm not a religious person, but I do believe in God," Mantle said. "You get humbled by your surroundings. But it also develops character — you can either lie down and quit, or you can step up to the plate and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"It gives you a sense of self-sufficiency, and then on the other side of it, you get this sense of humility because you are absolutely in total control of nothing except your attitude."
So what does the future hold for Mantle?
His sons are adapting in ways beyond their father. Like their old man — who watched his father, learned from him, then moved on — they have learned much about training horses and working a ranch.
Sons Nick and Bryan plan to leave wild horses behind them, though, to enter the world of high-end horse breeding and training. Their experience in training hundreds of horses that many consider untrainable should hold them in good stead.
"The boys are getting into understanding blood lines," Mantle said. "This is a whole new deal for me; it's kind of exciting."
So Mantle, while working with the wild horses, looks for ways to help his boys achieve their dreams. He continues to push into unexplored avenues even as he approaches an age — he'll turn 50 in October — when most start thinking of retirement.
When asked why he diversifies, he pauses, and a smile creeps upon his lips.
"If I keep doing new things and diversifying, it keeps me young, it keeps me excited and keeps me going and positive. That's the real reason."
And tomorrow, on this golden expanse of land called Mantle Ranch, the sun will rise, the wind will blow. Perhaps some things don't change.