By Lauren Mauldin
From Nashville to Nevada, country music singer Lacy J. Dalton’s life has been driven by the pursuit of freedom. With almost a 40-year-long career that has touched millions, Lacy now uses her musical talents to help bring awareness to the plight of the American Mustang.
Born into a family of musicians, Lacy didn’t immediately realize that she was talented. “I was the unmusical one,” she said about her family. “I used to just sit and listen.” It took a trip to the movies to awaken something in 7-year-old Lacy. Later that night, she started singing “Once Upon a Dream” in her claw-foot bathtub, and realized that she had an instrument too —her voice.
Growing up, Lacy loved animals and went to college to become a wildlife illustrator, but she didn’t turn away from the music. “I took a guitar and got diverted,” she said of her college experience. For years she worked as a folk singer, balancing gigs with waiting tables until she got her first record deal at 36. “I was considered the oldest person on earth to get a record deal in Nashville!” Lacy said with a laugh.
Even with a record deal considered late, Lacy has been wildly successful. In 1979 she was named the Academy of Country Music’s top new female vocalist of the year. Her success continued through the ’80s with a string of hits including “Crazy Blue Eyes,” “Takin’ It Easy,” “Hard Times,” “Black Coffee” and “16th Avenue” to name a few. Lacy has such a stellar stage presence and talent for her craft that she successfully opened shows for heavy hitters like Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Charlie Daniels. In March 2017, Lacy was inducted into the North American Country Music International Hall of Fame for her continued creative efforts within country music.
With song lyrics about cowboys and mustangs, a love of horses is an organic complement to Lacy’s musical passions. “When I first saw a horse, it was the most beautiful thing in the world to me,” she said. Her sister had a riding stable and competed in barrel racing, but Lacy herself prefers a more relaxed setting for riding. “I like to take a horse and my dog and go out into the wilderness and interact with the animals,” she said about trail riding. “When you’re on the back of a horse, you get to see a lot more wildlife.”
Perhaps it’s Lacy’s original fascination with wildlife that enthralled her with the wild horses of the American West. After all, it was their beauty and mystery that originally led her to settle in Nevada. After playing intense shows in Reno’s casinos, Lacy would head up to Virginia City to visit friends and relax after touring. On one of those early evenings with golden light spreading from the sunset, Lacy relaxed with a friend and a cup of tea and heard a strange sound coming from outside. She went out to the front porch to investigate, and saw a little band of wild horses walking up East Street. “I knew right then,” she reflected. “If these horses can be here and be wild and free, maybe I can too.”
Let ’Em Run Foundation
Though the mustangs were at peace with humans that night, their survival has not been an easy one. With no natural predator and dwindling habitat, mustangs and people have been creeping up on each other for years. This interaction can be a polarizing one. “If Joe on the right hand side of the street loves the horses and feeds them all the time, and John on the other side has beautiful landscaping he’s paid thousands of dollars for towards his property value, and the horses come over and eat it — you have a war,” Lacy said of the dichotomy.
Unfortunately for the horses, there’s a lot more at stake than expensive landscaping. As numbers grow and cause greater demand on the area’s limited pasture and water supply, mustang herds are weak and vulnerable to culling either through the BLM, where they’re indefinitely placed in holding pens, stressed and separated from their herd’s complicated social structure, or worse — picked up by private land owners and sold into slaughter.
Continuing to see beautiful wild horses in her backyard end up in the slaughter system prompted Lacy to take action. In 1998, she started helping with the BLM horse sales and in 2003 formed the Let ’Em Run Foundation — an organization that uses the arts as a way to raise money for smaller, grassroot groups that are working to directly save mustangs from the kill pen. The small groups they help often must stay anonymous to protect what can be precarious relationships with auction houses and land owners, and rely on organizations like Let ’Em Run to fund the direct saving of individual horses.
Let ’Em Run is an organization that meets the immediate crisis of mustangs facing slaughter, and also keeps an eye on the bigger picture of the welfare of America’s wild horses. Lacy is supportive of PZP, a method of compassionate birth control that can be controversial for some mustang activists. When a mare is darted with a dose of PZP, her cycle is stopped for the year. It’s a process that isn’t permanent, and while Lacy admits that PZP isn’t a perfect solution, it does allow mustang advocates to control herd size in a safe, minimally invasive way. Without methods like PZP, mustang mares will continue to breed foals that the resources simply cannot support. Even with adoption programs currently in place, there are more mustangs than there are homes for.
Loving Wild Horses
Even with the complexities surrounding maintaining herds appropriately, many residents of Nevada love their wild horses. The Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, the largest industrial park in the world, has over 100,000 privately owned acres outside Reno and welcomes the mustangs with open arms. The center is a major supporter of the Wild Horse Advocacy Group and claims there are over 1,000 horses on the property at any given time. With tech company giants like Tesla, Switch and Google doing business at the center, it’s clear that mustangs don’t have to prohibit industry.
Perhaps it’s witnessing the cohabitation of industry and wildlife that inspires Lacy to share her dream of protecting the mustang’s future. In Lacy’s opinion, the way to protect the mustangs is the same way we can preserve the ideals of the American West — through sanctuaries dedicated to celebrating both the horses and our country’s native people.
By giving native tribes like the Lakota, traditionally great horsemen of the western plains, mustangs back on reservations, the government and private stakeholders could support a space where tourists could interact with the horses in a non-invasive way as well as learn about native arts, culture and more. “Tourists would come from all over the world to do photographic safaris, study wild horse herds and see the beauty and majesty of the great American West,” Lacy said. As she described her ideal, it was easy to picture vast fields of colorful herds grazing with the soft sound of ceremonial drums beating in the background.
In the lyrics of her songs, you can feel what it would be like for Lacy’s sanctuary to become a reality: “There’s still a few proud places left where they let the wild things run — Let ’Em Run.” In our modern world of social media and traffic, there aren’t many wild things left. Country music and wild horses still embody freedom. Lacy and her mustangs continue to sing the truth of our culture, and run freely towards the ideal of the American West.
For more information, visit letemrun.org.
Photos courtesy of Lacy J. Dalton, unless otherwise noted