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Sonoma Valley's Ellie Phipps-Price a fierce advocate for wild horses

  • Ellie Phipps-Price gives one of her 172 wild mustangs a carrot on Saturday, April 20, 2013 as they graze on rangeland at her Montgomery Creek Ranch near Stonyford. ((Kent Porter / Press Democrat))

ELK CREEK, Calif. — The sun was beginning to angle behind the hills when a pack of wild horses swept through a gap in the terrain, turned and watched as a second band galloped into view.

One mustang called out in the golden light. Another threw back its head and whinnied during a call and exchange lasting several seconds.

Then the herd of perhaps 80 horses blended together and ran off, their manes flying against a blur of rich brown in a scene straight off the rangelands of the storied American West.

“They're part of our heritage,” says Sonoma Valley wine producer Ellie Phipps-Price, who rescued the horses from certain slaughter. “They're not a commodity. Just because something doesn't make you money doesn't mean it's not worth having.”

Phipps-Price bought the 2,000-acre ranch west of Willows as a refuge for 170 mustangs she purchased at a July 2010 government auction, outbidding buyers who wanted to butcher the horses for their meat.

The sale marked her public entry into the emotion-filled debate over these icons of the American West. Over the last three years, Phipps-Price has leapt full-force into the fray over federal management of wild mustang herds, whose 50,000 members in captivity now outnumber those left on the wild by a margin of nearly 5-to-3.

With her backing of several lawsuits seeking increased protection of mustang grazing lands, a film in the works to raise public awareness of the issues, and a commitment to help change federal policies on wild horses, Phipps-Price is, she says, “all in.”

“This is a problem that needs to get solved,” Phipps-Price said. “If we can't come up with a humane, sustainable way to manage them on the range, they'll be lost. They'll be gone.”

A mother of two and soon-to-be “empty-nester,” Phipps-Price, 52, had a lifelong love of horses when she came to her new mission in late 2009. The instruments of her conversion were a 2006 Vanity Fair story titled “Galloping Scared,” along with a book about the American mustang that had long lain on a shelf before she felt compelled to read it.

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