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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)
Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 3:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 3:43 p.m.

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.

Phipps-Price was jolted by what she glimpsed of the mustangs' plight. Chris Towt, her partner in life, wine and horses, said Phipps-Price's decision to dedicate herself to the cause seemed to crystallize overnight.

“I remember you distinctly waking up one morning and saying, 'I'm going to do something,'” Towt recalled during a tour of the Glenn County ranch.

What Phipps-Price has done — in addition to studying the issues, conquering the history and coordinating with key players in the campaign to stop mustang round-ups — is produce a 70-minute, 3-D film slated for release this fall to spread the word about the state of the mustang.

In the back of her mind, she said, was “The Cove,” a powerful 2009 Oscar-winning documentary about the secret slaughter of bottlenose dolphins in a tiny Japanese town.

But “American Mustang” is a less-graphic hybrid of documentary and narrative, she said. It features character-driven scenes introducing viewers to the mustangs' saga.

“The public needs to know what's happening,” Phipps-Price said. “We need to create a sense of outrage.”

The outlines of Phipps-Price's life wouldn't suggest her eventual alliance with a cause loathed by much of ranching industry.

She was raised between suburban Los Angeles and the Denver area, where she lived amid an extended family in big-business cattle ranching and mastered riding on fox hunts with the century-old, family-run Arapahoe Hunt.

She loved horses as a girl and first saddled up at about age 7 on her grandfather's cattle ranch, though she learned to ride English-style, because of the fox-hunting. She was a quick study, eclipsing the skills and interest of her two younger brothers, said the youngest, Lincoln Phipps. She continued lessons in Southern California, borrowing horses where she could.

As an English literature student at UC Berkeley and, later, working in San Francisco as marketing director for a restaurant guide, Phipps-Price's energies were focused elsewhere, and she took a hiatus from riding.

It was during this time that a mutual friend introduced her to William “Bill” Price III, whose business success and interest in wine grapes would play an important role in shaping her future.

The two were married in 1988 and were raising young children as Price made his mark as an investor, eventually founding Texas Pacific Group with two partners. The company, later TPG Capital, would become one of the largest private equity firms in the world.

During a brief stint in Connecticut in the early '90s, Phipps-Price acquired her first horse, a thoroughbred — a concession for having left behind her friends and life in California. She resumed riding with a new intensity, competing on the East Coast, and continued when she and Price returned to Marin County after a year.

In Belvedere, she gave birth to a daughter and, 18 months later, a son. She also acquired two more horses.

Texas Pacific Group entered the wine business in 1995, acquiring the parent company of Beringer and Chateau Souverain in the biggest U.S. wine buyout at the time. Three years later, the couple became more personally involved in wine — a natural fit for Phipps-Price, whose interest in food and wind had led her study enology and viticulture at UC Davis. In 1998, they bought the Durell Vineyard, a former cattle ranch outside Sonoma converted to grapes two decades earlier. When her marriage to Price ended in 2002 after 13 years, they divided the vineyard.

Both now create their own wines from the vineyard. Phipps-Price splits her time between Belvedere and a home at Durell, producing chardonnay and pinot noir under the Dunstan label from grapes grown just outside the house.

Towt, whom she met riding horses in Colorado, later moved to California and works as sales manager for Dunstan, in addition to running VineSpring, an eCommerce platform service he created for the wine industry.

Phipps-Price's life was busy enough when her chance reading about the American mustang awakened her to a problem about which she had been unaware despite decades of riding.

It nagged at her until she decided she had no choice but to get involved.

Part of her affection for the wild horses, beyond their sheer beauty, is their tightly woven social structure, their spunk and personality, and their ability to survive in the wild, growing sleek and strong against the odds.

But there is also their symbolism and the mythic history they share with humans. And the more she understood of their depletion in the wild, where only about 31,500 mustangs remain — 11,000 more than the Bureau of Land Management thinks the range can support — the more invested she became.

One of her first phone calls was to Kurt Brungardt, the writer who introduced her to the subject and would later accompany her to Cañon City, Colo., for her first wild horse adoption.

Phipps-Price recalls “a sea of horses” at the event. About 5,000 horses were being kept there, 2,000 of them up for adoption. A mere nine found homes, two of them with Phipps-Price, including her favorite horse, Dunstan, now 5, who shares her winery's name.

It was an instructive experience, illustrating with sobering clarity the dead-end facing 50,000 horses wrenched from their life in the wild only to be stockpiled in government holding areas.

In the meantime, Phipps-Price found herself working with advocates to coordinate lobbying efforts. She visited lawmakers, and traveled to different states to visit herd management areas and see first-hand where some of the conflicts existed.

Though generally not one to cultivate “society” connections or a public persona, she said she's willing to “put myself out there” to protect the horses.

She says she came to the issue at a time in her life when she's able to devote her attentions “to a bigger world,” thanks in part to a partner in Towt who “shows up for me all day long,” and skilled, dependable collaborators at the winery and the film production team in Los Angeles.

But longtime college friend Kathy Chaix said there's also a confidence and strength in Phipps-Price's convictions that wasn't there before.

“She just doesn't stop,” Chaix said.

“She's just working on so many fronts,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign in North Carolina. “I feel like she's superwoman. She just really puts her heart and soul into things, and she puts her money behind it, too. I think she's a quite a remarkable person.”

In 2010, Phipps-Price teamed up with Roy to post billboards at the Kentucky Derby and another prominent equestrian competition to draw attention to the mustangs' plight. The billboards featured a drawing of helicopter driving wild horses across the plains and said “Stop Wild Horse Roundups.”

Then, as summer came on, Phipps-Price learned about 170 Nevada mustangs that apparently strayed onto private ranchlands, causing them to lose their protected status.

The government rounded them up and handed them over for public auction in Fallon, Nev. There, bidders dubbed “killer buyers” by mustang supporters lined up, ready to buy the steeds and truck them to slaughterhouses across the border for foreign meat markets.

But they found themselves bidding on someone more determined to take the horses home: Phipps-Price and her comrades. Over four hours, they outbid everyone else and paid $31,000 for the lot.

Volunteers transported the horses to a Nevada feed lot, where they remained for the two years it took Phipps-Price and Towt to find Montgomery Creek Ranch, a former cattle ranch near Stonyford.

Most of the horses were released last year at the ranch, located in the hills near the edge of the Mendocino National Forest. It has good water, herds of elk and other wildlife, and fencing built for buffalo — and thus strong enough for wild horses.

The 160-or so horses there now include many from the Fallon purchase, babies conceived before the stallions in that herd were gelded, a few smaller rescue groups and two mustangs adopted from Bureau of Land Management during the making of her film.

About 30 of the 2- and 3-year-olds will one day be adopted, she hopes. They're already sufficiently accustomed to human interaction that they can be trained.

Phipps-Price figures the ranch can handle about 150 horses, most of which ultimately will live out their lives there.

She and Towt are building a house there and growing hay in an effort to develop a self-sustaining operation.

But Phipps-Price's larger aim is to help shift federal policy on America's mustangs, prioritizing the goal of keeping them wild. She believes the solution lies partly in aggressive experimentation with fertility control to stabilize wild horse populations.

The BLM has made some advances in fertility treatments, though they're extremely labor intensive to administer and short-lived, requiring repeated applications, agency spokesman Tom Gorey said. Officials are even exploring the potential for a surgical approach.

Phipps-Price and other mustang advocates say the BLM has made only a token effort to research fertility treatments that would allow the horses to be managed on the range, in the wild, not in pens or restrictive government pastures.

But what's needed, she said, is wider public awareness and understanding of the interaction of cattle and energy interests, the underwriting of grazing entitlements, and the realities of how the nation is currently managing mustang herds.

“I'm really hoping that other people that care about horses will get more aware of what's happening to them,” she said, “and find their voice to speak up for the horses.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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