The wild horses eyed us hard across the broad South Dakota plains.

There were two of us: With me was Monte Matheson, a thickly bearded retired cop in his mid-40s who had turned to the cowboy life for his second act. There were about 20 horses, alternately grazing on the short, rough South Dakota buffalo grass and tracking the two-footed strangers.

Well, one stranger. As a Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary guide, Matheson spent his days leading city slickers, small-town folk and everyone in between to a front-row seat of the horses and the wilds of the West.

I hung back as Matheson moved slowly toward the skittish horses, hand slightly extended, until he was able to get close enough to crouch and sweet-talk them into a howdy.

“Come on, girls,” Matheson cooed. He extended his hand farther. Finally one approached, head bobbing and nostrils flaring.

“Atta girl,” he said.

I wandered gingerly toward the herd until I found a black mare that would let me scratch behind her ear.

“When the ears are forward, everything’s OK,” Matheson advised. “When the ears go back, there’s fixin’ to be a rodeo.”

Tucked in South Dakota’s southwest corner, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is far from a rodeo. The 650 horses that call the sanctuary home aren’t part of a show; they are the show. Dayton O. Hyde founded the ranch in 1988 as a refuge for wild horses jammed onto Bureau of Land Management property. None of the horses on Hyde’s 13,000-acre sanctuary can be saddled or ridden, so visitors must keep their ranch fantasies in check. This place is about watching the horses in a natural environment, and many of them won’t let guests get within a few feet.

During a three-hour private tour of the land in Matheson’s dirt-streaked SUV, we saw no shortage of the star attractions.

Chew in his lip — as it is most of his waking hours, meals included — Matheson told the horses’ stories with a western zeal. In fact, he said most everything with a western zeal; females (the human kind) are “fillies” in his world. He looked the part, too, with the requisite Wrangler jeans, heavily scuffed brown boots, a white cowboy hat and a blue button-front shirt crossed by vertical and horizontal stripes.

Landscape, horses both wow

The sanctuary is a rugged, looping and lovely land, a former cattle ranch that would stir the imagination even without wild horses. It is home to rock-carved American Indian glyphs and the graffiti of 19th-century stagecoach riders. Matheson said Marlboro commercials have been filmed there, along with several feature films including “Into the Wild” and “Hidalgo.”

The sanctuary offers group and private tours, stays on the land and, for $400 a year, the opportunity to “sponsor” a horse, which mostly amounts to naming it. The real prizes, though, are the wild horses themselves and the opportunity to scratch the rough area behind their ears while looking into those deep, mysterious eyes.

“What’s cool is that some of the horses in the far-off spots see people maybe once a week,” Matheson said. “Some might only see people every six months.”

Letting nature run its course

Rather than protecting horses, the sanctuary is about letting nature run its course. That means wild horses running free, and it means a few going down to hungry mountain lions. Matheson said he’d shoot a rattlesnake in a minute but wouldn’t touch a mountain lion. “If we kill a mountain lion for killing horses, that defeats the purpose of the sanctuary,” Matheson said. “One hundred years ago no one was keeping the mountain lions off the horses. Dayton’s deal is that he wants the horses to live free, not to be harassed and to live like they did before people came around.”

At one point, as we stood above a canyon where horses milled below, a gunshot echoed out.

“What’s getting shot?” I asked.

“Could be anything in the west,” Matheson said. “Could be someone shooting a rattlesnake. I don’t think it’s turkey season yet. We’ve had some poachers lately.”

“People shoot snakes?” I asked.

“If there was a snake here, I’d shoot it right now,” he said. “Rattlesnakes aren’t good for anything except dinner.”

Soon we came upon a group of about a dozen people who were rumbling across the land in a blue, rickety former school bus. Their tour had just started, and its youngest member, a bright blond 6-year-old, leaned in and said something quietly to her guide.

“This little girl wants a white horse!” the guide bellowed to the group.

“Actually, I think she’d much prefer a pink one,” her grandmother said.

“We might be able to do that,” Matheson said. “With a can of spray paint.”