The Wandering Life of the Electric Horseman

With solar panels on his horses and a cat on his shoulder, Dane Hartwell wanders the wilderness, posting to Facebook.
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Long rider Dane Hartwell at a California ranch with his horses. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

I met the Electric Horseman on a spring day last year. He told me I could find him in Lompoc, California, where he would begin the first leg of an expedition north toward Oregon. More specifically, he told me to park my car near a playground at a trailhead and walk about a mile into the wilderness toward the Mission La Purisima Concepcion until I found myself at a very specific clearing of trees. I couldn’t miss it, he told me. It was a strange request. But, just as I began to wonder if I had found myself in the wrong clearing, Dane Hartwell, the Electric Horseman, appeared around a bend. As he approached, he beeped a car horn mounted on one of his packs.

Hartwell was aboard Sundown Baby, a 4-year-old mare, with two older horses following behind. However, Hartwell looked nothing like a typical cowboy. He didn’t wear blue jeans, a ten-gallon hat, or clunky spurs. Instead, he had long, red motorcycle pants and black leather boots. He outfitted his black bicycle helmet with a headlamp, a red bandana to cover his neck from the sun and a GoPro camera. His horses wore some unusual gear too. The packs were strapped with solar panels that powered a slew of tech equipment along with regular camping supplies. One of the horses even had blinkers installed on the back of her bags so Hartwell could use signals on the road as if he were operating a car.

He swung off Baby, shook my hand, and apologized for being late. “One of the horses spooked, a pack came loose, and fell off,” he explained. “When that happens, you have to stop to put everything back on.”

Hartwell, 51, is what’s known as a long rider, a rare breed of horseman in the United States today. Many modern long riders journey great distances to break records, and few take pack horses along. Some have sponsors to fund their rides. Hartwell has always traveled for himself and, although he does ride his horse along roads and highways, much of his time has been spent alone in the wilderness. “I don’t tell people how many miles I’ve done,” Hartwell said. “I don’t want to be competitive with people or for them to feel like they have to beat me. I don’t care about that.”

We live in an era built for digital nomads—freelancers and travelers able to work anywhere in the world with WiFi access. The Electric Horseman preceded this trend by many years and, though he has been without a traditional job most of his life, has managed to remain connected in some of the most remote locations in the country.

I helped him lead his horses further off the trail, where he tied them to trees with rope long enough to allow the horses to graze and wander a bit. The two pack horses, Belknap and Starlite, disappeared from view momentarily behind some trees while he untacked Baby. She let out shrill whinnies, worried about being separated from her small herd. Hartwell came to her and cooed as he scratched her chest, “You’re just a little scaredy, aren’t you.” He uncinched his saddle and the warm smell of sweat and hay radiated from Baby’s skin. “She’s not a very smart horse, so…” he trailed off a moment then burst out laughing. “I hate to say that, since so many people say there’s no such thing as a dumb horse. But she can’t figure anything out.”

While Baby settled in, Hartwell relieved himself of a Bluetooth earpiece and set his packs on the ground. They were filled with dehydrated food, first-aid kits, books on edible and medicinal plants, a solar shower, an air pad for sleeping, plus lots and lots of gadgets. He had a radio, a DSLR camera and lenses, a burglar alarm, video gear, and a cell phone. Strangely, he also had two laptops and a word processor. He said he carried both laptops so he could be online and watch TV at the same time. As for the word processor? He liked the calm the device brought when he wanted to write without distractions.

Hartwell with a horse named Rocky. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

Hartwell began living as a wanderer 20 years ago when he left his Montana cabin on horseback. He only remained in one place long enough to make money doing plumbing, ranching, or electrical work before moving on. His set-up was simple. Often, Hartwell slept under the stars on an air mattress and saddle pads, tethering his steeds to nearby trees. His diet consisted of wild plants, dehydrated food and the rare purchased item. But, though it may sound idyllic, his form of nomadism has its share of both urban and natural challenges. Hartwell has been buried in snow while sleeping in a tent in the mountains, and wild cats have attacked his horses. He has come face-to-face with grizzly bears, helped his horses give birth to foals while on the trail, and was robbed at gunpoint by drug addicts in Bakersfield. A few times, while riding through the suburbs, the horses broke loose and ended up in someone’s backyard. He’s had Animal Control called on him more than once. But, typically, the attention is positive. People are always approaching him to ask about his horses, and some even bring him supplies. Kids love the horses most. Hartwell has learned to avoid riding past schools after class is let out, or he’ll spend entire afternoons giving pony rides.

At 51, Hartwell shows no sign of slowing down. He usually styles his facial hair in goatee or long handlebar mustache, with a spray of long, gray hairs on his neck that have escaped a few rounds of shaving. His light blue eyes bug out with excitement as he talks, which he does with sweeping arm gestures. On the trail, his floppy, curly hair is pressed flat into a perpetual case of helmet hair. 

Hartwell and Belknap. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

When I met Hartwell, his three horses included Mighty Belknap, a 17-year-old chestnut mare who has been on the road with Hartwell since she was a month old and Starlite, a 17-year-old paint with her breed’s characteristic color-splotched coat. Baby, Hartwell’s riding horse, was the product of Starlite and a mustang. A year ago, Hartwell was returning to the trail after staying at a friend’s ranch in Lompoc and working to make some cash. Baby bucked Hartwell off at the ranch and he broke a shoulder blade during the fall, which kept him out of the saddle for months. But, after experiencing the simple comforts of the modern world for nearly a year, Hartwell was back.

There was no real agenda to Hartwell’s two-decade-long travels, including this leg of his journey. “If I get an instinct to go somewhere, I go,” he said. “There’s nothing holding me back. Living simple is easier because you have less to lose.”

* * *

Above all else, Hartwell’s life has focused on survivalism. The incorporation of horseback riding and technology developed along the way.

Listening to Hartwell’s stories, it is hard not to think of them as tall tales. He has lived a peculiar life and, because much of it has been spent alone with his horses and without interacting with any one person for a long time, some of it is hard to account for. Still, much of it has been chronicled by Hartwell, who is obsessed with writing about, photographing and filming his exploits, and by the few people who trailed along for some of his journey. He kept a detailed blog before he joined Facebook, which he updates regularly, answering the frequent, often repetitive, questions he gets from friends about his travels

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Lexi Pandell is a writer based in Oakland, California.

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