Summer in Montana & the Return of Conquistador!
Dear Friends of Cloud, his family and the Pryor herd;
Cloud Foundation Board Member, Ann Evans (proud owner of Cloud sisters, Smokey and Mahogany and my co-owner of Cloud’s brother, Sax) traveled with me to Montana for an unforgettable journey with wild horses. Our Irish Terrier side-kick, Quinn, accompanied us. Although he is an experienced ranch and horse dog, my one year-old could not have been prepared for the sight of nearly 100 horses roaming and running across wide-open meadows atop the Pryor Mountains.
We three arrived in Lovell, Wyoming, early on the evening of June 24th. Not wanting to squander a single minute of daylight, we drove out on the paved highway to the Dryhead—into the only part of the Pryor Wild Horse Range that’s easily accessible in a regular car. Many times I’ve have driven this winding 7-mile stretch, seeing only the black stallion, Sam and his dun mare, Hightail, near the gate of the horse range. For years I looked forward to seeing these “official greeters.” With Sam’s death last year, his bay son, Admiral, has taken up the post of official greeter. His mother, Hightail, has joined him, along with Seneca and their son, Climbs High. On this magical evening Ann spotted Admiral and his family near the canyon on a high hill farther from the road than usual. And on our drive and hike we saw 18 more horses in three bands, including four young bachelors —22 horses in all at sunset. Every single horse looked fabulous. They had survived the worst winter in 50 years, according to many folks who have grown up in the area. Sadly, it appears to us that the deer and bighorn sheep populations may have crashed, while the native mustangs survived with only a handful of exceptions.
The next morning we drove up the horrid Tillett Ridge Road, eroded by all the moisture and increased ATV use. It’s only a matter of time until Sykes and Tillett will not be drivable in an SUV. That will be a shame. Apparently, BLM maintenance is a thing of the past. But the awful drive was certainly well worth the effort—the melted snow and abundant spring rains had produced an unforgettable flower garden.
The only band we spotted on the way up belonged to the powerful stallion, Jackson. Cloud and Velvet’s daughter, Firestorm, is in this band and she gave birth to a dark colt, Le Doux (“the sweet one”), earlier this spring. I hope he will lighten into a blue roan.
The cirque cliffs just below the very top of the mountain were a perfect, unbroken horseshoe of snow. This is the area I call the Tea Cup Bowl, a grassy, sheltered area looking out onto the ridges of Sykes below. We glassed east and could just see the wooden roof of tiny Penn’s Cabin. Below it, in the sloping sub-alpine meadows, were bands of horses and my heart began to race. Some things never change, like my reaction to seeing wild horses on a mountaintop. The snow-covered Bighorns were the dramatic backdrop for this unforgettable scene. I had never seen this much snow… not at the end of June, not even at the end of May for that matter.
Cloud’s band was one of the first we saw. He looked incredible, more handsome and fit than ever, but filthy from rolling in the shallow, red waterholes. Ann and I moved quickly to grab our cameras when we saw the newborn foal in his family. The three-year old filly, Ingrid, had a tiny foal who was trying to stand. The little dun, named Lynx, had likely been born that morning and was still wobbly. Aunt Black, Cloud’s big black mare (daughter of Velvet and the now deceased Count) who has never foaled after being given infertility drugs as a yearling and two-year old, seemed to fill the roll of mid-wife and gentle protector. Ingrid laid her ears back when Cloud approached and did her best to keep the yearlings, Breeze and Agate, and the two-year old filly, Jasmine, away. Aztec, on the other hand, was allowed to approach and sniff the new baby. I was sad not to see Velvet back with the family but think I understood why: she could not accept the young mare and left Cloud to join his son, Bolder.
We saw band after band, but not Bolder and his family. The next day, we set up the spotting scope, glassing down on the wide ridges of Sykes. I spotted him immediately and we couldn’t resist trying to get down onto the meadows from the top of the mountain. Sykes is tough and I do not recommend it to any of you, unless you have a very rugged vehicle with appropriate tires. Quinn bounced along happily. This was his first great adventure and he seemed to be enjoying himself, even the jolting he took in the back seat.
Bolder’s band was less than 50 yards off the road. The smart little stallion looked fantastic, even a bit chubby. His little son, Lobo, looked great too. Lobo’s mother, Cedar, still had a rib or two showing but that was to be expected after the winter and spring they had just come through. Jewel had shed out her winter coat and was darkening into a yellow buckskin. Echo seemed huge for a yearling and had darkened a bit more, making his blaze more noticeable. So like Cloud, I thought. He has a more Spanish-looking head, but he has the attitude of his grandfather—outgoing and cocky. Cedar’s yearling, Absarokee, did not look good though. He still had his weathered winter coat and is so small for his age. Ann and I worried about him the entire time we were there. It reminded me a bit of 2003 when Cloud and Sitka’s yearling son, Storm, looked a bit lean in the summer and did not picked up any weight in the fall. Winter came to the mountain and I never saw him again. I hope that Absarokee will look better when we return.
Cedar was licking rocks and we sat for a long time watching the band paw and eat minerals. We returned the next day and found them licking at a new place. Amazing how they can take care of themselves. They are so much safer here in their natural home. I pray they will never have to endure another helicopter stampede down steep trails to the desert.
On this second day on Sykes, two stunning black bachelors came near the band. They were the sons of Seattle: Hawk and Issaquah. I heard Jewel nicker softly and take a few steps in their direction. Bolder was off, galloping toward them. He played a bit with Issaquah until the young bachelor lost his nerve and trotted back to his brother. Jewel watched them go and I wondered how long it would be until she started prospecting for a mate. It is unlikely that these two immature stallions would have a chance. Young females usually gravitate to the tested, older band stallions. But stranger things have happened. What a stunner, I thought, watching Issaquah walk out of sight with his brother. I wonder if Jewel thinks so too?
After a few days Ann, Quinn and I left for Billings to visit the Freedom Fund horses and celebrate the return of Conquistador, Cavelitta, and their sturdy daughter, Augustina, to the big pasture we lease just 15 minutes outside Billings. A dear friend of all horses, Effie Orser, trailered them from her place in Emigrant, MT. They stayed in the round pen with a little shelter overnight, and the next evening Effie opened the panels. In typical Conquistador fashion, the stallion did not burst out and run away, but he and his mare and foal walked calmly out and began to graze on the flat hilltop above scenic, cottonwood-lined, Duck Creek. I could see Shane and Trigger’s families on the hills across the creek, but the bands did not seem to notice the little family.
In attendance were fans of wild horses including the R.T. Fitch’s sisters, Debbie and Sandy (they seemed nearly as feisty as their big brother!), as well as my dear friends, Mike and Dona Penfold. Becky Young, who has helped watch over the little herd, helped us celebrate the return of the magnificent stallion, who is 21 years young this year.
After about an hour, Augustina ran a bit and tried to play with her father who continued to chow down on the abundant forage. In time, however, the 21 year-old saw horses on the distant hill. He stared and ran a bit, only to be distracted by the abundance of great grass. While Effie and I attended an excellent PZP class with Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Ann worked in the sweltering heat to flag more of the fence and get rid of barbed wire near a spring on the far side of the pasture. Quinn stayed with her sacked out in the shade of Effie’s truck. Ann reported that while she was working on the fence on the east side of the pasture, 23 year-old Grumpy Grulla was running around like a little filly while Ann was taking down a part of interior barbed wire fencing. You go girl! Grumpy is the mother of Ann’s beautiful mare, Smokey. Seventeen years ago I named her Grumpy Grulla because she demanded good behavior of the foals in Raven’s band, including Cloud. Her discipline was not physical, but she sure could give the babies the evil eye, laying her ears flat, and glaring at them. Even Cloud toed the line when Grumpy laid down the law.
Effie and I returned the next evening after class. Conquistador and his family had wandered into the valley. Augustina was laying flat in the sun while her parents grazed. Our Carroll College intern, Alexa Guttenburg, who is working on a horse behavior study with the Freedom Fund 15 (three bands with four foals and one almost yearling, Pistol) reported a few days after we left that Shane made a run down from his hilltop to confront Conquistador, but it was a short encounter. Conquistador quickly sent the younger male running back to his band of seven. This was such a relief to us. Although imposing in size and demeanor, Conquistador is not a kid anymore and he is not in fighting shape after a winter break at Effie and Rob Burns’ ranch. It appears he is still in charge, the king of the Freedom Fund bands. As I watched, he and Cavelitta and their little daughter in the valley below, I thought about how so many of you made this happen. Your donations allowed us and continue to allow us to keep these older horses in their family groups after the BLM had removed them all from their home in the Custer National Forest in 2009. I know Ann shed a few tears when she watched the gallant old stallion, his sleek mare and look-alike daughter walk out into their big beautiful pasture. It was not home, but it is good enough… I hope.
We returned to the Pryors, driving from Billings all the way to the mountaintop to camp near Penn’s cabin. A low cloud hung over the mountain meadows. As we reached the Teacup Bowl we were enveloped in fog. As we pressed on, we saw horses ahead and they were running. When we crested the hill and made the right hand turn toward Penn’s cabin, more bands joined in the run. You cannot imagine how dramatic it was. To our right we saw Cloud’s mother running with her band. As she crossed the road in front of us she bucked and then kicked out like a young filly. At 20, she is fit and still having fun. Running with her was Trace’s mother, War Bonnet, and yearling daughter, Kayenta. There have been few fillies as pretty as this, but I know I’m just a little bit prejudiced. As we neared Penn’s Cabin, we estimated that some 60 horses had raced along with us like elegant ghosts emerging and disappearing in the mist—truly an unforgettable experience.
Over the next few days, we were thrilled to see a dozen foals, realizing that there could have been far fewer if the PZP-22 (not to be confused with the one year drug) had worked as planned. Bolder’s band had finally come to the top and we also spotted Flint and his mares, Sequoyah and Halcyon, the yearling Uno (son of Two Boots), and the beautiful Adelina, the two-year old granddaughter of Blue Sioux and Red Raven.
The road in from the Bridger side was still closed due to snowdrifts, making for a quieter time. We were able to watch coyote pups playing and sliding down snow banks. What a treat! Marmots sunned on the rocky cliff face above the snow-fed waterhole as blue birds and horned larks foraged for insects in the grass. Band after band of beautiful horses trailed in to the waterhole, waiting their turns, pawing in the water and resting on the big snowdrift just above the water’s edge.
Sadly, we saw no deer on the mountaintop. But we got a surprise look at a young, dark cinnamon black bear who lumbered into the meadow below Penn’s Cabin on our last day on the mountain. He stopped, looked up to see dozens of wild horses staring at him, wheeled and ran back into the forest. We searched for the little bear, hoping to catch another glimpse, but he had vanished.
On Cloud’s Island, we found the bodies of three horses, some distance apart but on the same slope. One was a stallion, another an older mare based on the wear on her teeth, and the other a filly, again based on her teeth and also her smaller size. I have no idea who they were and hoped they died quickly. The bodies had recently been uncovered by melting snow and the bears had not worked them over, but I believe the coyotes had benefited from their death, as had the birds. They were recycled, living on in the circle of life.
Ann, Quinn and I walked the length of the new fence aimed at preventing the horses from accessing their high meadows in the Custer National Forest, and we saw dozens of poles lying on the ground. Lakota and Casper’s bands were already grazing on the other side, “trespassing” on lands they have roamed for centuries. Apparently, the deep snow had snapped the poles off their supports. God bless Mother Nature! However, we have since learned that repairs to the fence were made within a week after we left.
The new fence is designed to bar the horses from a portion of an area I call “Cloud’s Island” because bachelor Cloud used to love to roam there with his buddies. The BLM and Forest Service simply changed the boundaries of the range and ran the fence right across the bottom of the meadow, extending the fence line by a half a mile.
Keeping Cloud and his herd from grazing the sweeping sub-alpine meadows in the Custer National Forest endangers their survival. It diminishes the public’s ability to see them racing across the broad, flower-strewn fields below the Dryhead Overlook. And it prevents the horses from accessing beautiful Tony Island with its year-round spring. We believe that the Forest Service and BLM have no right to prevent their use of an area they have continuously roamed for centuries. We hope the judge in our lawsuit agrees.
Regardless of the outcome of our court battle to save the Pryor horses, we will never stop fighting for their freedom and their right to roam in this remarkably spiritual place.
PS – Be sure to check out our other blogpost for more photos from this trip!