Wonder on the Mountaintop

My Pryor Experience, July 2011, by Carla Bowers 

For a wild horse and burro lover and avid advocate, visiting and sharing in the lives of the wild horses in the Pryors for five days was heaven on earth for me. And, to top that off, my partner, Grassman (Jim Grass), and I had the good fortune to enjoy the whole experience with the penultimate guide and educator, Ginger, and her fun and able sidekicks and assistants, Lauryn and Erin. We enjoyed wild horse photographer, Carol Walker’s wonderful company for a couple days up there, too.

Me (Carla), Ginger, Erin, & Lauryn - photo taken by Grass

Since witnessing and documenting the brutal California Twin Peaks HMA roundups and removals of hundreds of family bands from their homelands over several weeks time last summer, observing and spending time with the Pryor Herd in their true wild state, the way nature intended, in one of the most beautiful mountain top settings around, was just what I needed this summer. Ah, this is the way it’s supposed to be. This is what all of America’s wild horse and burro herds deserve and what the American & international public should have the chance to experience. This is what needs to be protected and preserved for generations to come across the Western states.

And so, for five days, I was basically on Cloud Nine (no pun intended!) as we explored the different pristine mountain top areas where the family bands and bachelors did what they naturally do, when they’re left alone to do it. From dawn til dusk, every day was like a treasure hunt. You would never know who you would see, where they would be, who else would be nearby or afar, how they would act, or what they would do next. Every moment was a surprise, a gift. Some days, it was easy to observe and spend time with the family bands and bachelors. Other days, we would search high and low and discover them way down over yonder hidden within the trees, peaking out at us, munching, snoozing, grooming one another, being mostly peaceful and at ease.

There were so many special moments. Of great impact to me was the presence of a powerful, vibrant life force that I have never felt in other scenic wilderness areas I have visited in my lifetime. It’s hard to describe, but I attribute it to the wild ones there. Another amazement was how the bands just accepted us as if we were part of their family, part of the herd, not really outsiders, that we belonged. And another was the variety and different hues of colors of the healthy and fit animals—grullas, duns, buckskins, red & blue roans, light palominos, blacks & all ranges of colorful bays. Stunning. Their behaviors were very curious, interesting & intimate. The foals were beyond precious. And the horses’ soft eyes. I’ll never forget their big, kind, soft eyes.

One of the most dramatic impressions made on me was the family band unity and how amazing and crucial those bonds are in the social order of the herd. Reading and studying about the family dynamics of wild horse herds is one thing, but observing it in person is quite another. The protective nature of the lead stallion is incredible. One occasion stands out to me. As we were observing almost all the upper mountain herd in the Cirque area, about 80 head, the stallion, Bolder, left his family to go check out a mature bachelor up the hill aways. They met, necks arched, sniffed, snorted and scuffled around a little. Then, to my surprise, much smaller, younger Echo bravely (or foolishly) decided to romp over to check out the action. He wanted to take on the bachelor himself and I’m thinking, no this isn’t a good idea. Well, Bolder immediately encircled Echo and the bachelor and maneuvered himself between the two to separate them and then pressed Echo away back to the family band. I must say I was relieved & awed that Bolder protected Echo in that way. The awareness, the nurturing, the caring in these animals is quite something to behold & a good lesson for us all.

And then I wondered about the blessing and curse that enshrouds the very nature of a horse. They are one of the few wild animals that can be truly wild in all their glory the way nature intended and yet, for some, they can meld into domestication on behalf of man, not on behalf of themselves. This quality of the nature of a horse is most fascinating. But, to me, the lesson here is that wild horses are wild and are meant to be wild. They don’t “pop out” domesticated. That state is of man’s creation, not of Nature’s creation.

Another day, a most unexpected & thrilling event occurred, again in the Cirque area, when Grassman & I were back at our SUV up on the road and Ginger, Lauryn and Erin were still down in the lower valley area near Cloud’s Island. We were having a snack when we heard a thundering roar of hoofbeats coming from the West. I scrambled to get my video to try to capture the magnificent scene of 50-60 wild horses galloping full tilt across the upper Cirque, over the road behind our vehicle, up the hill, only to disappear down into the large water hole area. It truly took my breath away. I wondered what startled them in the first place to make them stampede like that? Whatever it was, I was glad for it, because what a sight! Magnificent! And, even though we had spent a lot of time with handsome Cloud and his family every day in a different place on the mountain top, when he came into view in this scene, mane and tail flying, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was as if he was floating on air, so effortlessly moving, as if his feet never touched the ground, light as a feather. Then, of course, he stops, pauses, looks for his family to make sure they are close by before prancing up and over the hill with them, out of sight. What can I say. It was beyond magical.

Down in the valley on our search for missing horses

The most challenging adventure Grassman and I had was on the single, needed rainy day that came to the mountain top. We decided to go off on our own in search of the missing Forest Service wild horses that no one had seen for way too many months on the Custer National Forest side of the mountain. We had our map that Ginger sketched out for us, descriptions of the horses we were tracking, plenty of water & snacks & we set out hopeful we would find signs of them or at least see them from a distance. This truly was a treasure hunt. We started out dry, hiked down a big valley, around into another, up onto Tony Island, scoured the whole huge area, found older manure piles, but nothing fresh, discovered the spring-fed pond with a few older hoof impressions near the water’s edge, followed a horse trail and a lone horse’s large hoof prints a long ways across the mountain and clear down to the bottom of the deep gorge, always thinking that with the next step, we might come upon this lone wild horse. But, to no avail. The lone wild horse had eluded us. We wondered about him. We wondered about where the other Forest Services horses were and hoped they were OK. Then, the downpour shocked us back into the moment while we were still down in the gorge. We decided to trudge our way up the long drainage, in water most of the time, boots soggy, clothes soaked through, instead of retracing our steps which would have been three times as far. Up, up, up we slogged until we finally reached the cliff top, crossed over the huge meadow and back to the SUV. No wild horses did the wild horse trackers see, but we gave it our best shot.

The most unsettling part of the Pryor Mtn. journey was the Big Bad Fence. Now, the Big Bad Fence would be a Big Beautiful Fence if it were located anywhere else except up here in the Pryor Mtns. It now menacingly separates the Pryor Herd Range from the herd’s historic summer grazing range in part of the adjacent Custer National Forest. It was very disturbing to see the wild ones pressed up against the Big Bad Fence, pacing back and forth next to it, not understanding why it’s blocking them from their decades-long, if not longer, migration route to lush summer forage. It seemed downright wrong and it is wrong.

And then I wondered, why in the world wouldn’t the BLM stand up for the Pryor Mtn. Herd and work with the USFS to keep this historic area open to such a unique, special herd? Isn’t that what preserve and protect is about? Why wouldn’t the BLM & USFS join in the wonder and true preservation of these awesome animals, instead of seemingly doing just the opposite? And then I decided, we advocates will work tirelessly until right is really right for the Pryor Herd and all of our wild ones in the West. And, of course, we’ll be back to the Pryors. No doubt about that.

- Carla

My Pryor Experience, July 2011, by Jim Grass

I had a very interesting, enjoyable, educational, and unique time visiting the wild horses in the Pryor Mtns with Ginger and her assistants, Lauryn & Erin. The scenery was spectacular, the weather was cooperative, and the daily, recreational photo/filming activities and shared camping time was heart warming.

Seeing the horses’ family life was very educational and gave me a whole new perspective on how intelligent and family oriented these beautiful animals are. I have an even greater appreciation for wildlife films and documentaries now that I had the opportunity of being a real-time spectator and participant in how one is actually made. There is no choreography, or schedules; the horses live their lives by the moment and you have to be there to capture it.

Thank you for the five fantastic days.

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7 Responses to “Wonder on the Mountaintop”

  1. Dail Martin Says:

    My goal is to see these beautiful horses in their natural homes next summer ! If I only see one, well, that will be a treat and worth the trip !! Let’s keep up the fight to keep wild horses racing with the wind, FREE FOREVER !!

  2. Karen McLain Says:

    Thank you for posting on your trip. I can only imagine that feeling of the powerful, vibrant life force. Hearing the thunder of hooves and the vitality of the wild horse is something very few get to see.
    I am very sorry to hear about the stress the fence has caused. Blocking that passage to summer grass is something that only a human could do.
    Someday, I will travel to the Pryor Mountains. I want to observe, photograph and paint the power and beauty that is there.

  3. Barbre Says:

    The fence built that blocks the Pryor Mountain horses from their migration route -is one of the things, along with the BLM practice of hiring horse hunters, that has proven to me that truth does not matter to some. The more people are made aware of what is happening….the better chance there is of protection for our wild horses. Keep up the reporting…send things to Senator Reid…etc. The more people are made aware of the cruel practices of the BLM and their failure to protect the wild horses….the better chance there is that Congress and the BLM will finally honor the Wild Horses and Burros Act.

  4. Inside NATURE: The Cloud Blog ~ New Discoveries atop the Pryor Mountains | Nature | PBS Says:

    [...] me that coming here was the best day of their lives. Let me share Erin’s experiences as well as Carla’s & Grass’, for it was the first visit to the mountaintop for all [...]

  5. Louie Cocroft Says:

    RIGHT ON, Carla! There’s no stopping and no turning back at this point.

  6. CINDY Says:

    DEAR CARLA AND GRASS, SO GLAD YOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY AS DID THE OTHERS TO EXPERIENCE IN PERSON THE JOY AND BEAUTY OF THESE MUSTANGS, AND YES, THEIR STRONG INSTINCTS FOR PROTECTION OF FAMILY AND THE SOCIAL INTERACTIONS THAT THESE STUPENDOUS CREATURES MAINTAIN TO SURVIVE. GINGER HAS TAUGHT US SO MANY OF THESE THINGS OVER THE YEARS; HOWEVER, I CANNOT IMAGINE WHAT IT IS TO EXPERIENCE AND WITNESS THIS FIRST HAND AND IN THEIR PRESENCE. THANKS SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCE SO VIVIDLY AND I KNOW YOU WILL CARRY THIS FOREVER IN YOUR HEART,AS WELL AS YOUR CONCERN FOR THEIR FREEDOM AND THEIR HEALTHY SURVIVAL IN THEIR NATURAL TERRAIN.

    CINDY, NEW JERSEY

  7. Honor Hannon Says:

    Hi Carla,
    You just answered all the questions I asked in my last e-mail sooo ignore it( except for my letter writing to the BLM in response to the scoping letter. They sure don’t give us much time to respond—!
    Love to you and your ever patient and understanding partner. You have both earned this refreshing vacation big time!!!
    Honor

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