By Erin Clifford, August 2011
My trip to the Pryor Mountains with the Cloud Foundation was set to be the highlight of my summer – rather, the highlight of my year – and the day was rapidly approaching. The last time I went camping was in 2002 on a little island in Ohio so I hardly felt prepared for the week ahead. Since starting this internship, I have visited a few other horse ranges but I was completely unfamiliar with those herds. But by the time we arrived in the Pryors, I felt like I already knew some of the horses, so it was going to be on a different level from anything else I had experienced thus far.
I was in the beginning stages of packing when I received a message from Lauryn about Admiral and Climbs High. She and Ginger had told me about these “official greeters” and I had been extremely excited for those two to be among the first Pryor mustangs I would get to see. Unfortunately, that expectation was swiftly kicked out from under me as I learned about the tragedy that took place.
Entering the horse range was bittersweet. Excitement was mixed with rage and sadness as Ginger pointed out the spot where the band would have been seen, which had since been deserted. Down the road a few minutes later we spotted a few horses off in the distance and dwelling on the circumstances dissipated as I scrambled for my binoculars.
The next morning we went to visit the Freedom Fund horses outside of Billings and met up with Alexa (summer intern) and two Foundation friends Carla (Bowers)and “Grass.” Our little group spent a significant chunk of time clearing out the remnants of an old fence and walking all over to find where two of the bands had run off. After making us work for it, Shane and Trigger finally stopped moving and let us approach them. It was quite a hike, but the property could not have been more perfect. The Freedom Fund is a very unique opportunity for these horses that deserve to live as closely to the way they would in the wild.
The evening brought us to the top of the Pryors, and after crossing an intimidating ‘Wild Horse Annie’ cattle guard connected to a monstrous eyesore of a fence we were officially there. During the uphill climb through the Custer National Forest, Ginger explained to me that the newly constructed fence severely reduced the horse’s allotted rangeland and they could no longer go to those familiar grounds. One night Lauryn, Ginger and I stood back in amusement as Hera (a blue roan mare in Prince’s band) started scratching her neck on the fence. The pole wobbled hazardously and only 10 seconds later it fell at her feet. It had clearly frightened her, but we were all tickled by what we saw.
Driving a little further into the range we came across a handful of bands scattered on both sides of the road, including Cloud and Bolder. There were many horses I was especially excited to see, and I could not have asked for a better reception at the top.
The first night when I saw Cloud I had to admire him from afar, but this time I got a better look at him. I was watching Echo when I heard twigs breaking behind me and I turned around to see Cloud walk into a small clearing. It startled me for a moment because I had no idea he was nearby, and then the realization of who I was looking at slapped me in the face and my jaw dropped. His presence was overwhelming and exhilarating. Seeing these horses in the films and in photographs can hardly compare to how they are in real life. I took close to 2,000 pictures and they just can’t quite evoke the same feelings I had when I was taking them.
During our first day, a majority of the morning was spent at Cat’s Cradle (where the mountains lions cached their foal kills in years past) in the company of Cloud, Bolder, Diamond and a great many others. Bands surrounded us and lazily grazed their way uphill as we rested in the valley. Our presence was hardly acknowledged. It was great to see how these animals really spend their day and interact with each other. The horse’s personalities were quickly revealed and showed who was adventurous, who seemed like they were all business, and everything in between. I sat back and soaked everything in – the smell of the range and wildflowers, their whinnies and other noises, even a bit of sun that left my skin with a brilliant red hue.
That evening we ventured out onto the old terraced part of the range (a landscaping endeavor that took place to help repair the erosion and range damage from livestock years ago) to take advantage of the last hours of sunlight. Approximately 90 horses joined us and spread themselves out, ambling about and mingling with each other. Echo (yearling) and two-year-old Jack (in Jackson’s band) put on a brilliant display of prowess, showcasing their future as stallions and protectors of their families. Their power and passion wasn’t as present as the interactions of the older stallions, but the strength and skillfulness they are developing was thrilling to witness.
Somewhere in between band stallions sparring and yearlings developing their abilities, the bachelors seem to have found a comfortable spot. Jasper, Fiddle, He Who, and Indigo Kid have been some favorites of mine for a while and they certainly did not disappoint. After we had spent a good amount of time at the spring-fed water hole with almost nothing to show for it, “Fiddle’s band” came thundering down the hill and livened the place up. Seeing them play reminded me of how dogs roughhouse with each other, except some of these guys weigh 800-some pounds. Besides trying to pick a few fights with band stallions or bachelors from the Forest Service, they looked like they were having a great time all on their own.
On average, our days consisted of an early breakfast and setting out with our cameras to find the horses. I often weighed the pros and cons of wearing long sleeves (less severe sunburn but in 80-degree weather) and eventually questioned the cleanliness of my clothing. Some days were easier for spotting than others, particularly when we got some much-needed rain and most bands went to the bottom of the mountain. The rain was a relief for both flora and fauna, although it made for a challenging day when carrying various pieces of equipment. Reminding myself that the rain was a positive thing helped me accept the discomfort in wet jeans and socks. During lunch I attempted to dry my footwear by the wood stove in Penn’s Cabin that resulted in only some burn marks and a lot of smoke billowing from one lone sock.
One of the funniest parts of the trip happened when Morning Star’s band suddenly surrounding Ginger’s Durango, licking the mud and dirt that was caked onto the bottom of the car for minerals. The foal in that band amused herself by pawing at the front license plate and the sound echoed over the range. It took all effort I had left not to bust out laughing as Lauryn and I watched Ginger’s look of horror at ‘Destructo Filly.’ There is somewhat of a bite mark on the hood now and some dents in the front license plate, although the origins of those are unknown (I just like to pretend they’re from the filly). I think her nickname will stick with her for quite some time.
Among my lengthy list of horses I was most excited to see, I was also hoping that I’d get to see a new foal. ‘Destructo filly’ was small, but not a newborn. On our last day on the mountaintop my wish came true. The mare, Felicity, with Custer had a little mass of dun fuzz standing next to her, and it was a surprise to everyone since no one thought she was pregnant. The colt’s knobby little knees struggled to support him as he tried to get the hang of lying down without falling over. I’m so grateful to have gotten to see this young one on the morning of our departure.
These horses shared an entirely different world with me. It was an intimate experience although the vast surrounding landscape would make one think otherwise. Their home is a truly special place, but the BLM’s actions against this herd were like a heavy presence looming over you, impossible to completely shake away. I wonder if anyone in the BLM has actually been to a range simply to appreciate it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Watching these wild horses and realizing the unfairness they receive was heartbreaking. Remaining a quiet and inactive citizen allows the unfairness to continue.
Beyond being a unique and unforgettable experience, the trip solidified my grasp on what’s at stake and how important it is to fight. Going home to Michigan to begin the fall semester will be a difficult switch, and it will be impossible to sit quietly while the issues out west continue to surge. I am sure I will return to the Pryor Mountains, but until then I will continue to stand up for our wild ones and further educate people on the subject in hopes I am doing my best.