Sunday, March 3, was a warm, sunny day in the Pryors. The mountain was blanketed from top to bottom with a fresh coat of wet snow. This is great for future forage production, although it made accessing the range a challenge—but that’s part of the adventure!
We drove just a few miles up Tillett Ridge “Road” (more like a rocky obstacle course), when we spotted the new band stallion, Grijala, and his little family foraging on a hillside. Just a few miles past them we found Jackson and his expanded family. The hefty, coyote dun stallion had somehow acquired part of Cloud’s band! While it is great that Cloud’s daughters, Dancer and coming 3 year-old, Jasmine, are with the Jackson band, we were surprised to see that Cloud’s young mare, Ingrid and her cute little dun foal, Lynx, were also with him.
My old fears for Cloud set in… again. Was he injured somewhere? Or had something even worse happened?
Sandy Elmore, a Pryor wild horse adopter, and her friend, Bridgette, were already on lower Tillett Ridge when we arrived. Together we traveled higher on the mountain where we thought we would have a better chance of spotting Cloud. When we got bogged down on a steep grade in deep snow, we chained up the UTV with the help of Sandy and Bridgette. I gunned it and made it to the top of the grade. We called it quits there. The snow was just too deep and the road was drifted shut. But the snow was melting, so we hoped to get higher in the coming days (unfortunately, that didn’t happen). For now, hiking, or should I say slogging was our only option. Our destination was an overlook about a half a mile from the road where we could glass across Big Coulee canyon to the ridges of Sykes.
We were nearly to the overlook when Lauryn spotted horses in a sheltered canyon to our left. Lying in the snow at the feet of a black mare was a dun colt. It was Polaris and little Longshot! The lively October foal was alive! The sunny canyon was a perfect place to rest. In the junipers, we spotted his father, Mescalero, and the rest of the family. During our trip we saw them several times, but made sure we stayed far away. Any disturbance, no matter how small, might be risky—Polaris looked thin and I knew that under Longshot’s furry coat was a bony frame. “Hold on you two,” I whispered. I believe if they can make it through April, they will be out of the woods.
We set up our spotting scopes and began glassing the ridges of Sykes. Almost immediately I saw horses. It was Cloud’s stepson, Flint, and his family. But Adelina was missing. Otherwise, everyone looked fine–at least from a distance. Glassing higher we spotted other horses looking like tiny, shimmering dots because of heat waves caused by the warm sun hitting the cold snow. Still we could make out a reddish-colored horse with a broken blaze. There was only one horse this could be—Cloud’s brother, Red Raven with his life-long partner, Blue Sioux, and the rest of their family including their daughter, La Brava who turns one in May. On the ridge to their right, we spotted Bolder with Echo and the rest of this beautiful family. Echo was nearly invisible in the snow. Will Bolder kick him out when he turns two this Spring? He’s still nursing, and his mother may not be ready to let go of the only foal she has successfully raised.
On the ridge to the south, we could see Bolder and Cedar’s pale buckskin coming three year-old daughter, Jewel, with her “beau,” the nearly five-year old He Who. Tagging along were bachelors Fiddle (Cloud’s half brother), and Jasper, Flint and Feldspar’s charming grullo son. It is clear to all who have seen this joyous colt that Jasper loves his life, his home and his freedom. The third bachelor is Prince and Electra’s blue roan son, the Indigo Kid. Though only a coming four-year old he has been dogging He Who, making half-hearted tries to win the buckskin filly since at least last December when we first spotted them near the Red Buttes. Indigo must think this Cloud granddaughter is as pretty as we do! Also on the distant ridges were Custer and his family, including the amazing grulla mare, Winnemucca—26 years young this year and looking lovely.
The next day, we glassed from the desert up to the ridges of Sykes and Tillett. Panning our scopes to the west of the mines on a snowy ridgeline we saw a nearly white horse. Cloud! What a relief. We could see he was not alone. Right then and there we made the difficult decision to try to reach him on foot. After driving as high as we could, we started walking. I left the snowshoes home for some dumb reason so we were traveling through two-foot deep drifts, breaking through with every step. We hiked from below the mines to the ridges of Tillett. I doubt it was much more than a mile, but it felt like 10!
Just below the first open ridges of Tillett we followed a trench of horse tracks carved in deep drifts traveling west. After another slog, we saw a grulla mare. When she turned her head, we saw her wide blaze. It was Feldspar whom Cloud had stolen (along with her daughter, Agate) from Flint the winter before. It might be an overstatement to say Cloud “stole” the stylish grulla and her daughter. It might be more accurate to say Flint left them for Sequoyah. I believe Cloud was just in the right place at the right time. Feldspar looks pregnant. We started to imagine what a Cloud and Feldspar foal might look like. Would it be as flashy as its parents?
Within minutes we saw the rest of the band, including the ever-loyal mares, The Black and Aztec, as well as Agate and Cloud’s daughter, Breeze. The filly will be two in July and is an unusual sable brown. She was curious, surprised I imagine, about two-leggeds on their isolated ridge! Cloud was grazing beyond the band, and to my relief, he looked as beautiful as ever. There was not a mark on him, leaving us to wonder about what had happened. If we had to venture a guess, Lauryn and I agreed that Ingrid either descended during the snowstorm the day before we arrived, or she refused to climb higher through deep snow with her foal in a storm. Jasmine and Dancer went with her (or stayed with her) and they met up with Jackson and his family. Would Cloud reclaim his young mare and her son? Maybe he already has. Regardless, if Ingrid is pregnant, she is carrying Cloud’s foal.
On our third day, when most of the snow had melted in the desert, we drove over on Sykes. Near the dramatic red buttes we spotted three stallions, handsome Medicine Bow with two new bachelors, Jemez and playful Johan. Beyond the buttes we got a look at Hidalgo and his family below us in the desert. The wind began to howl and it was spitting snow when we hiked close enough to take pictures of this flashy son of Durango and Buffalo Girl and his family. It remains to be seen whether he will hold on to them. Like He Who, Hidalgo is only a coming five year-old—young for a band stallion in the highly competitive Pryors where bands come into close proximity to each other when they converge on the mountaintop in summer. But unlike He Who, Hidalgo was born and raised in this desert country and will likely stick around down low, where there are fewer chances for his family to be stolen by a more experienced stallion.
Despite the threatening weather and a fierce wind, we ventured higher on Sykes where we saw a group of four dark bachelors running in the howling gale. By the time we got our cameras out they disappeared. But, we got teasing glimpses of them cantering uphill toward Cougar Canyon. A few days later, we found them again, in the same area, grazing peacefully—three blacks including handsome Hawk with perhaps the most striped up horse on the mountain, the grullo Hidatsa. Jasper comes in a very close second however.
On each day we went up on Tillett we always glassed into the Hell ‘n’ Gone far to the west. We saw Sante Fe and with Adelina (no wonder we hadn’t seen her with Flint), and wondered who had his band. This amount of interchange seems unusual for winter. Baja, Chance and Duke’s bands were miles away. However, we identified Madonna and little Lariat who was walking without an apparent limp. How amazing that this little filly survived a broken ankle! As I wrote in an earlier post, credit should also go to Madonna, one of the most experienced and nurturing of the Pryor mares. To the south of the Hell ‘n’ Gone we saw Sante Fe’s mares and his daughter, but no stallion with them. This too is strange.
Most days we started out early, searching first for horses in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. We saw only 10 horses (the bands of Seattle, Fiero, and Hickok) along the paved road in four days, and sadly, not a single bighorn sheep. The deer, however, appear to be making a comeback after crashing along with the bighorn last winter. Many of the mule deer bucks we saw had only one antler, inspiring me to declare March as the “Moon of the Falling Antlers.”
On blustery Tuesday we were treated to a fairly close look at the bay stallion, Hickok, near the horse range gate. After the tragic death of Admiral and Climbs High who were struck by a drunk driver, Hickok appeared with his bachelor buddy, Jesse James who just happens to be the son of Admiral and Seneca (have I lost you yet?). The young stallions have stayed with the two mares, Hightail and Seneca with Hickok assuming the role of band stallion. These four are now the official greeters to the horse range… sometimes. This was the only day we saw them near the road or the gate into the range.
It is terribly sad to think that half the young horses we saw on our trip could be removed by this year. These 1-3 year olds include those of rare coloration, outstanding conformation, and under-represented genetic lines, like Echo, Jewel, and Jasper.
The BLM has told us that they will take any young 1-3 year-olds they catch, regardless of genetics, conformation or color, and despite p. 27 of their own Herd Management Area Plan which states:
“Manage to maintain rare or unusual (for the Pryors) colors in order to prevent any one color becoming dominant or being eliminated. Manage to prevent bloodlines from being eliminated (emphasis added) while maintaining a core breeding population.”
A decision has not yet been announced and we hope that BLM will re-think their plan. Any removals should be carefully analyzed so they do the least possible damage to this small herd. An indiscriminate removal would violate their own management protocols. There are a few young animals that might benefit from removal, as they are quite small due to the loss of their mothers or, in one case, being abandoned by his mother. But the idea of removing the rarest and the strongest is beyond comprehension.
Thanks so much for speaking out, not only on behalf of the Pryor herd, but all our wild herds. We hope you can support us with a donation so we might continue to fight for all our mustang and burro families still living in precious freedom in the West!
P.S. – Please do not forget to sign and share with everyone you know the petition asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to withdraw his pro-wild horse slaughter appointment to the BLM’s National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board.