My trip to Pryor Mountain to see the wild horses back in September is one that has affected me deeply and the effects are still being felt. It was a great privilege to see the beauty of these horses with both their strength and fragility, their freedom and their lives subject to the elements in a natural habitat, living free, but it’s also been an ongoing lesson and blessing to think about what I saw, to review my photographs and think about the social world of these herds, the family lines and their history (history being a world we mostly tend to associate with humans).
My trip last year to see some of the wild horses in the Oregon herds, was one in which I primarily felt the beauty of these creatures living as they were meant to live, but this trip was different in that I was exposed more to the relationship of the horses to one another and the social structure of herds and bands. I was intrigued enough by some of the stories to watch the documentary, Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies (available from Netflix), about a harem stallion from Pryor Mountain mustang herd first encountered by Ginger Kathrens as a newborn foal and to read some of the blogs of the people who feel connected to these wild creatures, like Sandra Elmore’s blog – http://wildinthepryors.com/.
I can feel how easily it would be to become obsessed by these horses. Already, in processing some of my photographs, I feel my heart being pulled in every which way by the tenderness that is displayed between certain of the horses, or by the individual personalities of the various foals or horses and how they seem just as complex as the personalities of humans. When I read the blogs, I see how some of the people who watch over this herd develop a special connection to a certain horse, and then worry about its survival through the winter, sometimes to have their hearts broken when something does happen. I am touched and moved.
It is documented that the wild horses have been living in the Pryor Mountains of Wyoming and Montana or what Ginger Kathrens referred to as the Arrowhead Mountains by the early 1700s and perhaps even before. DNA testing has proven that they are descended from the Colonial Spanish mustangs. The herd is genetically diverse and has low inbreeding, two traits that make the herd very important. The horses tend to be on the smaller side, 13 to 15 hands and between 700-800 pounds.
What amazed me, upon first seeing these horses was the wide range of colors, from Cloud’s nearly white, to black, with grullos, duns, bays, chestnut and roans inbetween. The duns are especially interesting with primitive markings on their withers and stripes like zebra markings) on their legs. See the photograph of Odakota and look carefully at his hind leg.
Two of the foals that seemed very personable were Ohanzee (above) and Odakota (to the right) in very different ways. Odakota was curious but shy. He approached timidly, 1 step forward, 1 step back. Ohanzee is more confident and is the son of Cloud and Feldspar. When we first encountered him, he was grazing, then went to cuddle with his mother. After we had moved to another ridge, where the watering hole was and where there were many small bands of horses, I noticed later when reviewing my photographs that Cloud’s band had come over and Ohanzee was approaching Nimbus, his sister.
Nimbus was another horse I was fascinated with as she is a young filly, born in 2013, and has already departed from Cloud’s band and is in a band with Knight, a young stallion and two other bachelor stallions – a somewhat dangerous grouping for her. She is extremely beautiful, and her band definitely has the lively raw energy of the young, evident from the moment they first came into sight.
After watching the documentary and reading the blogs, I realized to a greater extent the obstacles these horses face, especially when they are young. One year, as our guide, Steve Cerroni, mentioned, many foals were killed by mountain lions. Eventually they had to relocate some of the mountain lions.
Also, some foals are just born weak. The documentary showed one disturbing incident where two bands were in the same area. The mother of the weak foal that had collapsed moved away when the more dominant stallion, Looking Glass and his band came near. The mares of Looking Glass’s band sniffed the foal and seemed to be concerned about it, but Looking Glass came up and killed the foal in a very horrible and aggressive manner despite the mares attempt to intervene, a reminder that cruelty does exist in the animal world as well. Perhaps the stallion sensed the foal’s imminent death or perhaps he was killing a rival’s offspring – we won’t ever know, but life in the wild is just not all Pretty Ponies.
Another danger is that during the round-up that do occur every few years, there is the danger of the young horses being run to death or getting crushed. Flint, also known as Blue Moon, did become lame one year and it was feared that he would not make it during that winter, but he is now a harem stallion. Lightening is also a problem, sometimes killing a whole band of horses at once.
There are also small bands of bachelor stallions. These are colts that get kicked out of the band at a certain age. They hang around with other males until they reach a time where they try to form their own band by stealing another mare from a harem stallion. What’s also sad, but natural, is that eventually the older stallions get their bands stolen and end up as a bachelor stallion again.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about is the history and continuity of these animals. Normally in an ideal domestic setting animals are neutered for the purpose of maintaining populations and not bringing unwanted animals into a situation where they will be neglected or abused. But in the wild, on my day’s tour, I see and photograph these horses, then later as I look back at a blog, I am able to see that horse as a colt, or see references to the horse’s parents or grandparents. I read about Cabaret’s band that is killed in the deep snows of 2011 and find that that will be the end of the line as all the offspring are dead. I think not of just one life, in the way I think of one of my animal companions, but of a line and legacy. Cloud, not 19 years old and made famous by three wonderful documentaries, has a mother who is 23 years old and still alive. Hopefully in 23 years, his offspring, Nimbus and Ohanzee will still be out there on the mountain.
In watching the documentary and reading the blogs, one phrase stays with me – living free, and also dying free. Ginger Kathrens remarked that she had been raised with horses, but when it came time to make the documentary found she knew very little about wild horses. What do we know about living free, I wonder? We think we are free, especially if we are Americans, but are we? The Merriam-Webster gives a number of definitions, but the one I most associate with the idea of “freedom” or the state of being “free” is: “not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being: choosing or capable of choosing for itself.”
Now a wild mare is not always “free” in that sense as the stallions tend to control their bands. Although perhaps she is according to her own nature. I’m reminded by one of the stories of a Pryor Mustang mare, named Blue Sioux whom Cloud stole from his brother, Red Raven. Allowed to go off by herself to foal, she made her way instead back to Red Raven. However now, she belongs to a younger stallion, Irial.
One difference, is that in the wild, horses are not generally pulled away from their families, and most of the time they are not “serving” anyone else. They are living according to their own nature, not saddled, not bridled, free to run (within the limits of 36000 acres now fenced in some places) and also to deal with the harsh realities of survival.
As humans, if we look carefully at our own lives we’ll find that we’ve given up some of our freedom. We might compromise our values in order to make a living. We might accept treatment that demeans us, so that we have a certain level of security. For some, that may be easier than for others. For myself, I think it’s always been a bit harder to conform or take orders or agree or to follow the prescribed agenda that is supposed to make me “better!”
Maybe I’m too sensitive, maybe it’s being from a mixed race that made me more unnerved and irritated by the ideal of having been told as a child that I wasn’t good enough but lately I’m finding it harder and harder to do things that I don’t find myself believing in and I’m growing more resistant to the suggestion that I need to accept certain things because I’m getting older, because the economy is shaky, because, because because of any number of reasons.
I think it’s because I’m getting older that it’s become more important to me to think that with this life I’ve done some of the things I wanted to do, and that I’ve attempted to live my life consciously and freely.
Now I’m not immune to fear. I worry about how long my savings will last, or what will happen if I get sick. Like the wild horses, I’ve followed the Judas horse more than once to that narrow corral. There’s a meal, the comfort of a crowd, the knowledge that you can give up risk and put yourself into the hands of others.
You know what? – I’m old enough to be really tired of the threat of a lash of the whip, albeit a symbolic one. I’m more worried about living a life that has no meaning or worse yet supporting something I find repellant. Each moment is more precious when you start to realize, really realize, they’re limited. Too precious to spend on things that make you feel rotten or dead or confined to a box.
When Ginger Kathrens or the Pryor Mustang bloggers refer to a horse as living free and dying free on the mountain, it speaks to a certain richness of life that boggles the civilized mind. Certainly not a romanticized, easy life, but defnitely an authentic one. Now I may not be able to join those wild and free mustangs on that mountain, but I certainly can appreciate them and instill a bit of that spirit in myself.