Musings with Camera in Hand

Belinda Greb – The Photographic Journey

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Back to Burns, Malheur and the Wild Horses

If I had the time and money, I’d make the trip to Burns at least once a month.  My heart is so attached to the wild horses that I see out there, in addition to the wide variety of birds to be sighted around Burns and at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s not a huge trip for me, four hours, but long enough to require at least one night’s stay, and better with two, since once you get out there, the driving doesn’t stop.  South Steens Mountain is about 50 miles south of Burns which will take you through Malheur NWR and the small historical town of Frenchglen.  To really see all the area has to offer is to take forays down gravel roads and I have even ventured at times onto deeply rutted dirt roads where I prayed that my car had the clearance to pass over boulders and ridges.  This last May trip, I also did a bit of walking by foot to reach the wild horses as the dirt road became impassable by my passenger car.  One note: I do try and stay at a respectable distance.  The horses will be aware of me from quite a distance, but I don’t want them to be uncomfortable with my presence.

This Spring the area looked generally much more lush than last year.  I stopped first to see the Palomino Buttes horses which are west of Burns.  I was looking forward especially to see a favorite, more approachable band, that as of Fall last year, consisted of the Palomino Stallion (some locals call him a Dunalino), his primary mare, Bella, two of her sons, Pallaton and Traveler, from prior years, and a filly from last year.  Also there was a bay mare and her colt, and another bay mare that had joined them sometime during the Summer or Fall.  (Some of the horses are named by the locals.)  I didn’t see any horses initially.  Then I spotted white spots on a very distant hill (both Pallaton and Traveler were white/light colored palominos).  When I walked out, I saw it was my favorite band with some significant changes.  Pallaton was not with the band.  This isn’t such a big surprise, since as a three year old, he would start to have conflicts with his father.  I was surprised this hadn’t started happening last year, since Pallaton had already started chasing fillies in other bands.  Instead, he and his father seemed to work as a team, protecting their band from another stallion on the couple of occasions I observed.  I also observed that when the band was on the move, Pallaton would the lead while the stallion brought up the rear; this year Traveler took the front spot.  Though Pallaton’s absence was expected, it was still a blow, as the bonds between the family, especially he and his mother, and he and Traveler, were affectionate and playful.  Even the bond with his father had been a special one.  I still don’t know whether the bay mare and her colt were with the band. I think so, but the horses coats change so much from season to season and this time I wasn’t in close enough to compare other markings from my earlier picture.  There were also two new foals and at least one other horse I don’t recognize at all.

Though I hadn’t made it over to Burns until May, I did see some Sandhill Cranes still in the area, one pair with two colts (what the “chicks” are called because of their long legs), along with various other birds.  I didn’t even see the colts until I reviewed the images on my computer.  The birds weren’t as plentiful as they would have been a few weeks earlier but they were much more plentiful than they had been last May.

While in the vicinity of Malheur I was excited to capture a couple mammals I had not photographed before in the area, including, not one, but two hares.  Last year the ones I saw had proven too quick for my reflexes.  I also saw the first marmot I had seen in Oregon as well – a yellow-bellied marmot.  These critters spend most of their time in their burrows (80%) hibernating or otherwise, so I was lucky to capture this one.  I had seen a flash of one about an hour earlier than this, so apparently the beautiful Spring day was too enticing to pass up.

I also saw the usual suspects, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.  Mule deer are distinguished from white-tailed deer as their tales are black, their ears are larger, and antlers fork rather than branch on the males.

Just past Malheur NWR, is the small historic town, Frenchglen, population 12, and continuing on Hwy. 205 you will find the south entrance to Steen Loop, a gravel road that loops around the mountain.  The road will usually be blocked at some point during Spring due to snow as the mountain rises over 9000 feet, although it does it in a fairly non-dramatic way.  If you’re lucky you will be able to view some of the wild horses in South Steens herd.  I’ve been lucky to see multiple bands together on two occasions and on other occasions, a small band by itself.  This time, I was not exceptionally close to them but it was wonderful to observe them – some playing, the more mature grazing or resting along with the foals.

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Is it hard to see why I’m in love with this place?  If you travel out there, don’t expect luxury. You will get the most basic of accommodations and a very limited assortment of restaurants.  In fact, you will need to be sure that you fill up on gas before you leave Burns to go exploring.  During summer, the temperatures can get quite high, so it would be advisable to carry water for both you and your car.

I’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed this post.  To see more of my work, please visit Belinda Greb Photography for all of my published work.  My next post will be on some of the beautiful Oregon waterfalls I’ve visited in mainly Silver Falls State Park.




Seeing the Whole Picture

This last trip to Harney County, I dropped my friend off at French Glen so she could take a break from the car and dust (after about 6 hours, many on gravel roads), and I went on to South Steens mountain. Last time there were about 20 horses on the side of the mountain but too far to get any good pictures.

This time I followed my instincts and drove my car past an open gate on BLM land and went slowly up a deeply rutted dirt road. I reached a flat area on the side of the mountain and the horses were there. It was a panoramic scene, 180 degrees. I had left the car and was moving slowly forward. There were multiple bands of horses, cows, and even five pronghorn laying down. The horses to the front of me were probably 500 yards away (I’m pretty bad at gauging distances) while the horses to my left or 9 o’clock where probably twice that distance.

I was just trying to taken in the scene and decide how to proceed without causing any alarm to the horses. They knew I was there, but I was too far away to be of concern. Looking to my left I suddenly saw some movement. There was a coyote, then another (later I saw a third). One saw me and that I was watching it, and the two coyotes started to run in a northeasterly direction.Reviewing my photos, I saw they had been eyeing a foal that was at some distance from its mother. They had gone about 500 yards moving past the pronghorn and a couple of bands, when a stallion saw them and started to give chase until the two disappeared to the east. The third coyote that had been left behind disappeared over the ridge to the west.

Almost immediately my eye was drawn by another movement. Two stallions were engaging in some sort of dispute. It was over in a minute or two, but very exciting to watch. I was almost out of range, so I only got one sharp image, with a couple good enough to apply a painterly technique to convey the story.

I don’t know why they stopped, but a third stallion had come near them and they both started running westward, the Palomino herding a mare while the other followed at a distance and then stopped. During spring is when a lot of the stallions will try to steal mares from another band.

Next I watched the third stallion suddenly decide to move closer to what was his very large band. Snaking them together – head low and extended – he herded them together an moved them north over the ridge.

All of these little happenings were like ripple effects. The coyotes, one stallion perhaps moving too close to another’s mare, the two stallions moving too close to the third, and the third stallion, also aware of me, then moving his band over the ridge. Despite the fact I wanted to move closer, I didn’t want to cause any alarm, and hanging back allowed me to survey the scene and see all of these singular episodes.

I decided I had better get back to my friend, and started in my car down that road. My car has about 230,000 miles on it, so I was trying to be as tender as possible with it. It did occur to me I might encounter some of the horses I had seen in the distance to the west as I was coming down, and sure enough, there was suddenly this beautiful stallion appearing like a specter on a hill to my right. I had to stop, let the dust settle, then roll down the windows to get a shot of him. I later saw he was so interesting to look at because he had blue eyes (he kind of reminded me of the white walkers in Game of Thrones).

A bay mare was behind him. He moved off again, and as I inched the car down, I saw the rest of his band. In the second photo of this group, the foal looks nothing like its mother or him. Sometimes a stallion will steal a mare that is already pregnant. Of course, I don’t know if this was the case or not!

In the next photo, one of my favorite of the South Steens herd, some other members of the band wait for the stallion. I love the sight of the valley below them in the distance. Another interesting note – in looking at multiple sequential photographs on my computer, I saw that the foal in this image was the same foal in Danger Point. He has a distinctive wide blaze and very high stockings on his back legs. After the stallion joined them, they moved over the ridge and out of sight.

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Wild Horse Family from the South Steens Herd

I love horses. I have ever since I was a little girl. I didn’t have Barbies, I had model horses and stuffed animals. But although I rode horses occasionally, I’m not a rider and have never had the opportunity to own horses.

When I played horses as a little girl, playacting with a friend with our numerous model horses and speaking for them in faux horse language, (English with a neigh sound), we played them as wild horses, always escaping the clutches of man. So here I am, gobs of years later, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch and photograph wild horses, and it is a dream come true.

On my recent trip to Harney County, I saw horses from both the Palomino Buttes Herd and the South Steens Herd in Eastern Oregon. Another blog will  be done about the Palomino Buttes herd.  On the day I saw this family, I had been up Steens Mountain to the point where the road was closed due to snow and I had seen about 19 horses grazing in the far distance. As I came down the mountain and started to drive back to Burns on Hwy. 205, I saw another herd, about 7, including a foal, also in the distance.  Well, I thought, that’s about as close as I’m going to get. But in the next five minutes, I saw two horses quite close. I stopped the car. The first was a beautiful Palomino stallion and behind him, or north of me was a gorgeous pinto mare.

The mare was so striking, that I decided to work my way to another position to catch another angle. I moved slowly until I was parallel with her, and then moved beyond that to get a clearer view. Both horses watched me.

Imagine my delight when I saw what a sagebrush had hidden, a foal lying at her feet. I took a few shots of it, though it still was largely hidden by the sagebrush.

However at that point, its mother decided it was time to move her foal further away. She put her nose down to it, then started walking slowly away. The foal got to its feet and followed.

Once the foal was following her, they broke into a trot and then a lope. The stallion waited until they moved past him and began to circle around. Then he ran to join, As they slowed, he fell back and let the mare and her foal move ahead where they stopped at a distance that was about 20-30 yards further but parallel to where they had been initially.

When they came to a rest, the foal started to nurse.

The bonds between a horse family are very strong, but within the larger herd, stallions can lose their mares to other stallions. Colts will be kicked out of a band after a year or two, and fillies will eventually join another stallion’s band. But should they meet again, the affection and bonds last. When horses are domesticated, you don’t often get to see the families together.  Even horse breeders often separate the foals after a certain time from the mares.

What a joy it was to watch this family running together, and to see the protectiveness of both the mare and the stallion.  I could have sat and watched them the rest of the day, but I decided to leave them in peace.

My complete photography catalog can be found on my main website through Fine Art America and more wild horse images can be seen here: Wild Horses Gallery. I also have at more limited numbers of my work at Photo4Me (UK), Crated, Society 6 , Redbubble and Zazzle. My Etsy shop is currently undergoing a revamping, but look for availability of signed work up to 16×24 prints in the near future here: RadiancePhotos


Living Free

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 –

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.

Nimbus 1-bw

Nimbus, No. 1

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.