In mid-July I travel once again to the Pryor Mountains. I drive up the road that winds alongside spectacular Crooked Creek Canyon. The fire that burned thousands of acres in 2002, when Bolder and Flint were yearlings, has opened up the views of the dramatic gorge with its many side canyons and caves.
|A mule deer doe hears my car coming and rapidly takes her spotted fawns over a ridgeline of dead trees. I once saw Conquistador and his band down here. These lands in the Custer National Forest contained a few wild horse family groups and bachelors. Spotting them made the drive just that much more exciting.|
Nearing the horse range, I stop several times to take pictures of the sea of deep purple larkspur amidst white-tufted bistort and little sunflowers.
Pasque flowers, growing among the larkspurs, have gone to seed, yet they are nearly as lovely as when they were in full bloom. Bees and butterflies flit from flower to flower, including this bumble bee on a lupine just beginning to go to seed.
Driving into the range through the huge two mile-long fence makes me sad. It is so unnecessary, and so damaging to this small herd. Dr. Cothran’s last genetic report was not good. He urged BLM to increase the herd size if the range can handle more horses. Increasing the herd size to truly viable levels will require the removal of this horrible barrier. There isn’t a horse in sight as I drive over the cattle guard.
Just like the very first time I drove to the mountaintop in 1994, the horse bands come into view as I crest a little rise. There are a dozen bands or more in a big, nearly treeless meadow awash in pale purple lupines. What a glorious sight. Galaxy’s band is nearest and I walk closer to get a good look at Orolitto.
|A few weeks ago, on the day he was born, we worried about his fragile appearance and his confusion. The colt kept trying to nurse his grandmother, Hera, and then Cloud’s sister, Electra. Annoyed, Electra pushed Orolitto away and he collapsed in a heap.
Look at you now, I whisper. The colt is strong and exudes confidence. Despite having a two-year old mother, he is thriving in his stable family band.
I drive on and stop before I get to Penn’s Cabin. I can see the giant wall of snow above the waterhole, a testament to the above average snowfall over the long winter. During my five-day stay I spend much of my time here because this is where most of the action seems to be. Many bands come to stand on the snow to escape the warm temperatures and the profusion of biting insects.
|It’s a great place to observe the pecking order among the 20 bands that spend most of the summer here. I watch Bolder drive off Mescalero’s band in a shower of snow.
On my second evening, Cloud comes to the waterhole with his little family after the other bands have left.
I wonder if he is avoiding a potential conflict with other stallions? I shouldn’t have worried. The next day he moves to the center of the snow with Feldspar, Ohanzee (Shadow in the Lakota language), and his young dun mare, Innocentes (Ingrid).
|Are you pregnant girl? I think to myself. She looks even chubbier than usual. I saw Cloud breed her last August. If that breeding took, she might foal in the early part of August. Feldspar is particularly attentive to their son, licking him for long stretches of time. Is Feldspar being particularly careful to keep her youngest son close because of what happened with Encore and Mato Ska? This May, she lost her son, and then a few days later her daughter. Regardless of the reason, Ohanzee relishes the attention.|
|Cloud was not the only band stallion to suffer the loss of his family to the stallion, Doc. I watch the hefty bay as he follows the family he stole from Jackson onto the big drift. As with Cloud’s family, he purposefully or inadvertently made orphans of Firestorm’s two year-old son and her yearling daughter.|
But, unlike Mato Ska and Encore, Firestorm’s colt, Maelstrom, and filly, Niobrara, stuck together and handsome, first-time band stallion, Hernando took them in. Surprisingly, he took not only the filly, but the two-year old colt as well. It took a while for Hernando’s mares, Phoenix (Cloud’s mom) and Warbonnet (Traces’s mom) to accept the youngsters, but now they seem content together.
Encore looks fine to me, although her situation remains precarious. Young Knight continues to claim her, but three-year old London and six-year old Inali are ever present. I did not witness the intense fights between Inali and Knight during my time on the mountain and it really remains to be seen how this dangerous situation will unfold.
|At times Encore appears to be fond of Knight and at other times, I’m not so sure. This is the only situation of its kind to my knowledge—a yearling filly stolen by a band of bachelor stallions. Who could have dreamed up such a nightmare scenario for a yearling filly?|
On the flip side, when Doc kicked out Encore’s two-year old brother, Mato Ska (silver bear in Lakota language), the flashy, blaze-faced blue roan was alone for a time and seemed quite lost and forlorn without his little sister. When they were together, Encore commanded the spotlight with her outgoing, playful, and magnetic personality. Despite her independence, she was very sweet and affectionate with Mato Ska.
|I can say unequivocally that Mato Ska is done with being mild-mannered and forlorn. The silver bear has come out of hibernation and is he ever fun to watch! Not once, but twice while I am there, he initiates play with London, an older and taller bachelor. Their rough housing amps up when London takes ahold of Mato Ska’s cheek and won’t let go. I know I said “ouch” under my breath. Suddenly, play erupts into a full-fledged brawl with Mato Ska dislodging London’s hold on his face, then biting, whirling, screaming, rearing and kicking the bigger stallion. His lightning quick strikes are so reminiscent of his father’s.|
|TCF Board Members, Susan Sutherland and Jaime Wade and her family join me on my last several days on the mountain and all of us are a bit in awe of the athleticism of the colt. Play begins near the waterhole on both days and continues onto the snow then into the lupine strewn meadow below the cliffs. It’s not hard to imagine that the handsome and stylish Mato Ska will be a force to reckon with one day..|
Meanwhile, Echo (Cloud’s grandson and Bolder’s son) is truly a conundrum. He has “stolen” his father’s grulla mare, Cedar (far left), but still lives in the band and nurses his mother, Cascade. What will come of this is anyone’s guess. At some point, I imagine Bolder will kick him out, but will he lose both Cascade and his grulla mare in the process? It will be interesting to see how this unusual drama plays out.
|Two foals are born just prior to my visit—one to Lariat in the Horizon (He Who) and Fiddle (lieutenant stallion ) Band. Three year-old Lariat is Madonna and Duke’s daughter who broke her front leg as a foal yet survived. I believe it was because she had one of the most nurturing mothers on the mountain. Like her mother, Lariat appears more deeply devoted to her foal than to her band. As a result I see the foal growing stronger day-by-day.|
|This unusual band includes Tonopah, the oldest mare in the Pryors, ever young at 28, and Jewel, Cloud’s granddaughter, a unique pale buckskin like her great, great grandmother, Isabella who was one of Raven’s mares. I watch Jewel leading the band downhill to the waterhole.|
|Then movement catches my eye in the rocks around the snowfield. Marmots! As Jewell and the band approach, one of these furry sentries whistles an alarm and all the marmots in the area dash for the nearest hole. I love these highly social, super-sized squirrels that are an abundant prey species living in the cliffs atop the Pryors.|
|The other foal was born, I believe, on the morning of the day I arrive. He is the son of another two year-old filly, Moenkopi, in Casper’s band. This tiny foal is fearless, wading into the deepest water at the pond below the snow bank, and hiking into the snow with his mother and the nearly all dun-colored family.|
When I return to Colorado Springs, I learn that this adorable foal with so much spirit has died. I can only assume that his young mother did not have enough milk to keep him alive.
|The foal’s death is a biological process known as natural selection. I stare at the abstract, two-word phrase on my computer screen. The detached term takes on a very personal significance—I knew the little soul that was taken.
This is the way of the wild, isn’t it? Nothing is assured. Life is perilous. . . and precious. As it is for all of us, each day is a gift.