Life on the Edge
The End of Winter in the Pryor Wild Horse Range
I am more than little afraid of heights and attempt to stay a distance away from steep drop offs. I would not make a good Pryor Mustang!
For five days in March, Kayah Swanson, our newish Deputy Director, braved the highs and the lows, the snow and the mud of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
Although it is nearly sundown when we arrive in Lovell, Wyoming I can’t resist showing Kayah the range. . . and who knows what we might see!
Next stop, the pull out over-looking a juniper-studded valley called Mustang Flats. We start glassing, anxious to lay our eyes on Johnston's band and their foal born in early February—not the greatest time of the year to be born in southern Montana.
The colt, named Sorcerer, was lame when he was first spotted. Despite this, he has endured a long stretch of bitter, sub-zero temperatures but he is reportedly still quite lame. We’re anxious to see for ourselves.
An orange dot in a brown, tan and green landscape catches my eye. “Blizzard.”
The flamboyant, former band stallion is glowing in the late light. Blizzard was once the “king” of Mustang Flat. Now deposed, he has trouble walking on his blown knees, the result of a battle with Hidalgo seven months ago. Both stallions nearly killed each other, opening the door for a healthy, opportunistic grulla stallion named Hidatsa to take over his band.
I pan my binoculars to the right and find several bands. “I think that’s Hidatsa and then Johnston beyond them,” I say excitedly to Kayah. We drive down the road about a half-mile and start hiking, racing the sun that is about to drop behind massive Sykes Ridge. Hidatsa’s mares see us coming and I’m glad we left Quinn, our Irish Terrier sidekick, in the SUV.
Hidatsa's senior mare, Baaken, eyes us warily but continues to eat snow. Pax, the two-year old colt, pays no attention to us, which is just what we want. We take pictures while admiring his bold, primitive shoulder bars. He is likely Hidatsa’s son based on the incredible stripes “worn” by both grullo stallions.
We’re careful not to break that invisible barrier that will cause them to leave,
hiking on before we lose our light. The sun has almost dipped behind Sykes as we find Johnston’s family and little Sorcerer.
The dark colt gets up as we approach and we are sad to see that he is still quite lame but looks bright eyed as he nibbles at the brittle grass, nurses his mother Morgana, then lays back down with some difficulty.
As the sun drops behind Sykes Ridge we notice that Johnston is keeping an eye on us as we quietly leave.
I fear his son will need to be a real sorcerer to survive. This will not be our only encounter with the colt.
The next morning we hook up our UTV and head up Tillet Ridge as the sun is shining brightly above the Bighorn Mountains. The snow is melting and the mud will only get worse as the week passes. Kristen Collett catches up with us in her speedy ATV and Quinn is delighted to see his friend.
We spot handsome Hernando, Phoenix and War Bonnet's tall stallion. Fantastic, I think. We’ll be able to see Cloud’s mother and her long time companion. But I am only half right.
War Bonnet is just over the hill, some distance from Hernando. We hike around the area but Phoenix is nowhere to be found. My heart sinks and I fight back tears. Is she dead?
War Bonnet looks around and Hernando whinnies. No answer. It seems like an eternity until we hear a faint call from behind us.
Minutes later we see Cloud’s palomino mother appear on a distant hill, at least a half a mile away. What an incredible relief!
The pretty golden girl with a mane the color of spun cotton walks slowly across the snow covered hill, disappearing behind a rise, only to appear again, this time only yards from War Bonnet. Phoenix is thin but the gleam in her expressive eyes speaks volumes about her inner strength and spirit.
I have known the coming 27 year old since she was three and although she has always been unimpressed and disinterested in people, I don’t hold that against her. In fact I rather like her discriminating taste.
The band eventually wanders on and we do our best to climb to the mines hill through the combination of snow and mud. Then we park and hike to the Big Coulee side of the mines. We can see some distant dots on Sykes and below us Cloud’s youngest son, Pride, appears from the junipers. “Still alone fella?,” I whisper. The new bachelor has yet to find any friends and my guess is that his mother and step-father are just over the ridge.
We hike to get a view of the Hell ‘n Gone to the west but the horses there are also distant dots. However, any walk is a thrill for Quinn who loves snow. And so his day is really made when we decide to take a mega-hike into the mouth of Big Coulee Canyon where we’ve seen horses through the spotting scope.
Kristen has an hour jump on us, so we chart our own course and begin walking. Quinn is in heaven. Two hours later we spot Kristen, and beyond is Galaxy and his big band.
In a matter of a few minutes we are talking in whispers to Kristen. Galaxy’s band watches us and his lead mare, Electra begins to exit the mouth and climb uphill. We’ll have to get our pictures of them in a hurry. Electra is Phoenix’s little sister and about as interested in humans as Phoenix. She is also Galaxy’s lead mare so where she goes, the family unfortunately follows.
The oldest mare in the band is Pococeno, the mother of Bolder, Cloud’s first offspring. The black mare is so stylish and, for the past few years, her hair has been turning white on her face and throat area. Such a pretty girl at nearly 24.
As the band trails up the hill, moving out of sight, but not before we can see that they all look great.
Behind us Casper and his family seem more accepting of guests. His son, Banjo Paterson, is still with the family, even though I think he is bigger than his father! The hefty coyote dun colt rolls in the soft sand of the Canyon before joining his departing family.
In order to get back before dark, we retrace our steps through the canyons. Several hours later we're back at our vehicles. Whew!
We try imposing Sykes Ridge. . . twice. The first time we incorrectly identify two horses as a mare and filly. Eventually we figure out that the duo are not females at all but the young bachelor, Orlando, with the fleetingly former band stallion, Inniq. There is zero action but their location is really breathtaking near the Red Buttes.
We continue to a great overlook spot and begin hiking uphill, trying to get a better view of Turkey Flats below. Kristen (AKA "eagle-eye") catches up with us and points out a familiar fellow not so far away. Corona, a long-time former band stallion is eating snow on a narrow ridge to our right. He is unmistakable with his half ears, bitten off in a fight with Kemmerer who stole Corona’s long-time mare, Waif.
On another day we try Sykes again. We brave the long snowy, rocky descent into the ridges of lower Sykes. Kristen warns us not to try it but we do anyway, gunning the UTV through wet snow and mud to a spot near two sleeping bachelors.
Above them is Hidalgo, also sleeping. We are with them for at least an hour and the action is fast and furious. Jemez rolls once and Oglala yawns. We hike up to Hidalgo who looks up briefly at Kristen sitting on a rock watching the horses sleep.
One morning when we drive out to the Dryhead we see zero horses. “They have to be somewhere,” I say to Kayah. “Let’s try walking out there.” I point toward the Bighorn Canyon. Almost immediately we spot Chief Joseph, the handsome black son
of Seattle. It is as if he is waiting. . . but for what?
We walk out where we can look down into the big valley that eventually leads to a dead end at the canyon’s edge. Johnston! His band is below us, but where is Sorcerer? I walk to my left, trying to different angle on the junipers where the band is resting. “There he is,” I say to Kayah. The colt is resting in the junipers. I'm am relieved to see him alive.
Then I turn to my left and see more horses! It's Hidatsa's Band and others. Kayah takes Quinn and waits on the hill as I start down the steep hillside. Once on the valley floor I get a glimpse of Fiero and the elusive Strawberry. I work my way down a gulley and get a few shots off before she leaves. As a coming 22 year-old she looks fabulous as does handsome Fiero.
Nearby are Hawk and his little family, as well as Fool’s Crow whose mare, Halo is
“visiting” with Hidatsa’s band. Nancy Cerroni with the Pryor Mustang Center calls the band out here a mega-band as they are very much like a big family.
Hawk and his little family are nearby. I named Hawk when he was a baby and he has certainly turned into a beautiful stallion. He takes good care of his stepsons, Parry, pictured here with Hawk, and also Oak, both are the sons of Hidalgo and Fresia, their beautiful mother who has always been one of my favorites. Before the bands decide to move, I leave, making my way back to the SUV.
On our last day in the Pryors we go to the Dryhead first thing in the morning in hopes of finding Sorcerer. Lucky for us, he is taking a nap near the road. His mother is right with him, but so is Blizzard. Johnston and the band are no where to be seen! What a shocker. Regardless of the shakeup, the colt seems OK.
We watch for quite some time. Sorcerer gets up with difficulty and walks to nurse and nibble on dry grass. Laying down seems difficult for him. I hope Blizzard can protect both mare and foal, but that seems unlikely. The beautiful stallion can barely put weight on his left front leg. He is hardly in fighting condition. I don’t think he ever will be. We leave before we wear out our welcome.
Kayah, Quinn and I travel up Tillett Ridge, hoping to get a look at Encore or maybe her big brother, Mato Ska. . .or a closer look at their little brother Pride.
Well one out of three isn’t bad I guess. Late in the afternoon after hours of looking and searching, we finally spot a horse in the snow-a white horse. Encore!
Here is the cropped frame. Can you see Encore in the center? Knight is to the and Outlaw Lady is hard to see in the bushes to the right. There isn’t enough light to
do a big hike, which I very much regret. But at least we saw that Cloud and Feldspar’s angelic-looking daughter is alive and I think well. “Goodbye little girl. Take care”.
The sun is setting when we get down the mountain, but we’re anxious to get one last look at Sorcerer. He is in the same spot, near the side of the road. But this time there are two stallions nearby! Blizzard seems to be gamely defending the mare and foal, warning Joseph to keep away.
Any more social disruption will not be good for the lame colt who is just a little over one month old. It is nearly dark when we drive away.
P.S. We have learned that Chief Joseph has won Morgana and Sorcerer. And, on a very upbeat note, Kristen saw the colt run—the first time that we are aware of! Maybe he is a real sorcerer after all.