Challenges of Leadership
My name is Elke Tukker, and I am an intern from The Netherlands at The Cloud Foundation since April 2019. It is the second time I visited the Pryor Mountains. Last time, snow covered the hilltops, and the horses were down lower. But it is June now, and the snow is melted enough that the horses have access to the top of the mountain. However, big white patches of snow still decorate the landscape. Lupines, Goldeneye, Pasqueflowers, Bluebells, Indian Paintbrush and many more wildflowers create a rich pallet of colors, and the sound of countless birds is mesmerizing. This is also the time of the year for many species of wildlife to give birth, including wild horses. I am lucky enough to be able to witness the first moments in the life of a foal, from sleepy and wobbly, to trying out its legs by suddenly breaking out it a run! Throughout the trip, I feel grateful to encounter wilderness in such a pure form.
The weather in the Pryor Mountains is wildly unpredictable during our trip.
The sky is covered in thick clouds one day, and crystal clear on another, and the light changes within a matter of seconds.
As Ginger and I watch the changing weather throughout our interesting trip, Ginger refers to a piece of advice she was once given when telling her Cloud stories: “Weather is a character.” The Pryor Mountains sure have character!
Just like many other wildlife species, horses migrate as the weather changes. When the hilltops are snowed in during the winter, most horses will stay down low. But as the snow melts, many horses, with the exception of a few, tend to move up. Ginger tells me that the top of the mountain makes a perfect filming location; Large, green, and open valleys are home to not only the horses, but to marmots, coyotes, occasional mountain lions, and many different birds as well. Water ponds, colored red by the mud, form a playground for the horses when they need refreshment, and the views of the distant mountain ranges create a scenic background. The more I learn about this place, the more I am moved by the beauty of it and all the life that inhabits it.
During this trip, Margie and Kathy, and Cynthia and Mallory join Ginger and I. These two pairs of wonderful women were the winning bidders at TCF’s Born to be Wild annual gala in 2018. They each were awarded a guided trip through the Pryor Mountains with Ginger. Their mountain spirit and admiration for nature is truly wonderful. Throughout our adventures, we enjoy seeing the majority of the horses up top and the competition for mares.
Ginger, Cynthia, and Mallory look out over the valley Ginger calls the ‘Tea Cup Bowl’.
Okomi’s band carelessly grazes in the back.
We arrive near the top of the mountain and identify the many different bands. The rumors are true: Galaxy, who, Ginger tells me, used to be one of the most dominant band stallions, has lost his entire band. We notice his mares are spread over several bands, and after Ginger remarks he is an incredibly strong stallion, we suspect this may have been a group effort by multiple bachelors. Although I do feel for Galaxy, it was interesting to see the expansion of so many of the bands I saw last month. Mato Ska’s band, Cloud’s and Feldspar’s son, had 4 new mares from Galaxy’s mares: Hera, Limerick, Prospera and Half Moon. With Gaelic Princess still by his side, he now has a group of five to take care of. I can’t imagine what a sudden change this is for Mato Ska and Gaelic Princess and what an incredible responsibility he has taken on. Ginger notices that Gaelic Princess seems to keep her distance from the four new mares, and we wonder what she thinks of this expansion.
From left to right: Hera, Half Moon, Limerick, Prospera, Gaelic Princess and Mato Ska
We drive up a little ways further, to see if there are more horses to be seen, when we suddenly hear loud hoofbeats going in a fast pace. We stop and hurriedly look around for the source of the growing noise. From out of a valley, more than 70 horses run up to the top! I can feel my heart beating in my chest, and my breath is taken away. We can clearly see some of the stallions trying to go faster than the others, almost digging into the ground as they lower their bodies. Seeing so many horses at the same time offers an amazing opportunity to observe unique behaviours of these wild horses. We notice that Indigo Kid, one of the more dominant stallions with a large band, runs up the hill first, followed by the equally dominant Horizon and London. The last band to run up the hill is Johan’s.
All of us were breath-taken when we saw many bands running up the hill
I am confronted with the incredible importance of a large and wild environment for these horses to be able to express their natural behaviours. I feel motivated to continue to work with The Cloud Foundation on expanding the horse range for the benefit of all wildlife, and to fight to keep America’s wild horses in the wilderness.
From behind us, up on the horizon, we see a striking palomino stallion in a different context than last month. It’s Echo, Bolder’s son and Cloud’s grandson! He has Hataalii, Reverie and beautiful Shadow with him. He has stolen Miguel’s band! We can see Miguel still closely dogging this newly-formed band. Echo seems to be having trouble keeping the three independent girls together, and he is forced to divide his energy between keeping Miguel away and staying close to the girls. “I wonder if he will keep these mares”, Ginger tells me.
From left to right: Miguel, Echo, Shadow, Reverie and Hataalii
It wasn’t just Echo who transitioned from being a bachelor to a band stallion.
A few days later, we see Navigator atop the mountain, resting in front of a large fir tree. Behind this former bachelor stallion, hidden underneath the same tree, we see Electra, Quillan, and yearling Silverbow. Ginger explains to me that Electra had been with Galaxy for many years, and that she suspects Electra feels rather uncomfortable with her new, still inexperienced stallion. As we marvel at the good-looking Silverbow, who apparently was very lame when she was born, something unique happens. Electra, mother of Quillan, and Quillan, mother of Silverbow, come together for a group-nursing. I ask Ginger why Electra still nurses Quillan, who is already three years old. She tells me that mares can keep nursing as long as they don’t get pregnant. It was beautiful to witness three generations in such an intimate setting and I am moved by this little family who have stuck together. Although this is only my second trip, I come to realize that family is key in the Pryors.
Group-nursing. From left to right: Electra, Quillan, and Silverbow
When we are in the Pryor Mountains, we end every day with a final spin through the dryhead. When the sun sets, a deep and warm glow is cast upon the landscape. The Pryor mountains shift and change as the sunlight dances on their cliffs. At this time of the day it is especially beautiful down near the red buttes, since the evening sun brings out the vibrant red of the sandstone-formations.
On one day during this trip, we ended our day in these stunning red rocks. With our binoculars we spotted a group of horses against the bright red backdrop. With still some snacks and energy left, we decided to check out who they were. As we are nearing the group of horses, a little colt with a big star on his forehead appears from behind the bushes. Ginger points out that this is Fool’s Crow’s band, and Niobrara’s foal, Thunderbird! What a stunning little boy, and how beautiful his mother glows in the evening sun. Halo and Jewel, who are full sisters, contently rest next to each other, while Fresia keeps her distance from the band. I am told that she was with Hawk for a long time, and Ginger points out Fresia seemed much happier with Hawk than with Fools Crow. Was there a reason Fools Crow has taken his band down here, further from the other Dryhead horses?
A possible answer to our question was given to us the following days. Driving through the Dryhead as a ritualized start of our daily adventures, we again encounter Fools Crow in the area called the Mustang Flats. Behind him are bachelor stallions Parry and Pax. As Halo takes the lead and moves the band to safety, Fools Crow chases off the bachelors, who are not yet ready for a real fight. “Perhaps Fools Crow had taken his band down to the red buttes to avoid the two young boys” Ginger tells me.
Halo, Thunderbird and Niobrara; Niobrara, Thunderbird and Fools Crow
Throughout the rest of our trip, the red buttes seem to be a safe haven for different horses. Later that week, Hawk’s band, including the very pregnant La Nina, was taken back by Hidatsa. Hidatsa is likely the father of La Nina’s yearling Stillwater; they have striking similarities. Both have beautiful two-toned manes. Hidatsa too has taken his reclaimed band to the same spot we saw Fools Crow earlier. I find the distribution and movement of the Pryor Mustangs throughout the horse range an interesting thing to observe. It gives insights in the interactions between bands and individuals, and it reveals some of the sophisticated language of these wild horses.
This was confirmed by our observation of the encounter of Knight, band stallion of Encore and Outlaw Lady, and Oro, bachelor stallion. Navigators band was grazing near the water pond when Silverbow dipped her hooves in the water and started to playfully inspect the water. On the other side of the water pond was Knight’s band. Oro was standing in between the two bands. Perhaps inspired by little Silverbow, Encore walked, rolled and played in the water, followed by Outlaw Lady and Knight. How wonderful to see them play in the muddy water! After a long play session, Encore led Outlaw Lady out of the water pond, perhaps feeling there was something in the air.
When Knight followed his band, Oro took his chance. Not to play, but to intimidate. Rolling in the same waters as Knight and his mares had done, covering himself in the scent of Encore and Outlaw lady. This was a clear message to Knight: I am as strong as you are. Surely, Knight did not agree with him, tucking his chin to his chest and approaching the precocious bachelor. The posturing did not last long, as Knight turned his rear end to Oro and kicked him without hesitation. What a determined stallion! After a bit more fighting and intimidating, Oro realized that this task is still too much for him and carried on foraging on the alpine grasses.
Knight, Outlaw Lady and Encore playing in the water; Oro in the water; Oro and Knight posturing
We were all fortunate enough to see these remarkable behaviors and to observe the subtle and not so subtle body-language horses use to communicate with each other.
While some bands don’t mind living in close proximity to each other, others live a more solitary life. In the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, there is one band that lives so remotely that they are rarely even seen: Jesse James’ band. Months ago they were spotted from a far distance and a foal was seen. However, the horses were so far away that the sex of the foal remained a question. On a particular day Ginger and I decide to go up Sykes ridge, instead of Tillet ridge. We drive through the red buttes and up onto the mountain. When we look back to glass over the area with our binoculars, I see some black dots. Cattle? Probably. We couldn’t immediately identify whether or not these dots were inside or outside the horse range. But, when we took out the spotting scope and looked a little closer we clearly saw the flicking of long tails. Horses! “That must be Jesse James”, Ginger tells me excitedly.
After we drive back down and park the UTV, we start hiking.
We alternate between following a wash and a horse trail, and we travel through a very remote area. The most beautiful desert flowers grow alongside our path, and the rock formations are stunning. Clouds roll in and thunder roars faintly in the distance.
After thirty minutes, we enter the canyon that marks the end of the horse range. As we walk around the bend silently and calmly, there he was. Jesse James stood tall on the highest bank of the drainage. We approach this rather skittish group of horses step by step, and the rain is starting to fall. We take our time to put on our raingear and set up the camera. Ginger tells me not to pay too much attention to them, and act nonchalant. This certainly paid off: they got used to our presence and continued with their own business.
We got a close-up view of the new foal. Through my binoculars, I could identify the sex of the foal: a boy! Ginger tells me he is going to be a bay, like his year-old brother Sentinel, and I find the markings on his face, in the shape of an exclamation point, remarkable. He walks up to Sentinel and starts nibbling his brother’s flanks, when they both suddenly break out in a run! As Ginger follows them with her camera I hear her say “yep, a 100% boy!”. They bite each others ankles, run as fast as they can, kick up their heels, and jump on each other’s back! How much fun these two are having. And, how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to quietly enjoy it.
Little Tommy Horn followed by his big brother Sentinel race through this lovely meadow; Desert flowers
When Penn, the mother of the two brothers, tells them it’s enough, we decide to take our leave. Walking back through a different route was just as surprising, with different flowers, different sounds, different rock formations and different smells. I marvel at the diversity of the Pryor Mountains as we get back into our UTV and head to Lovell.
The next morning, we pack up our stuff and leave the Pryor Mountains behind for now. During the nine-hour drive back Ginger and I come up with a name for Jesse James’ son: Little Tommy Horn. Naming the son of Jesse James after the Wyoming outlaw Tom Horn seems suiting, given their ‘outlaw way-of-life’. Although I would love to spend more time with the Pryor Mountain wild horses, the advocacy world awaits us. This unforgettable trip has fostered my motivation to pursue a better life for these magnificent wild beings.