Angel of the Arrowheads
Just before Thanksgiving, Linda Hanick, my Irish terrier Quinn, and I travel from Colorado to southern Montana and the mountains the Crow Indians call the Arrowheads. Anglos refer to them as the Pryor Mountains of southern Montana. We hope to spot Cloud and his herd mates although our timing could have been better. We arrive on the heels of a snow storm that sent the horses into the shelter of canyons and coulees and out of the biting wind. Unfortunately for us, it will make finding them a challenge.
Day one is windy and cold. Even so, our intrepid friend, photographer Kristen Collett, joins us. Hoping the weather will improve later in the morning, we delay taking the UTV up Tillett, and drive out to the Dryhead on the paved highway. Despite much glassing we see a few ravens but no wild horses.
Then on our way back, we spot a dark horse on the side slope of a sheltered valley. Hickok! We scan the area. Below the handsome, young stallion are his mares and little daughter, Nova. But the oldest member of the band, Hightail, is not with the family. The last time I saw her was in early August and she looked fine for a 26 year-old.
It is likely that Hightail has died. If so, she led a wonderful life of freedom in her desert homeland. Hightail was one of the first horses I saw when I began my filming of wild horses in 1994. And she has likely been seen by more people than any Pryor mustang, including Cloud, for she was a greeter at the gate for at least 21 years!
Thanks for welcoming us to the Pryors Hightail! Rest in peace with your stallions, Hercules, Sam, and Admiral and the many mares and foals who knew you as a sweet companion.
We head up Tillett, even though the weather has not improved. In fact, it may be even windier. Below the mines we see tracks in the snow and get out to look around.
Quite by accident, I glance to my left and see movement around the point of a canyon wall. Cloud’s little sister, Mariah, disappears behind a cliff face and we follow. Kristen goes ahead and signals us.
It's Casper and his band in the snowy, sheltered canyon. They all look plump—an essential body condition to survive winter. If the other horses are hidden like this, spotting them will be nearly impossible.
We drive into the forest. Even here the wind is swirling and we retreat to a lower elevation. Just after sunset, the UTV suddenly loses power and we begin to coast downhill. “Stop and turn it off and on,” Linda says.
On restart the UTV does just fine. Whew! I think, realizing we’ve dodged a bullet. Getting stuck in this kind of weather or any kind of weather after dark in the Pryors would not be good!
The next morning is still cold, but not as windy--at least not yet. Kristen is working today so it is just Linda and I, and Quinn of course, who travel once again into the Dryhead along the canyon.
To our right we spot a small herd of Bighorn Sheep foraging in burned junipers. Escorting the ewes and their lambs is a full curl ram. “He looks familiar,” I say to Linda. “I think he’s the same one Paula and I saw last winter.”
Unlike the wild horses, it’s almost impossible to tell the Bighorn ewes apart, but the big rams are easier with individualized deep growth rings on their massive horns.
What a handsome fellow, I think to myself as I film the group. Also unlike mustang families where the stallion is present 365 days a year, the rams only join the ewes for breeding in the fall and early winter. Seeing no horses in the Dryhead, we drive to the bottom of Tillett.
I climb up on the trailer and start the UTV. It turns over immediately, but when I put it into reverse and push the accelerator, nothing happens. This is the same thing that happened yesterday. The rest of the day is spent traveling to Cody to leave the UTV at the repair shop and then travel back to Lovell.
I feel deflated. We only had four days to spend on the mountain and we’ve been robbed of a day. Even worse, there will be no travel up Sykes Ridge as it is too rugged for my 4Runner and it is the most likely place to find Cloud. We settle for a slow and careful drive up Tillett Ridge.
Day three finds Kristen on Sykes Ridge with her ATV, while Linda, Quinn and I head up Tillett. Seeing no horses, we set up the spotting scope and begin scanning across Big Coulee onto giant Sykes with its finger-like ridges separated by forested canyons. Most of the snow has melted on the meadows of this least accessible part of the horse range.
Immediately we see horse bands but who are they? Finding the “signature” animal in a band is key to identifying them. Through the scope I see a sorrel with a flaxen mane and tail. “Missoula” I whisper. The handsome three-year old in Mescalero’s band is unmistakable.
This is Feldspar’s new band. I can see her through the scope, but where is her little son, Pride? Cloud’s youngest and likely his last offspring is a rare pale buckskin colt. Linda and I continue to scan the entire area around the band, but can’t locate Pride. I try to keep my worries to myself but I know she too is worried about Cloud’s youngest.
We make a run higher on Tillet. Seeing nothing, we return to a good Sykes glassing spot and I train the scope on Feldspar. Finally I see movement behind her.
Is that a head behind a bush? Minutes tick off. Finally the head moves again and Pride stands up. Both Linda and I take a deep breath. Unfortunately, Kristen can’t see them as they are downslope from her and a daunting, downhill distance from the road.
Late in the afternoon we head back down Tillett. Just before the Mines, in a sunny, sheltered opening Linda spots Casper. We hike down to the nearly all dun band.
Mariah is the lovely outlier. The youngest, Banjo Patterson is a coyote dun like his mother, Gabrielle. Naara, his sister, is with Moenkopi in tall junipers. Naara means nose in Spanish, a name I gave the filly on the day she was born two years ago. Her unique nose marking sets her apart from all the other duns in the Pryors. The Dun color is the most common in this historic Spanish herd.
We get down the mountain with a half hour of daylight left, so we take a run into the Dryhead again. Well after sunset, Linda spots a dark horse near the Overlook. I put on my lights and four horses begin to walk toward us, their eyes shining eerily in my headlights. It’s Fool’s Crow’s Band with little Phantom. But Fools’ Crow is not to be seen. The mares appear headed toward the Sykes Spring area in the desert lowlands.
Day four is our last for this trip. We want to find Fool’s Crow’s mares and worry that something might have happened to their stylish blue roan stallion. Near Sykes Spring, a horse saunters toward us alongside the red road. "Jemez," we say almost in unison. The flashy apricot dun bachelor is fat and unfazed by us. He passes by and heads uphill, taking a short cut to the low ridges of Sykes.
We notice a trail of fresh tracks heading toward the Red Buttes, so we turn around and follow them. Are we following Fool’s Crow’s family? The answer is yes! Glassing west of the Buttes we see them.
The mares and Phantom are visible but not Fool's Crow. “Is that a horse under that juniper to the left of the mares? “ Linda looks with her binoculars but neither of us can tell. We set up the scope and I zoom in. It is a horse and it has the roan coat of Fool’s Crow. Mystery solved!
Satisfied that all is well we turn around. Just past the Red Buttes a dark horse appears. He takes a few steps and sniffs the fine red dirt. Hickok!
The stallion is alone and clearly on a mission. We get closer and can see he is following the trail of Fool’s Crow’s mares and foal. I’m sure that he can tell he is on the trail of females without a male. Hickok looks up, scans his surroundings, then continues past us. He may have a big surprise in store when Fool’s Crow detects an interloper!
Kristen is already on Tillett,and texts us that she has seen Encore and Knight near the Forest Service gate. Somewhat reluctantly we drive away without knowing the outcome of this potential showdown. But there is little light this time of year and the next best thing to finding Cloud is a sighting of his angelic daughter Encore.
Once at the Forest Service gate we see Kristen hiking on a distant and hill and Linda goes to join her. Quinn and I hike only a few yards from the 4Runner and spot Knight on a sunny slope that leads to the Hell ‘n Gone. Linda and Kristen see him too and they join Quinn and me. Knight looks up as we approach.
Short and stocky, Knight was orphaned as a foal and raised by the biggest bachelors on the mountain, Hernando, Hamlet, Garay and Inali. When Encore was stolen by these same bachelor stallions last year, Knight defended Encore who gravitated to Knight. Against what seemed impossible odds, he claimed her as his own.
As we get closer, she looks up and then continues to forage. The sun is behind her and she seems to glow. There is something almost mystical about the filly. At only two years of age, her life experiences have run the gamut, from idyllic to horrifying and back again. Despite the hardships, she has survived with the help of Knight.
He smells where Encore has urinated, raising his upper lip and inhaling deeply. Occasionally, he ever so gently nips at her side. At one point he tries to mount her, but Encore simply walks away and he seems content to follow her.
The sun is dipping low on the horizon when we leave them. “Stay safe little angel,” I whisper. When I turn to look back once more, I can see the two young horses grazing together, their heads only inches apart.
P.S. Please do something for me. Close your eyes. Imagine that Encore and Knight live in the Saylor Creek Wild Horse Herd in Idaho where BLM wants to sterilize every mare and stallion. Imagine what will happen if they are allowed to do this to the Saylor Mustangs. Now imagine which herd might be next.
Please donate what you can to our Save the Wild Horses of Saylor Creek Fund to prevent this unthinkable atrocity. As always, thank you for your commitment to these family loving, freedom loving animals!