Cloud’s 20th Birthday: Look Who Came to the Party!
My cell phone rings. The voice on the other end of the line is breathless. “Feldspar has a baby.” It is Kristen Collett---a beyond avid, new fan of the Pryor Wild Horse Herd who lives less than an hour away in Bridger, Montana. “It looks like a palomino to me!”
Kristen is glassing from Tillett Ridge, across massive Big Coulee canyon to the finger-like ridges of Sykes—miles away from the mare and her newborn, but close enough to see a pale foal.
Several days later, she confirms the baby is a male and in her photos, I can tell the colt is not a palomino, but a sturdy pale buckskin. Cloud's son is a buckskin! The color is one of the rarest on the Pryor Mountains. I begin to plan a trip to try to find the colt and also to spend Cloud’s 20th birthday with him on May 29th.
May 26. Ann Evans and I travel up Sykes, hoping to catch a glimpse of what will likely be Cloud’s last foal. He lost his mares, Feldspar and Innocentes, for the second year in a row, except this time, he was too weak to get them back. (link)
So many questions bounce around in my brain as we climb the rugged and, in places, dangerous Sykes Ridge Road. I wonder how Feldspar lost Ohanzee and why she joined Mescalero’s band? Maybe because her mother Rosarita is with Mescalero? And why did Mescalero cross over to Sykes from Tillett?
Mescalero, a seasoned 16 year-old band stallion, knows Sykes well. He grew up here, the son of legendary Shaman and the powerful lead mare, Sitka, who became Cloud’s steady partner for the last five years of her life.
As we climb to the first open ridges of Sykes, we begin to see beautiful mustangs like the Apricot dun roan bachelor, Jemez, and the stallions, Hamlet and Blizzard who fuss at each other briefly with classic, ritualized sparring behaviors: sniff the stud pile with noses nearly touching, squeal, strike, pivot and leave.
Higher up, the new coyote dun band stallion Johan and his young grulla filly, Nomad (Flint and Halcyon’s 2 year-old daughter) are curious about the UTV, approaching us to within a few yards.
But no amount of hiking, searching and glassing produces the results we are hoping for–a sighting of Mescalero’s Band and Feldspar’s new son. Cloud, too, remains invisible, despite scanning Tillett and Sykes over and over again.
May 27. You know the saying. When at first you don’t succeed. . . So we start up Sykes—again. We spot Medicine Bow in the low country. The unusual Sorrel Sabino is grazing alone. He is the last of the Sabino coloring in the Pryors, a reminder of how easy it is to lose these rare colors in a small herd.
With fear and trepidation, I drive over the “Rock Pile” once more, the single scariest part of a drive to the mid meadows of Sykes. We glass from high points along the way, and spot Jemez climbing uphill.
A black bachelor sees the handsome roan coming and goes out to “greet” him. The typical stallion ritual ensues—no big deal, just the stallion version of hi, how are you. . . now beat it, this is my hill! Looking back at our pictures, we identify the black as Seattle. We thought he was gone, but the 19 year-old is alive and literally still kicking. Ann and I glass and see the same horses on mid-Sykes as yesterday, but today we have an “ace in the hole.”
While we travel uphill, Kristen is on Tillett Ridge glassing across Big Coulee to Sykes. Her text is loud and clear, Mescalero’s band is on the long ridge below the high water guzzler. We drive on and stop at the edge of a tree-lined meadow. With considerable time spent backtracking we finally discover the cryptic horse trail through the trees and up onto a long ridge that descends toward Big Coulee.
The hiking is easy going downhill, and after several miles we see the coyote dun mare Broken Bow watching us approach. We have found Mescalero’s band. Near a wooded draw, Feldspar appears with her foal. The colt turns to look at us and I can see that his blaze is shaped like his father’s.
He strikes a proud pose, and trots to his mother while shaking his head—a characteristic Cloud behavior. “You are a rarity little fellow,” I whisper to him. There are only are four buckskins on the Pryor Mountains and only Bolder’s daughter Jewel, is a pale buckskin.
I watch the foal exploring his surroundings and rubbing on the low hanging branches of a Douglas Fir. Missoula tries to interact with him but the colt is frightened by such a giant-sized playmate!
Missoula too is unusual—the only remaining sorrel with a flaxen mane and tail on the mountain. In the upcoming bait trap and removal, I hope that these unusual horses will be allowed to live free and pass on their color. The foal lies down to nap several times and then pops up to nurse.
Late in the afternoon, the colt follows his mother and the band downhill. We reluctantly start back, not looking forward to the arduous uphill climb to the road but heartened by our time in the presence of this lovely son of Cloud and Feldspar.
May 28. Ann and I head up Tillett, hoping to find Cloud, who turns 20 tomorrow. Just before reaching the open ridges, we focus our binoculars on the area around the water guzzler where Inniq had likely beaten Cloud to claim Innocentes, her daughter, Orielle, born last late September (link), and Ohanzee.
There are no horses visible so we head up to the first mid-level meadow on Tillett. From here we have a great view of the low ridges of Sykes and can see the buckskin foal with Feldspar and the band. “They’re even lower than yesterday,” Ann remarks. “I wonder if they’ll drop into Big Coulee and cross over to Tillett?” I add hopefully. It never hurts to wish!
Before moving on, I aim my binoculars at the mountaintop and see bands of horses roaming on the high meadows.
We travel uphill, and spot Knight and Encore grazing together and interacting sweetly with each other. Encore looks stunning, but we stay only a little while.
The weather is deteriorating and we want to try to get to the mountaintop before the road dissolves into a muddy mess. In the limber pines, mule deer forage, their velvety antlers revealing their sex. Antler growth is stunningly fast, one-half inch or more a day!
Less than 100 yards away, we see movement in the pines and hike toward He Who’s little four-horse band, including his ever-present and often unwanted Lieutenant Stallion, Fiesta. Bolder and Cedar’s daughter, Jewel, walks alongside what I assume is Tonopah since she was with the band all of last year. But wait a minute!
The mare with Jewel has small white spots above her hooves. This is Demure, not Tonopah! I fear the oldest horse in the Pryors (likely ever) has slipped away without us knowing. I believe Tonopah is related to more horses than any other in the herd. Case in point. We walk beyond He Who’s family where we see Chance, Galadriel and their bright orange daughter, Oceana, born last fall.
Chance is Tonopah’s grandson, the daughter of War Bonnet. Oceana is Tonopah’s great granddaughter. Lauryn Wachs, who so ably helped me in years past to document the herd, calls this the “6 degrees of Tonopah.” As long as wild horses roam the rugged Pryor Mountains, Tonopah will live on.
Most of the horses on top are congregated on the east side of the open meadows. Mares are coming into heat and competition is fierce at times. Morning Star and Custer trot side-by-side as if daring each other to cross the invisible line between them, while storm clouds build overhead.
Custer and Felicity’s daughter Prospera, prances in front of us while Indigo Kid’s daughter (or is she Red Raven’s offspring?) Pele, born several weeks after Prospera, stays with her band watching. I imagine she’ll break out of her shell when she’s a little older and braver. Suddenly it starts to hail and all the horses head for cover in the trees. In minutes it looks as if winter has returned.
Ann and I drive the UTV downhill into the limber pine forest, hoping to spot horses. Our search is fruitless and we begin the long trip back down the mountain, looking for Cloud as we bump along. He has been seen most recently on Tillett so we hope to spot the almost birthday boy but it is not to be, at least not so far.
May 29th Cloud’s Birthday. Linda Hanick, our friend and TCF Facebook Manager, joins Ann and I in our search. Kristen is coming up later to help us look, and Steve Cerroni from the Pryor Mustang Center is taking three people on a tour later in the morning. Ayn Nguyen is camping on the mountain with friends, so, we will have multiple sets of eyes scoping the landscape for a pale stallion.
Besides one tolerant cottontail, we see very little until we climb onto the ridges of Tillett. We stop and glass over to Sykes. The visibility is poor but as we pan down the ridge, far past the point where Ann and I had hiked to photograph Feldspar and her foal. Horses!
It is Mescalero's Band. Can you see the light spot on the left hand side of the frame? The white dot is the buckskin colt near his mother. Missoula is on the right. What an inaccessible place, I think to myself. But likely a very safe one.
We travel on, once again climbing through the wet limber pine forest. There are puddles everywhere and, except for the occasional harsh caw of a Clark’s Nutcracker, it is eerily quiet. Fog rolls in the distance over the mountains and into the high valleys. . .so unlike the clear, warm day when a newborn Cloud tottered out of trees with his mother, Phoenix, his father Raven and the rest of the band. How could that have been 20 years ago? Where has the time gone?
In looking through an old photo album the other day, I found this picture that I imagine no one has seen except Anni Williams and me. Anni was visiting for just three days over Memorial Day weekend in 1995. I snapped this picture out of the car window with a little point-and-shoot camera as we drove away late in the afternoon.
The UTV slides through the big puddle just before the right hand turn to Penn’s Cabin. As we crest the hill near the snow-fed waterhole, we see horses on the road. It is Morning Star’s Band, with Shadow, Cloud and Aztec’s beautiful brown roan daughter.
While Ann drives down through the upper Sykes forest, looking for horses, Linda and I walk through the open limber pines that rim the meadows. Aside from a chattering squirrel and one mega pile of bear scat, we come up empty handed. At around 1:45 we three are just about to head back onto the meadows when the phone rings.
“I found Cloud!” It is Kristen. She had found Cloud near the road in the limber pines with his grandson, Maelstrom. 10 minutes later we are standing watching both horses as they calmly graze.
Ayn and her friends are already there with Kristen when we arrive. Cloud has put on weight but still has a ways to go. He and Maelstrom groom each other, then go back to munching on the abundance of green grass. Jack Sterling from Billings pulls up, then Steve and his tour group show up.
Our excited little group sings an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Cloud who drifts up hill with Maelstrom as if we aren’t even there. I believe he is well aware that the focus is on him. And, at some level, I think he understands how special he has always been, not only to me, but to so many others who love him.
By late afternoon Cloud and Maelstrom are grazing peacefully near the Teacup Bowl when Linda, Ann and I notice Cloud’s handsome, blue roan son, Mato Ska, ambling through the Teacup Bowl with Sante Fe. When they climb out of the bowl, Cloud and Maelstrom spot them and immediately trot over to “chat.”
As the sun dips low in the west behind dark clouds, the four engage in a short sparring bout. I am relieved that Cloud has chosen to stay engaged rather than to become a hermit. He seems nearly as playful and feisty as he’s always been.
It is dark by the time we get to the bottom of the mountain. I don’t think any of us could have imagined the drama that would unfold the next day.
May 30. Ann and I get going fairly early. It’s our last day and we want to make the most of it. Linda and her husband Vic are driving up and plan to join us later. The journey up the bumpy road is uneventful.
We see no horses until we reach the meadows of Tillett and glass over to Sykes. The same distant dots are Mescalero’s Band with Feldspar and the buckskin colt. They’re on the same ridge but they’ve moved uphill just a bit since yesterday. Otherwise, it’s slim pickings on Tillett.
But when we get to the mountaintop and crest the hill by the snowfed waterhole, we see band after band.
It seems that everyone is here, including Cloud. I start filming and though the lens of the camera I see the buckskin foal! Mescalero’s Band is here! How did they get up here so fast? And why did they? As soon as Cloud sees Feldspar he races to her, sniffs the baby and then cuts them out of the band.
I have known Mescalero for his entire life and I do not recall seeing him fight, or even spar much, but he goes into high gear today, blasting toward Cloud.
They rear and spin, kick and bite each other viciously until Cloud gives ground, only to rush in again, trying to get Feldspar away from the band. Time and again Mescalero beats him back. At one point Mato Ska trots over and stands by his mother Feldspar, but Mescalero is quick to run him off.
In the midst of it all, Cloud runs off, flops down and rolls, getting his pale coat muddy. The aging stallion is quite a sight. He has a cut on his face, and a bite on his neck but Mescalero has not knocked the fight out of him.
Mescalero takes out after Cloud with runs that leave the band without a stallion, giving other males the hope of stealing a Mescalero mare. Baja lurks in the background and Red Raven circles the perimeter.
Mato Ska and Maelstrom try to get in on the action. Red Raven puts an end to their hopes, nearly nailing Mato Ska with a kick. The blue roan just barely dodges the blow.
Later, Cloud races over the hill and comes back with the dirt washed off. He obviously took a time out for a quick roll and a drink. He faces off with Red Raven for a few seconds, then charges Mescalero who drives him back. It is pure bedlam.
Time and again I watch Cloud dance away from Mescalero, shifting from an extended trot to a floating gallop. He may have lost a bit of speed and most certainly some of his strength, but he has not lost his incredible flowing movement, inherited from his father, Raven.
Mescalero pushes the band to the snow fed waterhole and the buckskin colt goes right in the water to stay near his mother. Good boy, I think, but don’t go in too deep! Years ago a foal drowned in the spring-fed waterhole. The mares drink while Cloud circles above, a pale dot on a sea of snow.
Mescalero takes the band back toward Penn’s Cabin and Cloud follows. Then he circles his band to the edge of the trees above Big Coulee and Cloud follows. During brief pauses in the action, the foal tries to take short naps, but it isn’t long before the battle begins anew.
The Mescalero-vs-Cloud bout goes on for hours. At times the buckskin foal gets caught in the melee and I fear he’ll be trampled, but Feldspar stays with him, and the fearless Polaris wins my undying admiration. At least a half a dozen times the 18 year-old black mare intercepts any stallion that gets close to the foal, including Mescalero.
Finally Cloud withdraws to a quiet meadow ringed on three sides by limber pines. Maelstrom is nearby.
I admire Cloud for trying to win back his mare, but hope he will retire. . .not from life, but from a warrior’s life.
The foal can finally nurse and rest. He’s so tired I think he forgets how to lie down and stands on his head before he figures out how to get his rear on the ground. What a darling colt. He has us all smiling.
And what a day he’s had—not one he will likely ever forget. Linda suggested we name him Cloud’s Pride and I think that’s fitting for the son of a proud and gallant stallion. Pride–I like it! How about you?
Happy Trails and Happy Birthday Cloud!
P.S. Cloud is celebrating 20 years of freedom–what every wild horse deserves and what we work for each and every day. Please help us turn wishes into reality. Consider making a donation today to continue our work for not only this herd but all the wild horse herds.
And, if you are going to BreyerFest next month (July 17-19) at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, I hope you’ll come by our TCF booth (#106) and say “Hi.” I hope you will plan to attend my talks (in an air-conditioned theatre!) about my experiences in the wild with Cloud and my very first talk about Encore with never- before-seen live action footage of this courageous little filly from the time she was just hours old. See you there!
P.P.S. A special thanks to Ann Evans for her terrific action photography, taken while I was filming!