On Holiday with Cloud, the Pryor Mustangs, and the Freedom Family Bands
Dear Friends of Cloud:
Winter is not for the faint of heart in the Pryor Mountains. The wild horses that live here are some of the toughest in the West and very difficult to find at this time of year. Our most important pieces of equipment are without a doubt spotting scopes, binoculars, and on this particular trip, shovels.
December 26. On the day after Christmas, my long-time friend, Ann Evans, her son Matt (visiting from Alaska), and I park at the base of the mountains and begin scanning the snowy landscape. It is white from top to bottom.
When we see suspicious looking dots through our binoculars, we set up the spotting scope to get a closer view. Many times the dots are “bush” horses, “rock” horses, “tree” horses and, if we’re lucky, real wild horses.
We park the Durango at the bottom of Tillett Ridge Road, load our gear into our UTV, and head toward the Range. Cloud was just two weeks old when Matt and his mother first visited the Pryor Mountains with me in June of 1995. Today I hope to show them Cloud’s newest additions, his little look-alike daughter, Encore, and his yearling son Mato Ska, which means silver bear in the Lakota Sioux language.
Before we even get to the cattle guard boundary of the range we nearly get stuck in deep drifts. “This is not good,” I tell Ann and Matt. Seconds later, three feet after we cross the cattle guard, we grind to a halt, jump out and start shoveling. This scenario repeated itself at least a dozen times. “Look on the bright side,” Ann reminded us dafys later, “We’re getting great arm exercise.”
We fight our way up the road, breaking trail through the dense snow. A mile below the mines hill we start glassing. Matt hikes up the ridge to our left. Eventually Ann and I follow his tracks. As we crest the hill we see Matt, and beyond him on the next ridge, horses! Two black stallions, a dun roan and a bay eye us for a second before continuing to forage. The blacks are nearly a head taller than their younger buddies, Knight and London. To their right, we spot another Forest Service horse, Garay and his mares, Quelle Couleur, and her three-year old daughter, the beautiful Kohl.
From this exceptional vantage point, we continue to glass. Looking behind us we spot a band on a distant mesa. Through the scope, I can see Cloud’s palomino sister, Mariah. It’s great to have a unique, “signature” animal in a band. In this case, she helps us identify Casper’s family. “Wait a minute,” I whisper, counting the members. Rather than six horses, we are looking at eight. Who are the extras? They’re so backlit that seeing markings or even color is difficult. They just look dark to me. It was only on our final day on the mountain that a little light bulb went off in my head, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We spot Electra, Galaxy, and the band to the east on a windswept hill, and our next and only other discovery is a thriller. Bathed in light on the distant hill to the west of the mines is a small, dark horse in the snow. When he turns his head I can see his blaze. It is Cloud’s blue roan son, Mato Ska.
Then I notice the rock colored horse to his right. It’s Cloud! Matt, Ann and I hike back down to the UTV, descend into a narrow valley and climb sharply upward on a steep red hill that will take us to a 1950’s uranium mining area---we hope.
Matt hikes to the very top of the mines hill and returns to tell us he heard a horse snorting. We start up the hill, breaking through the drifts. In time I can see Cloud’s mares, Ingrid and the Black, near the band stallion Mescalero with his mares, Polaris and Rosarita. Has Cloud lost them, or are just on a winter walk-about?
After watching them for a while I conclude they are not really part of Mescalero’s band. They seem to be just hanging out in the same general area. The Black keeps looking downhill. I follow the line of her gaze and start walking. Below the road I hike downhill on ridges that give me a different vantage point. By this time, the sun is dipping low in the southwest and I know we only have a half hour or so before sunset.
Each drift we burst through gets us one step closer to Cloud. I put the UTV into four low and gun it. We make it up the red hill but it isn’t pretty. Our tracks must look like a drunk swerving from one edge of the trail to the next. We dig out four times before reaching the mines and another three times around the mines hill.
Then fifty yards of drifted snow stops us cold. From this angle can we see Cloud? Where are they? Not seeing anything close, we begin glassing farther out. In the Hell ‘n Gone, we can see a big band. It is Duke, Madonna and the entire family.
Then I see Cloud on the side of a canyon with Encore and Mato Ska and below them, Feldspar. I suppress the urge to cheer. In front of Cloud is Trace’s mother, War Bonnet. She’s standing still as a statue, sleeping in the last few minutes of warm sunlight. Is she with Cloud?, I think to myself.
I notice Missoula moving in to stand beside his buddy, Mato Ska. The rest of Diamond’s band must be just out of sight below the lip of the canyon wall. I keep watching and eventually Diamond walks into view, then Phoenix and Missoula’s mother, Half Moon. All are within a few yards of Cloud. I have to remind myself that during winter the boundary lines between bands are less rigidly enforced. And where is Aztec? Cloud’s pretty grulla mare may still be with their daughter Jasmine. When Jasmine joined Jackson’s band several years ago, Aztec would go visit her. The mother-daughter bond can be very strong, particularly if the mare does not have another, younger offspring to care for. Aztec’s younger daughter, Breeze, was removed during bait trapping in 2012 and lives with our friend, Rachel Reeves.
After the sun sets, we leave the mountain, relieved that every horse we have seen appears in good health, including 18 year-old Cloud.
December 27. We travel to visit our two Freedom Family bands north of Livingston. It is a warm and sunny, picture perfect day. The Crazy Mountains are gleaming above the beautiful snowy meadows we lease in the Shields River country. All the horses look fabulous, including the matriarch, Grumpy Grulla in Shane’s band. She will turn 26 in the spring and although she is clearly a senior animal, she is in great flesh.
Her stallion Shane is a lovely dun, not only in looks, but also in temperament. I watch Trigger’s son, three year-old Pistol, approach his mother, Evita. Although he is bigger than his mother, she clearly welcomes his attentions and lets him nurse. I’m reminded of Cloud’s grandson Echo. The pale palomino son of Bolder and Cascade will turn four this spring but still nurses his mother, who dotes on her only offspring.
December 28. Ann, Matt and I head up Tillett. Again. Travel is easier this time because we follow our own tracks to the mines hill, hoping to see Cloud’s family near the place we’d seen them two days before. Hiking produces no sightings nearby but we do see a few distant anonymous horses in the Hell ‘n Gone. In the early afternoon we head back down the road to get a different angle on the hills and canyons below the mines.
“I know how to get up there,” I say to Matt and Ann. The band is above the enormous mineral lick I found only last May when Encore was just 5 days old. “If you’re game we can hike around the mountain in front of them and cross over the coulee where it isn’t too deep and climb the hill they’re on.” Never in our forty year friendship has Ann been unwilling to take up a challenge.
Breaking through the crusty drifts we make our way toward the band. Feldspar trots uphill when she sees us coming. We stop immediately, hoping she won’t travel too far. I wave so she will know it’s me, but I’m too late. Ann and Matt wait as I hike the place we last saw her. She and Encore come into view again. They seem calm, standing on the far side of Cloud who barely looks up. I think he recognizes me by sight and surely by smell after all these years.
I slowly set up my camera while Feldspar goes back to foraging. Then I signal Ann and Matt to come up. We all stay a respectful distance from the band, watching them forage on the little bits of grass buried under the sage.
The late light shines on Encore as she walks to her big brother. They stare at Matt who is taking pictures about 50 feet to our left. Then bother and sister rejoin their parents and continue to eat. After an hour of watching, we hike back down to the UTV well after sunset. I marvel as I always do at the peace I feel in their presence. What a gift!
December 29. The weather is blustery with a brisk wind out of the east but the sun is breaking through the cloud cover so we decide to give Sykes Ridge a try. As always, I stop the UTV beside the Red Buttes. Between the hills to the west, we can see portions of an area of the desert country called Turkey Flat. Horses! Two of them. The bay with the T-bone blaze is clearly Jesse James and the black is likely Inniq. I saw them together in October when just Quinn and I visited the range.
We start to climb and pull over on the steep hill several times to glass out on the big flat below us. When we start back up we notice a black back just above the line of a distant mesa. My guess, based on the location, is Cecelia, Sitting Bull’s only mare.
When we climb higher she looks up and I can see her distinctive facial markings. It is Cecilia with her grulla son, Mato (not to be confused with Mato Ska) and Sitting Bull.
We watch the yearling walk and note how lame he is on the right rear. When he was just a little guy in late 2012, I saw him near Cottonwood Spring and again last November. All three times he has been lame. I asked Ann what she thought: not only is Ann a horse person, she is a noted medical one as well. She wondered if he had broken his leg and pointed out how small the right leg is in relation to the left. This is so sad. He is such a stylish Spanish colt. I wonder if he can survive?
We climb higher and get stuck several times in the process. By this time, we are an experienced team of snow diggers. At a big overlook we stop and begin glassing. Below and beyond us is the vast expanse of lower Sykes Ridge and beyond the lizard-like ridge itself.
When we spot dots that are horses, we set up the scopes. Hidatsa, the most striped up horse in the Pryors except for the remarkable mare, Topper, is alone in a snowy valley. Beyond him and to the west we identify the Fool’s Crow Band and north of them, Cloud’s brother, Red Raven and his band. Even in the scope they are distant dots but we can see that all are accounted for.
I make the decision to turn back at this point. The long hill to descend into lower Sykes is tricky when dry, but in drifted snow, it would be foolish to try. As we descend to the Red Buttes we spot Jesse and Inniq again and hike to them.
How can horses in a place that looks like there is virtually nothing to eat but weeds looks like fluffy butterballs? The remarkable Pryor wild horses have lived here for centuries and they have co-evolved with the scant vegetation and harsh weather. When nature is allowed to call the shots, it clearly works to select only the strongest in both mind and body. We hike back to the UTV while Matt takes a few more pictures and I wonder if he identifies with these young bachelors?
Because we still have some daylight left, I drive the UTV back to the base of Tillett while Ann and Matt follow with the Durango and the trailer. Then we all pile in together and drive off. Not a mile up the road we see a band heading toward us. Colorful Electra is leading her family into the desert. Cloud’s sister and her daughter Limerick are both looking incredible, as is the rest of this band.
The light is fading so we turn around, looking for Electra and her family on the way to the bottom of Tillett but see only their tracks leading to the east and the lowlands of Turkey Flat. Why has Electra chosen to lead them down? Is bad weather coming?
December 30. Our Tillett trail is well beaten by now. At the mines we begin scoping. For the first time in months, we see Jackson. I notice that Cloud’s daughter Jasmine and her mother, Aztec, are not with the band. Remember that light bulb I mentioned earlier and the two “extra” members of Casper’s band? Well, I now believe we saw Jasmine and Aztec with Casper. The horses are moving all around. We saw Red Raven’s band on Sykes, then all the way down in near the mouth of Big Coulee the next day. We sight Bolder way out in the Hell ‘n Gone. Bolder, in the Hell ‘n Gone?! This is a first. And where had Jackson been for so long? Matt begins hiking higher around the mines and I follow him.
Atop the mines we see Cloud!
I go back for the camera and Ann carries the tripod (as she has a hundred times or more throughout my filmmaking career) to the very top of the mines ridge. It is a breathtaking view. Encore is rubbing and eating on a dead juniper.
We sit in the snow, soaking in the scenery and eat our lunch. Cloud and his family move back down near the completely drifted in road and eventually we follow.
As the sun drops low in the west above the Beartooth Mountains, Cloud moves downhill through a snow-free zone in the shelter of the limber pines and Mato Ska follows, then Encore, and finally Feldspar. It is hard to leave the little family. Stay safe, dear friends, I whisper. As darkness falls we drive out of Cloud’s sacred wilderness home.
Happy Trails! Ginger
P.S. Thanks to so many of you who remembered our wild horse families during the holidays, and donated to our quest to keep them roaming free! We value your commitment to the cause more than you know.