The Fillies of Autumn
The Fillies of Autumn October, 2014 A Pryor Journal
The wind has a bite to it. A wintry feel, I think to myself as I hike on the ridges of mid-Tillett. Dark clouds hover over the Bighorns to the east and Big Pryor Mountain to the west.
I’m on a mission. Steve Cerroni has given me specific clues on where he last saw Cloud, Feldspar, Ohanzee, Innocentes (Ingrid). . . and her new foal! I was excited to lay my eyes on the youngest Cloud’s offspring, but worried about Innocentes and her newborn. Autumn is a dangerous time to be born.
In the winter of 1976-77, all the foals and every older horse died. Over the past 20 years I've seen at least a dozen foals born in September and early October. Most did not survive. In one case, not only the foal disappeared, but the mare as well.
As I hike, I see a flash of movement in a stand of junipers and stare through my binoculars. There it is again. It looks like the flick of a tail behind the dense trees—a stubby, black tail. Could it be Ohanzee? I hike closer and the handsome blaze-faced foal comes into view with his mother, Feldspar. Farther away I can see the small dun mare, Innocentes. Then I spot Cloud foraging in the grassy canyon. But where's the foal?
I walk in their direction and see something on the ground near Innocentes. The tiny lump leaps to its feet and walks to her mother to nurse. I quickly text photographer, Kim Michels, who is accompanying me. Then I catch sight of Kim hiking downhill toward me. She too has seen the band. Together we sit quietly and watch the little family and their new foal.
The foal stops, lifts her tail, and pees. It’s a girl! Kim and I simultaneously and silently conclude. Cloud and Innocentes’ daughter is one of the few fillies born this year. Her sex may ensure that she will be allowed to live free on her mountain home. . . but for how long?She’ll need to be tough and lucky. Even her mother is in jeopardy.
As we sit and watch Cloud grazing peacefully with his family, I begin worrying about an early winter just as it starts to snow! The horses continue to graze. The stout newborn filly plops down for a nap, appearing to ignore the big flakes. Has she already seen it snow?, I wonder.
We tear ourselves away from Cloud’s band, driving uphill only a half a mile before we spot Encore, Knight and the bachelors in the forest. The filly looks our way and in the falling snow she looks like an angel. At that moment, I can’t help but regret how her life has turned out so far. Her youth has been stolen from her and she will likely never have the opportunity to play with Ohanzee and her baby sister. It’s is the only time I will see her beautiful face on my five-day journey.
We continue traveling up the mountain, nearing a spot about two thirds of the way to the top where the ridge narrows into a spine. It's the site of an old horse trap, perched on the steep slope with the road being the only escape route. Historically, mustangers funneled frantic wild horses from the mountaintop into the trap.
As we approach the narrow spine and the gateway into the trap, we spot Cloud’s mother, Phoenix, leading her family downhill. I back up, giving them room on the narrow passageway to continue their travels. Phoenix leads the family around us. How lovely, I think. The 23 year-old mare is as beautiful as ever.
Above the trap we travel into the more open limber pine forest, searching for Gringo and his band and the second filly born at the very end of September, this one to Galadrial. Again, Steve tipped us off to his discovery a few days before we arrived. Surely in this blustery weather, the band will have dropped lower down. Wrong!
As soon as I see the leggy sorrel filly, I know the father is not Gringo. She is Chance’s daughter. The red roan stallion led this band until Gringo stole them, but Chance has never given up trying to reclaim his family and he was observed breeding the filly’s mother, Galadrial, last fall.
As we photograph the filly, Chance approaches Gringo and the two stallions posture and strike at each other. The never-ending conflict between them continues.
Chance’s daughter seems cold and rather listless. You will have to toughen up girl, I think to myself as we take pictures, then duck back into the protection of the UTV with our loyal companion, Quinn, my Irish Terrier.
Over the next four days I see the fillies growing stronger. The weather improves a bit and we find Cloud and his family still down on Tillett.
Ohanzee is curious about his little sister, but the filly lays her ears back and goes to her mother when the colt approaches her. In time this will change, I whisper to Ohanzee. He is a lovely, smokey black and reminds me of his grandfather, Raven.
When Cloud’s two-year-old son, Mato Ska, approaches with Mandan and their big protector Grijalla, Cloud goes out to say hello and reminds the beefy bay to keep his distance.
I see Cloud do the same with Jackson, having little trouble backing him away. This is good, I think. The next day Cloud and his family move to the top, as do many of the bands.
I hike to a far hill to get a closer look at He Who (Horizon) and the band, including the stunning Cloud granddaughter, Jewel, the daughter of Bolder and Cedar. Jewel is the great-granddaugher of Raven and his mare, Isabella. She has inherited Isabella’s unusual, pale buckskin color.
The oldest horse in the Pryor Mountains is one of Jewel’s companions, the amazing Tonopah. At 28, this venerable grulla looks like a far younger mare. Tonopah is Chance’s grandmother and the mother of Baja, Lakota, Brumby, and War Bonnet. I believe she is related to more Pryor mustangs than any other horse on the mountain.
We watch as Gringo’s family with the new sorrel filly approach the waterhole. Nancy Cerroni and Anh Nguyen join us, and I know that all of us are delighted to see the stylish, sorrel filly come to life. She begins to run, buck, wheel and buck some more. This is like a rerun of Chance as a foal. Life is a circle, so they say, and I feel I am living it on this beautiful, blustery October afternoon.
The filly is appropriately named Oceana in honor of her grandmother, Atlantis. My friend, Susan Sutherland, and I were visiting the mountain in September of 2008. We spotted Atlantis with her fragile newborn foal. They were climbing the hill from the spring-fed waterhole. It is possible that Susan and I were the last humans to see the mare and foal alive. I hope Atlantis' daughter, Galadrial, and her granddaughter, Oceana, might fare better.
Unlike Oceana, Cloud’s daughter is a stocky filly like her mother, with a short back and tiny ears. What a cutie, I think.
If Cloud can stay strong and protect his family, the chances for Innocentes and the filly I name Orielle improve greatly. Orielle means golden like her bright bay coat.
With so much water still in the snow-fed waterhole near Penn’s Cabin, the bands drift in and out of the scenic spot below limestone cliffs. Deer, too, water here and I watch a group trot away into the dense forest below the pond. Squirrels chatter in the firs and limber pines, working overtime to store up a cache of pine cones that will see them through winter.
The weather seems to be slowly improving but the wind persists. We sit quietly, watching the horses coming to water and we hike beyond the waterhole where Cloud and his family rest and graze. The aging stallion looks well.
Has there ever been a stallion in the Pryors with such wise, expressive eyes? I realize I am prejudiced. . . prejudiced and proud of his brave struggle to overcome injury and regain his family. I have no doubt both Anh and I are praying that he will come out of winter, still leading his family. And I am praying the fillies of autumn will survive the challenges of the coming months.
Reluctantly, we leave Cloud’s sacred mountain as the sun bathes the low country in the last warm rays of sunshine.
P.S. It seems like yesterday when Chance was a newborn like Oceana. I was filming for the National Geographic special on Horses in 1998 when the colt was only a few days old. He dashed through the forests of Tillett Ridge with his mother, War Bonnet, who was running to keep up with her speedy, fun-loving son. My friend and co-worker, Trish Kerby, who passed away recently, gave the sorrel colt his name, Flash’s Last Chance. She was particularly fond of his father, Flash, who sired the foal when in his twenties. Chance is my Trace’s half-brother (both are War Bonnet sons). I like to think they both have character. I admire Chance for his persistence and loyalty to his family—qualities I imagine most of us value.