The Never Ending Winter
*UPDATE | 5/19/14 | Since Ginger's visit to the Pryors as detailed below, Cloud has been seen and Ginger is headed to the Pryors now!*
5/10/14 Dear Friends,
Ann Evans and I start out from Colorado on Tuesday, May 6th. It is Cloud’s little daughter, Encore’s, first birthday. On our way to Montana we stop at Dr. Lisa Jacobson’s place in Northern Colorado to play with the darling Dry Creek Quartet. What a fun little group of orphans. They’re growing like weeds. Piccolo, our youngest at 2 months, has grown by leaps and bounds and is quite the athlete.
Allegro, the “lead mare” of the foursome is bold, and will let you pet and brush her all over. Coronet is becoming more and more curious, and almost let me pet her. Maestro, the only boy, is interested in Lisa’s big mares but they just lay their ears back, throwing cold water on his studly overtures. Even the farm cat helps to develop the minds of the foals.
If you follow our “Cloud the Stallion” Facebook page you learn how the foals are doing from their point-of-view. It is quite charming and we thank Dr. Lisa for taking such good care of these babies, orphaned by government actions that likely cost their parents their lives.
Dr. Lisa has purposely exposed the foals to all kinds of objects in their "big running place" which help to stimulate their minds and to desensitize them to the many new things they will encounter in life. In this case the halter and lead rope are preparing them for their first halter training lesson. However, Coronet and Maestro discover its a fun way to take Allegro for a walk.
I remark to Lisa that it is going to be a sunny, hot day, not realizing I would be wishing for a day like this in the Pryors.
As Ann and I begin the long drive north, I cannot get the phone call I received at my ranch on Sunday night out of my mind. My friend and local Pryor wild horse expert, Nancy Cerroni, told me of an epic battle between Cloud and the younger, former band stallion Doc that day.
When she left the range in the afternoon, Cloud was still in charge of his family, that included Feldspar, Encore, Mato Ska, and Ingrid. She said that Cloud and Doc were “doing the dance.” I knew exactly what she meant.
Cloud did the dance for months when he was only four, unsuccessfully dogging Doc’s father, Mateo, for an entire summer and into Fall before giving up in his quest to become a band stallion.
I feared a call like this. Ann and I had visited the Pryors less than a month before, and we hiked down into the low country on Turkey Flat after spotting Cloud and his family from above the flats at a Sykes Ridge lookout.
The first day we hiked out, we set up to take pictures near snow drifts left over from the last of the many snow storms that battered the Pryor Mountains relentlessly well into Spring. Cloud and his family were below us.
When Cloud looked up and I waved, he started walking our way. I have waved at him like this since he was a baby, wanting to announce my benign presence, unlike a predator that hides and pounces on their unwitting prey.
He continued to walk uphill and through the snow. I didn’t move as he came to within a few feet and stood beside me. I spoke to him in a soft voice. I knew I should move away. It’s not good to get close to wild horses of course, but I was strangely frozen in place. I could hear him breathing and could see that he was thinner than he had ever been. After a few minutes, he calmly walked away and joined his family who by now were nearby eating snow.
Later Ann remarked at his unusual behavior. Was he trying to tell me something? I asked myself.
He made a point of disciplining Mato Ska who horned in on Cloud’s little patch of snow and I wondered when he would kick the mild-mannered two-year old out.
On that April trip we found the first foal of the season. Just above where the Sykes Road drops steeply into Cougar Canyon, we spotted movement. It was a dark horse in the bushes above the canyon wall. Hiking up we found the blaze-faced yearling, Norte. Once he spotted us, he turned and trotted downhill to his father, Corona and his mother, Waif. We followed him.
At Waif’s side was a brand new baby, wobbling around. “Just born this morning I bet,” I whispered excitedly to Ann who nodded. I tied our traveling buddy, my young Irish Terrier Quinn, to a Juniper. Then we walked a short ways up the hillside above the band to sit and watch. The colt nursed and slept, got up and nursed again.
On unsteady legs he followed his experienced mother as she walked, selecting the newly emerging shoots of green grass. When Norte tried to come close to sniff his little brother, Waif looked him off with her ears pinned back. Norte got the message and backed away to join his father in grazing. We named the sturdy little blaze-faced bay Orion.
On our way back down Sykes via the High Road, we walked to an overlook above the Bighorn Canyon. Down near the road we could see horses. Through the spotting scope we identified the bachelor stallions, Jemez, and Chief Joseph, but we were not sure about the third, paler horse. As I focused in, I could identify Medicine Bow! The perpetual bachelor was believed dead because he had not been seen for many months and had suffered several severe injuries.
Back down the mountain, we drove out on the paved road and started hiking where we thought we had spotted them from up high. Luckily they were still in the area.
On closer examination, Medicine Bow looked fine. The beautiful and unusual sabino was orphaned when he was only about 7 months old or so. He spent his first winter in and around Cougar Canyon with the new band stallion, Cloud, Cloud’s first mare, Queen, and her son Red Cloud. Medicine Bow still bares the facial scars from a mountain lion attack when he was 2 years old. Never count a Pryor mustang out, I thought.
The next day we walked back out into the desert near the mouth of Big Coulee canyon. Cloud’s family was near Garcia’s little band of four. Then we saw Flint and his big band coming. Even Flint looked a bit lean, a departure from his stocky body build. He and Cloud sparred briefly and respectfully then separated with both bands foraging contentedly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw horses running. The two bachelors, Jesse James and Inniq, were galloping across the flats. In a matter of minutes, they were up on the bench with Cloud who went out to meet them, snapping into his classic, dressage style, extended trot. He reared up and gave them the quick one-two punch so characteristic of his fighting style. The two gave ground, but came back, then retreated as Cloud charged them.
After Cloud dispatched the bachelors, Garcia roared in to play with the two younger males while Cloud and his family walked away, eating calmly.
This encounter in beautiful light with the spectacular red buttes and mesas in the background was glorious and unforgettable.
So, here we are again, just a few weeks later, driving the UTV up Tillett Ridge to the place Nancy had last seen Cloud and Doc fighting on Sunday. Snow blankets the high country and it is snowing even at the bottom of the mountain. Visibility is limited to less than a quarter of a mile. “The horses will have to be standing in the road for us to see them,” I say to Ann.
The UTV is great on the rocky trails that pass for roads in the Pryors, but without windshield wipers, we have to stop and wipe the windows off every once in a while just to see where we’re going. There are no horse tracks in the snow, no clues whatsoever that reveal big, spectacular wild animals walking around just beyond a veil of fog and snow. At the mines hill, the fog lifts a bit and we spot Jackson's band traveling downhill. Do they look a little bit better than last month? I ask myself. I'm think so.
At the west side of the mines, we spot a horse below us, then another, and another. “It’s Electra,” Ann says. Through the snowfall we can make out Cloud’s lovely red roan sister with her young band stallion Galaxy and the band. We can see Hera and her dun roan daughter above Electra. All are foraging on the greening side slope amongst short trees that protect them from the biting wind.
We do not see Cloud’s band on the way down the mountain, but have high hopes that better weather tomorrow will give us the opportunity for long distance scoping.
Thursday is the only good weather day of the four we spend on the mountain. From below the mines we glass up on a distant ridgeline and see the brilliant white spot that proves to be Encore. She is grazing among the junipers with her mother, Feldspar, and Ingrid.
I keep staring, hoping to see Cloud, but catch a glimpse of a large dark horse instead. It is Doc! Cloud has lost his family, but if he is well enough, he should be in the vicinity. We continue glassing. It becomes apparent that Mato Ska is also missing. “Doc must have kicked the two-year old out,” I tell Ann. Maybe he and Cloud are together, I add hopefully.
By the time we drive up the long red hill to the new water catchment, Doc is following Feldspar, Encore, and Ingrid into the valley. That was fast, I think to myself. They get a drink, then walk higher. It is very clear that Doc is not dictating their movements. Rather, he is tagging along.
At the trot, he is noticeably lame. His coat has nicks and scratches from fighting, but nothing major. This is the area where Nancy saw him in the vicious duel with Cloud. Are the mares coming back to Cloud? If he is able, I know he would be here. Where are you boy? I whisper.
We drive to the mines, hoping to spot him from higher on the mountain. We glass far out into the Hell ‘n Gone and see part of Duke’s large band, but not his oldest mare, Madonna, or her daughters, Meriwether and Lariat.
We spot the bachelor band of Hamlet, Inali, London. and Knight high up to our right. Below them, we catch a glimpse of the new band stallion, Hernando, with Cloud’s mother Phoenix and my Trace’s mother, War Bonnet. They were part of Diamond’s band. The 20 year-old brother of Cloud lost his family likely in February, during the bitterest part of the harshest winter in nearly 20 years.
We drive back down from the mines and I spot a blaze-faced blue roan on the side slope of a canyon. There is only one horse in the Pryors that this can be—Mato Ska! Cloud’s two-year old son is grazing on the abundance of new grass. I can’t remember a year when there was this much forage, a by-product of all the snow and rain. Mato Ska means “silver bear” in the Lakota language, and the colt is just that. His body is a silvery white and he looks well, but small out here all alone. When Cloud was his age he was kicked out of the family by his father, Raven.
Cloud seemed somehow older, more mature and confident than this sweet-faced colt. Where’s your Dad? I ask him silently. If he knows, he’s not saying.
We drive down, looking everywhere for Cloud. Above the water catchment, Feldspar, Encore, and Ingrid are grazing and Doc is lying down. It is as if the mares are waiting for Cloud to return.
At the base of the red road, Casper and his band are licking minerals and his two year-old son, McKeahnie, is courting Cloud’s sister, Mariah. Casper seems to turn a blind eye to his precocious son, but I imagine young McKeahnie may soon find himself kicked out of the band.
Perhaps he can buddy up with Mato Ska, I silently hope.
As the light fades, we continue downhill. At the gate of the horse range we see a horse backlit on a bare hilltop. When he slides down the rocky hill I recognize Knight! And to our left are his bachelor buddies, Hamlet, Inali and London. Knight crosses in front of us and all four head east toward the mouth of Big Coulee.
The bachelors traveled from above the mines to the very bottom of the range. “Be careful Garcia,” I whisper as we watch the bachelors trotting toward the mouth of Big Coulee canyon where we had seen Garcia’s little band yesterday.
The next morning is cloudy but dry. Rain is expected in the afternoon. Again, we glass up at the mines from below the red hill. We spot Galaxy and Jackson’s bands. Past the red hill, we stop at the water catchment and see Mato Ska heading down. We watch him making his way to the catchment to drink.
He continues to the catchment to drink, then grazes and rubs on a juniper tree made smooth from generations of wild horse use. After some time, we leave the colt and begin hiking the area in our search of his father. Ann and I split up, each with a walkie-talkie in hand. We independently search the many groves of junipers in the area, looking for any signs of Cloud. While Ann walks a southerly route around the bottom of the high red hill that overlooks Big Coulee and lower Sykes Ridge, Quinn and I head north.
We drop down into a dry stream bed near an area I named Raven’s Secret Waterhole nearly 19 years ago. It is a naturally carved out bowl of rock beneath a juniper where water collects. When Cloud was only a couple of weeks old, I followed the family to this wonderful hidden pool.
Fresh horse droppings in the sandy bottom entice me to continue down the dry gulch that I believe empties into Big Coulee. Canyon walls rise higher on both sides of me and, when I see a low spot to climb up to the north I take it. I try to traverse higher, slipping around cliff faces and small caves. I spot a small rabbit in a cave and he pops back into the dark, but not before Quinn spots it too. A quick whistle brings Quinn back and we continue to the top of the rocky hill. The horse droppings up here are disappointingly old, but I keep going, heading east toward Big Coulee, dropping down and around several shallow canyons on the way. Now the narrow streambed is far below.
As I round a corner, I have a good view of the hill to the south, across the streambed. There are horse trails that contour the grassy side slope above Big Coulee. I wonder if the horses use that trail to drop down into the big canyon? Might Cloud have done that if he is injured?
Glancing around, I see a way down into the creek bed and take it. It is steep, but there are junipers to hang on to. As I clumsily struggle downhill, Quinn descends with the ease of a seasoned mountain climber. Show off, I think, happy to have his loyal companionship. Once down in the streambed, I find the beginning of a horse trail going up on the other side and believe it to be the contour trail.
The horses always seem to find the easiest route, I remind myself. This trail, however, seems more suited to mountain goats.
The blue forget-me-nots are blooming on the hillside and their feathered counterparts, the mountain blue birds, are flitting from juniper to juniper. I can see horses across Big Coulee. It is the band stallion Fools Crow and his two young mares. Later I learned that both mares have foals but I didn’t see either and hope they were just sleeping or hidden in the bushes and rocks.
As I continue up hill, traversing the slope, the trail seems to peter out. I look around and take the only way I can see to go, and that is straight up over the rocks. “It is a mountain goat trail!” I say out loud. But, if the horses can do it, and I believe they can and have, then I can do it too. In a matter of seconds I am on top of a ridge that leads to the big red hill that Ann has been hiking around. I can see her standing above me, and head uphill, anxious to hear what she may have found.
When we meet up, we both have the same story to report—no sign of Cloud or any horses spotted on this side of Big Coulee. But, I’m confident of one thing. Cloud is not in this area or we would have seen him. As we head back to the base of the hill where the fight occurred, I hear a distant horse whinny and turn toward the sound. The smell of horse fills my nostrils. I stop and listen, breathing in the pungent odor. Searching the area produces no results and I wonder, am I hallucinating or did I really hear a call? It seemed to come from downhill, toward the south.
Back at the road we drive uphill and park on the mines hill where we begin to glass once more. We get a glimpse of Phoenix, War Bonnet and Hernando on a ridgeline above several canyons. When I pan the spotting scope to the right I can see a bright white spot. It is Encore foraging above a cliff face in a grove of broken trees with other horses. Something isn’t right. She is with a roan and a bay and two blacks. My heart skips a beat. Encore has been stolen by Hamlet and the bachelor stallions.
Hamlet, is the largest and oldest of the band and he assumed leadership of the younger males when Hernando left. Hamlet defends and herds them as if they were mares. The two youngest in the band are London and Knight. Ironically, both their mothers died when they were less than a year old. Knight made friends with the giant bachelors, Hernando and Hamlet, as a foal. The sight of the tiny dun roan with the two biggest horses on the Pryor Mountains always made me smile.
Last summer Hernando broke away from the bachelor band and started acting like a serious challenger.
We continue to watch and notice that Hamlet is on high alert, staring intently up hill then taking off at a determined trot. I pan right to see movement in the taller trees. It’s Flint’s stunning grullo son, Jasper. Hamlet is vigilant, keeping five-year-old Jasper far from “his family.”
There is no question what we have to do. We need to get closer to see if Encore is all right. We drive up to the open ridges of Tillett and find Feldspar and Ingrid with Doc trailing along behind them. The mares seem to be wandering in circles with the big bay dutifully following them.
He clearly has no control over them and they are not one bit interested in him. Questions fly through my mind: Are the mares looking for Cloud? Can Doc defend them from another stallion? He certainly wasn’t able to keep Encore with the band.
Ann and I begin hiking out on the ridge where we hope to spot Encore and the boys. As we walk, the wind comes up with a fury, blowing the pelting rain in sideways sheets. I put Quinn on lead to keep him close and we continue.
Through the trees, we see Encore standing next to Knight. When Inali approaches them, Knight wheels, rears, and kicks Inali squarely in the side. The older bachelor backs off. As we watch, hidden behind the trees, we don’t notice Hamlet dashing at us from our left. He is just feet away when I throw up my hands.
The big black spins to avoid colliding with us and dashes away. We believe Hamlet thought we were Jasper lurking in the trees. When he saw two humans and a small dog, he immediately wheeled around, crashing away through the bushes.
We try to take pictures in the driving rain but our lenses keep fogging up. We can see Encore standing right next to Knight with their butts into the wind and rain.
She looks so small, like a drowned rat, but appears unscathed. We back away and start hiking uphill to the UTV. It is a miserable walk.
On Saturday, we start back up Tillett. This will be our last chance to find Cloud and we want to make the most of it. As in days past, we see Galaxy and Jackson near the road. Firestorm (left) still hasn’t foaled. And two-year-old Maia in Galaxy’s band looks pregnant. I hope she can hold off until the weather clears. She is the beautiful, dun roan daughter of Hera and Prince, the dun stallion featured in Cloud, Challenge of the Stallions.
We meet up with Nancy Cerroni, her son, Matthew Dillon and Matt’s wife Kim who graciously join our search. Matt helped me to film Challenge of the Stallions, hiking long miles, sometimes in deep snow, while carrying a boat anchor of a tripod.
Matt and Kim hike the entire ridgeline from above the mines to the area where Nancy witnessed the big battle by the water catchment. They keep checking east along the Big Coulee side and the canyon to their west with no luck. Nancy, Matt and Kim wisely leave the mountain before the predicted afternoon rains come again. Ann and I stay.
We drive from the catchment back up to the mines as the wind and rain begin. In the same area as the day before, we see Phoenix, War Bonnet and Hernando. I turn the UTV sideways to the ridgeline so both Ann and I can watch the horses from inside the UTV as I prop the door open with my foot.
To the right of Hernando we can see Encore. It is such a relief just to see her. I wish Hernando would come sweep her up and bring her to her grandmother, Phoenix. I know the nurturing old mare would take care of her and I doubt any stallion will challenge the giant Hernando.
But I doubt this will happen. Hernando and Hamlet grew up together in the Forest Service Lands before they were fenced out of their historic range by the Custer National Forest. (In April, TCF appealed the decision allowing the fence to stand.) I watch the two blacks graze together as Encore and Knight move away.
In the distance, I notice something light-colored. Is it a horse? I continue to stare at the object for the longest time. Then I see a dark head with a big blaze pop up. It is Mato Ska and he is staring at his little sister. I will never forget this poignant moment. It is unlikely that either will ever go home again.
We leave the mountain in the rain once more. Lingering worries plague me. I know I have to go back soon. What I will find is anyone’s guess. It has always been this way, for we are only watchers. Nature is the boss. I will tell you what I find. In the meantime, keep these wonderful wild souls in your thoughts and prayers.
Happy Trails, Ginger