Viewing wild horses …

19 01 2008

Kiowa and Reya

Kiowa and Reya move away from me after I walked up a ridge to look for Ceal and Shadow. This photo was not cropped but was taken with a 100-400 mm lens at close to the 400 mm setting. Taken Dec. 16, 2007. 

A good article about wild horses is in the February 2008 issue of Western Horseman magazine. The author, a WH senior editor, attended a photography workshop last year with photographer Lynne Pomeranz, author of Among Wild Horses. Lynne is a fine-art photographer and wild horse advocate who lives in New Mexico. I was fortunate to meet her during a book-signing in Craig last May. The article contains some tips about wild horse viewing that I would like to reiterate and expand upon.

Wild horses are wild. Would you expect to walk up to a bison in Yellowstone National Park with your Kodak point-and-shoot camera? (Please, answer no.) Do not expect to be able to walk up to a wild horse. Horses are a “flight” species and have evolved as prey – for mountain lions, wolves, coyotes … humans. They would rather run away from you than fight you, but keep in mind that a mama with a foal and a stallion with a band of mares and foals are going to do whatever they think is necessary to stay away from you.

Keep this in mind: You can try to get so close that the only photos you get are of horses’ butts as they’re running away from you, or you can respect their space, stay a fair distance away and get photos of them interacting with each other. Some bands will give you some benefit of the doubt and just stand and watch you – as long as you don’t approach too closely. But when they decide to leave, count on them running far and fast away from you.

Vehicles can often be used as a “blind” from which to shoot. Also keep in mind that the road through the herd area is not maintained, and you travel at your own risk. The road is usually fine from late spring through fall, depending on the weather, but four-wheel drive is usually recommended because of the soft sand and creek crossings through some arroyos.

Please do not harass horses, especially pregnant and/or nursing mares. (By the way, harassing wild horses is against the law.)

Do not yell or flap your arms around the horses to get a better expression. I’ve seen horses seemingly napping, hind leg cocked, tail lazily swishing at flies, but do not for a second think that they’re not following your every move. On the other hand, do not act like a silent predator and stalk them, then suddenly spring up out of an arroyo. I do use the arroyos quite a bit to get around, but I try to do it in such a way that the horses never know I’m there.

A bit about equipment: I use a Canon digital SLR camera with a 100-400 mm lens. I don’t HAVE to get right up on them to get a good photo. The crop tool in your photo editing program is a lovely thing. I also use a monopod to steady the camera and lens.

Seven’s family in the snowy basin

The above photo is a good example of the power of the (long) lens. It was taken at the 100 mm end of my lens’ capability.

Seven’s family, closer 

This photo was taken from a little bit closer as I walked parallel to them following a road, closer to the 400 mm end. It also was cropped.

Bottom line, the key word here is respect. If the horses “tell” you you’re too close, back off (or watch as they leave). In the snowy environment that is now the basin, I am particularly careful to stay away from the horses. The only reason I took these photos of Seven’s family was opportunity; I didn’t know they were there until I suddenly saw them below the road – at the same time they saw me. I saw 24 horses that day, but these were the only ones I was close enough to photograph. When they moved on, I did not pursue them.

When taking the photos of the pintos, I pushed my lens to its limit and later cropped judiciously. I was farther from the horses than the photos indicate, and when they trotted away through the snow, I let them go. A benefit to that was that if I HAD pursued them, I would have missed the opportunity of seeing them trot across the far ridge against the stunning backdrop of the La Sal Mountains! Only because I was looking for the very thin mare Ceal did I go even as close to them as I did.

On snowshoes in the basin

18 01 2008

Seven’s family in the snow

(Seven, Houdini, Two Boots and, just barely, Twister in Spring Creek Basin.)

Dec. 29 was my last visit to the basin. The conditions were about the same as on Dec. 16: sunny and in the lower 20s. I was able to drive into the herd area, staying in the tracks of other drivers, notably a Division of Wildlife officer I talked with on  my way in. I parked past the water catchment and continued on wearing my snowshoes (always listen to your mother!). Alpha and Steeldust, the big grey stallion that is currently the dominant stallion in the area with three mature mares, two young mares, a young stallion and two 2007 foals, were soaking up the sunshine on a hill just northeast of the first main road intersection. I watched them through the binoculars but didn’t go close to them.

My main goal was to find Grey (Traveler), as I had not seen him since a November camping trip. I saw 24 horses that day, but I never did see Grey. A single dark horse, possibly bay, was down to the southwest, on a ridge probably near the corrals off the county road. It could have been any of the bachelors, and although I saw only that one horse, I think it is likely there were others below the ridge out of my sight.

Walking along a road that goes past my favorite water hole, I came upon Seven, the released 7-year-old grey stallion, and his family: Houdini, Two Boots and Twister:

Seven’s family

(From left, Seven, Houdini, Two Boots and Twister. You can see in this photo that Two Boots is much bigger than Twister. Seven is just gorgeous in his winter-silver coat. I am sure Seven is a son of Grey’s.)

They saw me as I saw them, as they were down low on the north side of the road. We all stopped, but they weren’t too bothered by me. I took photos and walked along the road, stopping now and then to take more photos. As long as I was walking parallel to them, they didn’t seem to mind (maybe by now they’re used to my two-legged presence in the basin), but when the road curved and took me slightly toward them, Seven decided enough was enough, and he led his family away to the northeast.

This group has an interesting story – a couple of interesting stories, I guess. I named Seven “Seven” because I got tired of referring to him as “the 7-year-old grey released stallion”; also, I’m a lurking Star Trek fan. Yes, I know he won’t be “7” forever, but his 7-year-old year had to be a memorable one. He was captured – and released – and he found himself a family.

Houdini became “Houdini” after I realized who she was. She had been with a band of horses in April led by a Grey look-like I called Junior (although I no longer believe him to be a son of Grey’s). Junior’s band was captured (some thought Junior was Traveler because the “strawberry roan” mare was with his group) – obviously, Houdini escaped, hence her name. She is one of the first I named post-gather. I still have not been able to determine the gender of her foal (I’m starting to think filly), but I named her Two Boots, both for her two hind socks and in honor of a Pryor Mountain stallion named Two Boots, which I saw while visiting in September 2007.

Houdini and Two Boots

(Houdini with baby Two Boots in April 2007.)

And then there’s Twister, the orphan.

I first saw Twister in mid-October, with two pintos. Although my first thought was “stallion, mare, foal,” there was the nagging question of how two dark bay pintos had produced a rose grey foal. Then I recognized one pinto as a stallion I had seen with a bachelor group in April: Corazon, for the top part of a “heart” on his left side. Then I realized the other pinto also was a stallion! Whoa! What’s the story here?

Twister with Corazon and Cinch 

(Twister, left, with Corazon and Cinch, who is almost out of the frame at right.)

My theory is that Twister’s dam was gathered, and he was somehow missed. He’s rather small (especially compared with Two Boots), so he may have been born late in the season and just couldn’t keep up. With his coloring, he would have blended in with the ground as viewed from a helicopter. Kudos to these two stallions (I named the darker one Cinch for the belt-like markings on his right side and neck) for taking this youngster in, although I’m sure he’ll always be small from lack of nutrition. Then, in early November, I found Twister (for the orphan Oliver Twist) with Houdini’s family! Now that’s a good match. Twister adores Two Boots and follows her everywhere, sticking closer to her than even Houdini or Seven.

It should be noted that, from a distance, it’s easy to confuse Traveler and Houdini, as they are both light grey with dark manes and tails (although Traveler’s mane and tail are darker). And some of the bachelor boys Traveler has been with match Seven and the foals. Again, this is from a distance, like looking through binoculars, because it’s hard to judge the size of the foals from that far away.

Two Boots is very dark right now, almost black, but s/he has shown some lightening of her coat from her baby pictures. In addition to her socks, she has a large star and “coon tail” markings or “white ticking” at the top of her tail in the form of horizontal bars – quite distinctive.

The duns – Hollywood (released stallion) and his mare, Jif – were east of Alpha’s band.

Duns with Alpha’s family

(This photo does double duty: That’s Hollywood at right and Jif at left with Alpha and Steeldust’s band in the background. Alpha is at far right – “white,” for sake of identification – and Steeldust is the grey by Jif’s right front knee. This photo was taken in mid-October 2007.) 

I’ve been doing some research on “dun” vs. “buckskin,” and I found that duns can, indeed, have black points. Hollywood is a classic dun, with a multi-colored mane that many women would die for  – and pay for at beauty salons! – awesome zebra stripes on his legs and a dorsal stripe. I named him Hollywood after the Quarter Horse stallion Hollywood Dun It and because he’s so flashy with his half-star and hind sock and fetlock – and those zebra stripes! During my color research, I came across the term “peanut butter dun” (no kidding), which matches Jif exactly – hence her name! (I hope some of these names give you a chuckle; as I have said, the names are not official.) She also has zebra striping on her legs and a dorsal stripe, and her face exhibits a “sooty” coloration (which I’ve read buckskins do NOT have). She and Hollywood were seen hanging out with three of the “Bachelor 7” in November, but they seem to have returned to their solitary ways.

I don’t know the name of the low hill west of Round Top – or if it has a name – but I skirted it on the north side, then climbed a shoulder where I could look down on the saddle between it and Round Top. My goal was to get high and try to spot horses, which are commonly seen in the area north of there. It looked more climbable, given the snow and my snowshoes, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stop a time or four on my way up. From about halfway up, I spotted Seven’s band moving north into an open area … with another band coming from the north, toward them. After some long moments staring through the binocs, I identified them: Bounce, the released black stallion, Slate, the released grulla mare, and Alegre, the very pretty dark grey mare I think is a daughter of Grey and Alpha. I was happy to see them because they were among the last horses I documented. I’ve seen them a few times now, but they’re among my favorites. Grey and Alpha had a grey daughter a few years ago I called Flash for her flash-lightning style face marking. Alegre looks almost identical to her. Slate got the PZP along with the other released mares, but her brand – on the top of her left hip – is the only one I’ve been able to actually see and photograph. Slate may be an obvious name. She was aged at 5. I think, based on how dark Alegre is, that this may be her first foal. I do not know if Bounce had these mares before the gather, so the sire of their foals is unknown. (Feb. 15: Updated information: Claude Steelman, who was at the gather every day, has a photo of Bounce and Slate coming to the trap together, so they were together at least immediately before the roundup, and he may be the sire of her foal.)


(Bounce shows off the suspension that earned him his name. Photo taken in November 2007.)

When you see Bounce for yourself, you’ll know exactly the reason behind his name! This boy was aged at 20 at the August gather. All the horses were lean then, and I would have believed he was older. He seems to be a different “type” than most of the other horses, and I’ve never seen another that had as much bounce to his step. If he IS 20, the years have been kind to him.

Seven and Bounce eventually came together out the open, and their squeals carried to me, far away on the hillside, where I sat on a pricky sage bush to avoid the snow. There was some striking, but although I watched the entire encounter through the binoculars, I didn’t see any real violence. After a few minutes, they moseyed on – Seven and family continuing to the northeast, and Bounce and girls continuing on to the southwest.

When I was up on top of the hill, two reddish-colored coyotes came up from the south side, saw me and went back down, but otherwise, I didn’t see any more horses from the top of the hill. However, there were some snowed-over horse tracks and an old manure pile up there, which kind of surprised me.

I could see the corral along the county road from the top of the hill, and it was easy to distinguish the larger horse tracks from the smaller deer and/or elk tracks, but I didn’t see any more horses until I was on the road past the water hole again.

Five horses were working their way up the hill where Alpha’s band had previously been. I could not identify them for sure because of distance, but I believe it was four of the Bachelor 7. That group consists of Grey/Traveler; a mahogany bay stallion with a large star and left hind sock named Duke (I believe he is the dominant one of that group); a bright bay stallion with an upside-down aspen-leaf star named, appropriately, Aspen; a medium grey stallion with a blaze and four stockings named Chrome; a rose grey stallion with star, strip and a snip that hooks between his nostrils named Hook; a brownish-grey stallion I named Mouse (I saw him with Corazon in April); and another brownish-grey I named Comanche. Comanche and Mouse are the same shade of brownish grey – likely born bay and turning grey. A young mare in Steeldust’s band I call Piedra (named after the local river and because she has a gem-shaped star) has the same coloring. This color is not to be confused with roan or grulla, as these horses will become more and more grey, eventually “white” like Alpha and Houdini (and Grey). Comanche differs from Mouse by being stouter and with a lighter face. Mouse has a curious “smoke spot” on the left side of his nasal bone, about where a caveson would go.

Speaking of roan, I heard someone at the gather say of the grey horses, “Oh, I just call them all roans.” I have seen greys, bays, blacks, sorrels, duns, buckskins, pintos, a seal brown mare and a grulla in Spring Creek Basin, but I have not seen a single roan horse in the area.

As a side note, the cattle are on the range; I don’t know how many. There seemed to be a lot, and when I saw them, they were all in the northwest, around the area where the trap site was last August. They’ll be there through February, I think.

Snowbound basin

18 01 2008

Pintos against La Sals

Dec. 16 was sunny and fairly mild, with temperatures in the lower 20s. I did not expect to encounter so much snow, so I left my snowshoes in the Jeep. Far enough in to decide not to turn back, I wished I had them!

I knew the pintos prefer the southern area of the herd area, and I had not seen them my previous few visits, so I chose to hike in to that area. Also, the far southern end is an area with which I am not as familiar as other parts of the basin. I had previously seen the pintos – stallion Bruiser, mare Kiowa and her foal, Reya, and mare Chipeta – with a seal brown mare I call Ceal. The first time I saw Ceal was in May 2004 up in the northeastern part of the herd area; I also saw her in April 2007 when two bands of pintos merged briefly in the very southern end.

Ceal and her 2007 black filly, Shadow, were with Bruiser’s band in October, but when I first saw the pintos through the binoculars on this trip, I didn’t see Ceal, so I decided to go closer in case she was hidden behind a hill nearby.

Chipeta and Kiowa

(Chipeta, foreground with the big snip, was named after Chief Ouray’s wife. I saw her in April with a mature horse I now think may have been her dam. I think she’ll probably be 3 this spring, and I do not think she is pregnant. Kiowa, in the background, was named after an Indian tribe known for their horsemanship. She had a foal when I saw her in April, has a foal now – Reya – and looks pregnant.)

Pintos against the La Sals

(Chipeta follows Kiowa and Reya along a snow-covered ridge in the southern end of the herd area. The stallion is not far behind. The mountains in the far distance are the La Sal Mountains in Utah.) 

Ceal was not with the pintos, but when they moved off across a ridge in the photos, I discovered Ceal and Shadow below that ridge against a small hill. Ceal is extremely thin, and I am worried about her ability to make it through the winter. If she does not make it, I hope the pintos adopt Shadow.

During my time in the snow, I also saw horses way up to the north, on the northeastern side of the hill called Round Top. They may have been Houdini and her family, but I couldn’t tell because of the distance and light glare.

I did realize that the southern end probably gets much more snow than the northern portion of the herd area – there are more trees and the topography features more hills – so I doubt the area is much used by the horses during the winter.

Hello, mustangers!

18 01 2008

Grey’s family

(I call this stallion Grey, but he is more commonly known as Traveler. At least I thought he was commonly known until he was sent to Canon City after we’d been told he’d stay. This photo was taken in April 2007. With 10 horses in his band (including him), his was the second-largest band in the herd area at the time.)

I’m TJ, a devoted fan of the wild horses of Spring Creek Basin, a Bureau of Land Management herd area in Southwest Colorado’s Disappointment Valley. This is in no way intended to be an official site and is not affiliated with the BLM. For official information, call the Dolores Public Lands Office at (970) 882-7296.

Since the August 2007 gather, during which almost 70 horses were penned, I have become more aware of the controversies surrounding wild horses in the West. To date, I have visited the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range near Grand Junction, Colo., the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in southern Montana and near Lovell, Wyo., and the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area near Cody Wyo. Future visits are planned to the Sand Wash Basin and Piceance Basin herd management areas in northwestern Colorado, as well as to the Jicarilla Wild Horse Territory in northwestern New Mexico. I have found that with more documentation of horses in the particular herds, it is possible to conduct roundups that are more calm and less stressful on the horses and that result in fewer injuries. To that end, I started a documentation project of the Spring Creek Basin wild horses in September 2007, on the day of the release of the wild stallion known as Traveler.

I call the stallion Grey, so my blog will likely use Grey/Traveler interchangeably (when I forget to type “Traveler” and type Grey instead). Grey has his own special story. He had long been a dominant band stallion in the basin and was very popular with visitors. Advocates at a public meeting with a BLM official before the roundup were told he would stay in the herd area. However, he was sent to Canon City, to the wild horse and burro facility the BLM maintains at a prison there. A representative of the Spring Creek Basin chapter of the National Mustang Association, a representative of the San Juan Mountains Association (a partner with the San Juan National Forest) and I went to Canon City to identify him and bring him home. A two-week quarantine turned into three weeks, and it was four weeks and one day (of total captivity) before he was released back into the area. Photos taken in 2005 show that Grey was aged at 10; in 2007, he was aged at 17 (good thing the rest of us don’t age that fast!). He is likely at least 14, and with a number of younger bachelor stallions in the basin now, his chances at having another band are slim; not the kind of glorious homecoming I had envisioned for this wonderful horse. Only one horse from his original band, a grey mare I call Alpha, was released. She has established herself as the alpha mare in Steeldust’s band. She knows how to choose ‘em; Steeldust, also a grey stallion, is currently the dominant stallion in the area with a band of nine (including him).

Ten horses were released immediately after the gather: a black stallion, a dun stallion, a grey stallion and a pinto stallion, two pinto mares and a pinto foal, Alpha, a grulla mare and a muley bay mare. Although advocates were concerned that there were not enough horses in the herd area to meet the minimum “appropriate management level” number of 35, I have documented more than 40 horses. At least eight mares are pregnant. The five released mares all were given the PZP-22 immunocontraceptive. It should not affect their pregnancies, but it should prevent them from becoming pregnant during the next two seasons.

It probably is not my place to do this, but no one else – including the BLM – has documented the horses to the extent I have (to my current knowledge), so I’ve started naming them. It’s easier to talk about Houdini than “that grey mare that was with Junior in the spring that looks like Grey from a distance.” Houdini – and her foal, Two Boots – were in a band with a stallion I called Junior (because of his resemblance to Traveler) in April. Junior’s band was gathered, but Houdini and her foal managed to escape, hence “Houdini.” I’ll refer to the horses by name as I come to them and try to share the reasons behind the names I have given them.

We got a lot of snow in early January, and for various reasons, I haven’t been able to get out to the herd area since Dec. 29. I’ll share some of those December photos – hopefully it will help me figure out the layout of this blog.

 My goal for this blog is to enable folks who know about the horses but for whatever reason are not able to get into the herd area to still keep in touch with them. When I first went to the basin in the fall of 2002, I wasn’t real impressed. Now, it’s one of my favorite places on Earth. If you don’t know the horses, I hope this will make you more familiar with them. As you get to know them, I hope you will be moved to do whatever you can to ensure their protection. Like Grey, they each have a story to tell.