A Journey to the Mountaintop

Every summer I make the long journey to the Pryor Mountains of Montana.  The top of the mountain holds a fascination for me that I just can’t seem to let go of.  As long as the Lord is willing, I will continue to journey to this amazing place.

I have never gone to the mountain top alone.  Each year I take someone special with me.  This year I had the pleasure of taking my sister with me on this grand adventure.  She has always heard me talk about the mountain, the wild horses and the sheer joy I feel when I am there.  I could hardly wait to share this Montana wilderness experience with her.  I wanted her to soak it all in.  To understand what draws me to this magnificent piece of heaven here on earth.  I wanted her to take in the sights, the smells and the sounds of this intriguing place.  I wanted her to feel the exhileration at seeing her first wild horse in person.  As we left her driveway, loaded down with our tent, sleeping bags, cooler of food and clothes for every temperature, we asked our Lord and Savior to be our Guide on this journey.  We asked that He help us to keep our eyes and our hearts open to His will, not ours.  We asked Him for guidance and leadership.

We had always talked about taking a trip together, just the two of us.  We were finally  doing it.  By the time we reached South Dakota, reality was finally sinking in that we were actually doing this!  Even though I have gone on this journey many times, each time has it’s own unique experiences that make it fresh, new and thoroughly exciting.  And it was fun to see it through my sisters eyes.  On the drive over the Bighorn mountains through Eastern Wyoming, we started to see some of the traits that the Pryor Mountains have.  There was meadow after meadow of mountain lupine.  We stopped to take in the view when the snow capped Bighorns came in to view.

My original plan for this trip was to go to the Pryor Mountains to see Image and Ember’s families first.  But I also have to keep an open mind and be flexible for possible obstacles along the way.  I had been in contact with the local Park Rangers to check on the road conditions on the mountain.  With the heavy snow of the winter, the roads were taking longer to clear and dry up than they had in past years.  I learned that one of the ‘safer’ roads was under repairs for the entire summer.  And the safest road to the top of the mountain was rather iffy due to deep ruts made by careless drivers when they were wet and muddy.  That left Burnt Timber Road.  Hmm.  That road (it is called a road, but it resembles more of a rough rocky path) has just continued to deteriorate over the years and has not been as safe to travel on.  My gut (I have learned to trust my gut and my instincts over the years.  I truly believe that is Gods way of telling me what He wants me to do or not do, along with reading His Word) was telling me to give the safer roads a few more days to dry out before heading to the top.  I listened and we changed our plans to spend the first couple of days at the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Range outside of Cody, WY.  I love these horses, with their different pinto patterns, beautiful sorrel colors and bulky bodies.  The terrain of the Peaks is much different than the top of the Pryors.  It is more of a desert with sage brush, cacti and snakes.  There is a main road that runs through the center of the horse range.  Then there are 2-tracks that run off of this main road.  It is advisable to have a higher clearance and a 4WD vehicle for these 2-tracks.  As Sandy and I headed into the Peaks, we glassed over the terrain that always confuses me.  The many hills blend into one as you look out over the vast range.  During the time we were there, we saw many cows that are allowed to graze on public lands.

When the cows are there, the BLM closes some of the many fences that are intertwined within the wild horse range to keep the cows in certain areas.  This, in turn, alters the movements of the wild horses as they are not able to move freely throughout the entire range.

We made our way past the cows and a little deeper in the wild horse range, looking for the horses.  As we bumped along on the 2-track, we strained our eyes, looking over the tops of the sage brush for horses.  It seemed like we had gone forever when Sandy said excitedly “There are horses over there!”  We stopped the car and looked through our binoculars over the landscape to where she saw the horses.

Sure enough there were tiny dots in the far distance.  Now, how do we get to them?  The tracks do not make straight paths, but tend to wind their way around and around.  With the tall sage brush it is impossible to know where they will lead unless you travel down them.  With paper and pen, Sandy started to make a map as we traveled the trails, noting when we intersected another 2-track.  She was careful to note any landmarks that would help us find our way back out of the maze of tracks.  We finally got a closer look at the horses.

We were very careful to not make any sudden noises and movements that would scare the horses off.  It was fun to watch this large band.  They had just finished watering and were heading out to have a mid-morning snooze.  I just love these pintos with their intricate shaped patterns that resemble jigsaw puzzle pieces.  We spent some time with this band of gorgeous horses, watching their behaviors.  All the while I was keeping an eye on the weather.  Having gone fishing with my Dad on the Great Lakes many times while growing up, he taught me how to read the weather in the clouds and listen to them.  So with one eye on a growing storm that was brewing to our southeast, we started to make our way back to the car and to work our way back out of the horse range.  I figured it would be about an hour before the storm hit the East entrance to the horse range.  And it would take us a good 45 minutes to work our way back out of there.  Even though we hated to leave the horses that we had just found, I am a firm believer that safety comes first.  We made our way back out, following Sandy’s carefully drawn map with wonderful details.

As I had figured, just a few minutes after we were back on the safety of the paved highway, the storm hit the horse range where had just been.  We watched the storm for awhile, watching to see what path it would take.  It did not look like it was going to hit the main portion of the wild horse range, so we headed to the main paved road that runs through the center of the range.  We found a small band of bachelors that were hanging out together.

They shared a bond that was pretty special to watch.  I contemplated the friendship that these guys had formed.  We watched as the last bit of sun slowly dipped down below the horizon.  As the sky lit up in gorgeous tones of red and orange, I was inspired to create this piece of “photo fusion”.

I call it “Trail of the Setting Sun” in honor these magnificent wild horses.

The next morning we headed back out to the Peaks.  We found a different small band of bachelors.  They were content to graze on top of a hill where they could take in the sights all around them.  This magnificent brown and white pinto stallion had his family ripped from him during the 2009 round up.  He has not been able to win a mare since then.  So he hangs out with a couple of other bachelors.  My heart cried out to him in all that he had lost.  But at least he still had his freedom…

We headed deeper into the vast wild horse range and could see a little movement in the distance, so we looked for a 2-track that would take us closer to them.  At closer look it was another group of bachelors at a water hole.  To my surprise Washakie was there too and he had a family with him!  Washakie is another stallion who had lost his entire band in the round up of 2009.

He had a family again!  Washakie is one of those wild stallions you can’t help but admire.  He is a stunning presence in his wild environment.  We watched him for some time.  He had a mare with him that looked different.  We kept looking at this sorrel mare, thinking she did not quite fit in.  We found out later than she was a domestic horse that someone had dumped off at the wild horse range…

It was soon time to leave the McCullough Peaks and head north to the Pryor Mountains.  We arrived at the base of the mountain in late afternoon with the intent to head up very early the next morning.  Our plan was to start up via Pryor Mountain Rd heading out of Bridger, MT.  The deep ruts in the road were within the Crow Indian Reservation close to the bottom of the mountain.  If the ruts were too deep for the clearance on my SUV, we would simply turn around and head up via Burnt Timber Rd.  (Not an option I was thrilled with, but it was doable if I took my time and calculated every move up the sharp rocks of the road.)  Very early the next morning, we started on this next stage of our great adventure.  As we started out, we again asked God for guidance and wisdom to make the right decisions.  As we approached the section of the road that was suppose to be bad with ruts, I was a little surprised at how easy it was to drive on.  Thank you Lord!  (I later found out that they had just graded the road the day before we headed up the mountain.  Again, thank you Lord for Your wisdom and my willingness to listen to You and wait on Your timing.)  We slowly made our way up Pryor Mountain Rd through the Custer National Forest.  We marveled at the beauty that surrounded us at every turn of the road.  As we ascended the mountain, the wildflowers started to dot the road side and the meadows off the road.  It was truly a glorious site.

As we reached the top of the mountain near the Dryhead Overlook, it was sad that we had not seen any wild horses yet.  The Custer National Forest does not want the wild horses on the land they manage and orchestrated that the fence, that had been in disrepair for decades with openings for the horses to travel through, bordering the Pryor Mountain Horse Range and the Forest Service Land be reconstructed to keep the wild horses on the Eastern side of the mountain.  It was not taken into consideration that these wild horses have roamed the Forest Service Land for decades, dating back to before the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act was put into place.  As we continued on the road, there were some sharp rocks to maneuver around, but nothing too bad.  Again, if taken the time to carefully work the tires around them or over them, all was fine.  We soon came to a gorgeous wildflower covered meadow that had always had wild horses grazing in it in the past.  It was an eerie feeling that they were not there.  Is this a sign of things to come?  A landscape with no wild horses?

As we continued, we came upon the new fence that had been constructed the summer before.  My heart sank at the reality that the wild horses that I have come to know and love were cut off from their late summer grazing land.  My mind raced with thoughts of how will they react to not being able to graze where their ancestors had always grazed?  Will they push the boundaries?  Will they struggle to get to the other side of the fence?  Will any of them be hurt in the process?   What does this mean for their future?  These were all thoughts I had contemplated before as I had known about the plan to construct the fence.  But seeing it in person put it into complete perspective of what this means to the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains.

We started to scan the meadows for horses and as soon as we neared the junction of Pryor Mountain Rd with Burnt Timber Rd. we saw a band of bachelors grazing.  As we watched them, out of the trees came Cloud.  He had come to play with the bachelors and to let them know they were not allowed anywhere near his family!

We headed on down the road, slowly making our way over the sharp rocks that jut out of the road, keeping a look out for more horses.  We spotted Bolder (Cloud’s son) with his band in a fantastic meadow that is a favorite of the wild horses in the summer.  They were all taking naps.

Jewel and Echo (Bolder’s 2 year old daughter and yearling son) were laying close to each other as they napped.  After some time, they each got up and stretched out their legs.

Echo went over to one of the mares in the band and wanted to play with her.  Is that Velvet?  Bolder now had Cloud’s lead mare Velvet!  That was interesting.  I wonder how that happened.  Was it her choice to be with Bolder or did he steal her away?  I have come to learn that if a mare does not want to stay with a stallion, he is pretty much powerless to keep her.  The lead mare in a band calls most of the shots.

As I looked up, I could see Mascalero escorting a band of rowdy bachelors away from his family.

As the bachelors made their way into the meadow where Bolder had his family, Bolder came to attention to see if the boys needed any help in leaving the area.

As the bachelors tore through the area, clearly just having some fun, they posed no threat to Bolder and his family.  Bolder was still very much aware of their every move though.

Soon Cloud moved his band into the meadow as well.

With so much activity, Bolder moved his family completely out of the area heading toward Penn’s Cabin.

We watched the horses a little longer and then decided we had better start thinking about making camp.  We settled on a nice little area with some protection of the trees.

In the late afternoon, I could see storm clouds to the North West.  Keeping an eye on the approaching storm, we decided we had better make our way back to the vehicle and then to camp.  We were glad we had set up camp when we did.  After the storm passed through, the sun came back out to give us a gorgeous rainbow.  And as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, a lone stallion was quietly grazing on the top of his world.  After breathing a prayer of thanks for all this day had held for us, we tucked in for the night.

The next morning, we headed out before sunrise to find the horses to photograph them in the gorgeous morning light.  We glassed over to Cloud’s Island and saw several bands out that way, so we started hiking out there.  We saw Cloud and his band. Cloud had stolen Feldspar from his son Bolder the previous fall, so she and her daughter Agate were still with Cloud.

He was feeling a little amorous but she was clearly not in the mood.  The mares really do call the shots in the band.

Cloud had also acquired Ingid and her son Lynx.  It was heartwarming to see that The Black (Velvet and The Count’s daughter) had bonded so closely with them.

As the horses pushed toward the fence that separated the Forest Service land from the BLM land, it was disheartening to see them not be able to get to their known late summer grazing land.

I was so happy to see Chino, a gorgeous buckskin stallion whose lead mare is Topper.  I have always loved Topper.  She has a no-nonsense attitude about her that I admire.

She also has some very distinctive primitive markings on her.  She is here with her daughter Topper Too..

We headed to Penn’s Cabin to see if there were any horses in that area of the range.  To our delight, Duke was there with his band to greet us.  We quietly settled down to watch this band as they grazed and rested.  Madonna had a cute little bay filly named Lariat.

Lancaster, the dun colt of Hopi, came over to play after a nap and a snack.

We quietly left them and headed back to camp as the sun was getting too high in the sky for good photography.  We thought a snack and a nap sounded like a great idea!

After resting for a bit, we headed back over to Cloud’s Island.  Bolder made an appearance with his band to graze in the beautiful meadow.  Other bands soon joined them in the last couple of hours of daylight.  London, a little bay colt in Doc’s band was a rambunctious little fellow and wanted to explore.

He came over to Bolders band and started to play with little Lobo (Cedar and Bolder’s little one).

They played so much, that London lost track of where he was.  He soon found himself surrounded by other bands, none of which were his family.  What we saw next was pretty amazing.  Bolder saw London’s distress at being lost and calmly walked over to him.  Bolder then called out to London’s step-dad Doc.

I have never seem this kind of behavior in a band stallion.  Typically they would either ignore a lost colt or snake him away from his band.  Some will say that I am anthropomorphising Bolder’s behavior as he clearly showed concern over the lost colt and wanted to help him find his way home.  Doc came over to collect London and Bolder went back to his band.

As more bands came into the meadow, Bolder quietly took his family away.  He was not interested in being surrounded by many bands.

Cloud brought his family into the clearing.  His entire band was captivated by something near the trees.  Cloud moved them off in a different direction.

We glassed over to where the girls had been looking and to our delight we saw a new born foal next to Honey.

We looked around for Morning Star, since Honey is one of his mares.  He and most of the band had already moved off.  Honey was waiting for her daughter to wake up before joining her band.

As Honey and her daughter began to move to Morning Star, we realized that 2 of his other mares had stayed close to Honey and waited with her until her little one was able to travel.  We watched these amazing wild horses a little longer until the sun dipped down to the horizon.  We made our way back to camp in the last lingering light of the day.  We had been blessed with another beautiful day.  As we neared camp and prepared for the night, we reflected on all that we had seen that day.  We were in our jammies and tucked into our sleeping bags when we heard the sounds of horses.  We grabbed our cameras, put on our crocks and headed out in to the  cold darkening night to see who had come to tell us good night.  It was Bolder’s band!  And Red Raven’s band was right behind them.

He was bringing his family close to our camp site.  It was fun to watch Echo and Jewel run through an adjacent lupine covered meadow next to our camp.  It was too dark for any really good photo ops.  But I could not resist capturing these special moments.

As darkness took over the night, we headed back to our tent, too excited to even think about sleeping.  We could hear the horses milling around.  The distant sounds of bachelors playing.  An occasional whiney.  Then the sound of thundering hooves became louder and louder as a band of wild horses rushed past our camp.  The horses stayed close all night.  I have to admit that I did not get much sleep that night as I was listening to all of their night sounds, imaging who was out there and what they were doing.

The next morning, quite a few bands were still in the area.  We spent some time watching and photographing them, then went back towards Clouds Island.  We had not seen Flint yet, so it was good to see him and his band as we neared the new fence.  The bachelor band was fairly close to Flint as well.  

The boys seemed to be enjoying their time grazing and grooming one another.  (This is Jasper and Fiddle in the photo grooming one another)

But they were just way too close for Flint’s comfort.  He chased them off.

I was surprised to see Flint keeping his band close to the fence and the bachelor band.  The other bands of horses would come toward the fence but then push back to the East.  The bachelor band was still hanging around Flints band.

Flint had more confrontations with the bachelor band that day.

We hiked around a bit more, looking for more horses.  As the sun started climbing higher and higher in the sky, we started to make our way back toward camp.  As we rounded a curve in the road, we saw Bolder.  He was right on the road, checking out who had been in the area by sniffing the stud pile.

We quietly watched Bolder and his band snoozing among the Douglas Fir trees.  As we looked around, Red Raven had his band tucked into the trees as well.  (This is Red Raven with his step-daughter Kicks-a-Lot, Bolder and Autumn’s daughter)  I thought it was interesting that Red Raven was so close to Bolder’s band since he had stolen Autumn away from Bolder the winter before.  But they all seemed to be at peace with each other.

Bolder suddenly became alert and looked at something behind us.  We turned to look and here came the rowdy bachelor band tearing towards us.  We went closer to my vehicle, to become one with it so as not to get in their way.  They chased each other around for a bit.  Fiddle was clearly acting as a ‘band stallion’ with his buddy bachelors, snaking them around.

When the boys got a little too close to Bolder, he decided he had better have a little ‘chat’ with them.  I have come to really admire Bolder as a band stallion.  He portrays a calmness about him and when approaching the rowdy bachelors, he didn’t put on a big show.  But his body language still spoke volumes in reminding them of their place.

Bolder having a chat with Jasper (Flint and Feldspar’s son).

Bolder kept his eyes on the bachelors as they stayed in the area, but a little farther away from Bolders family.

We slowly made our way back to camp for a mid day break.  After the sun started to make it’s downward decent in the mid afternoon, we headed back out to watch and photograph the horses.  Cloud was stunning as usual as he ran through the meadow of wildflowers.  And the little foals were all just as cute as can be.  We were truly enjoying this amazing journey.

As this day drew near to a close, we were a bit sad to see this journey come to an end.  This was our last night on the mountain.  We made our way back to camp in the last light of the day.  A lone stallion was walking along a ridge as if to bid us farewell.  About an hour after tucking in for the night, we heard the sounds of horses coming closer.  We spent our last night on the mountain surrounded by the sounds of these amazing wild horses.

The next morning we headed back over to the fence to see if Flint was still hanging around.  The scene before me made my stomach drop.  I could see Flint on this side of the fence facing the fence.   I did a quick count of his band who were grazing close by.  Halcyon was missing!  Looking closer at the fence, I could see her on the other side.

My heart started pounding harder.  How did this happen?  A quick scan along the fence did not show any area where she could have gone through.  How long had she been over there by herself?  The questions filled my mind faster than the answers.  I got a closer look at Halcyon to make sure she was not injured.

Her family members came close to the fence as if I were going to magically get her back on their side.  Oh how I wish I could have just taken that fence down and opened the way for her.  I started making my way north along the fence, looking for the place she went through.  What happened?  As I was walking along, I noticed the worn path along the fence line that the horses had already created.  Probably looking for the openings that had ALWAYS been there in the past.  In this photo, I had turned back toward the south to take this.

As I made my way farther north, I came across a lone bachelor.  Then a little farther along, I saw the rest of the bachelor band snoozing on the top of the hill.  Is that what happened?  Did the bachelors stir things up with Flint and his band?  Did the commotion somehow scare Halcyon into going through the fence?  But where had she gone through the fence?

Not far from the bachelors was the break in the fence.  I had doubts that halcyon broke through this on her own.  I have a feeling that this break had been there in the fence and in a moment of panic she went through.

How would she ever find her way back up here to get back to her band?  She would have to get past the bachelors.  My heart was troubled thinking of Halcyon all alone on that side of the fence.  It was nearing mid-day and we knew we needed to get back to camp to break it and start our way back down the mountain.  Looking to the North, there was a storm brewing, so we knew that we had to get off the mountain as quick as we could.  The roads become a greasy mess when they are wet.  And if caught in a rain storm, it would make it impossible to get down the mountain.  I figured we had close to 2 or 3 hours before the storm hit us.  Feeling helpless and powerless to get Halcyon back on the other side, we made our way down the mountain with heavy hearts.  (I found out later that Halcyon had somehow gotten back on the side with Flint and her family the next day.  That was a huge relief!  But that barrier should not be there.)

I know that this trip report is a long one.  But I wanted you to have a glimpse into the lives of these amazing wild horses.  They have family structures that mean something to them.  Each of them has their own story to tell.  I only touched on a few of the stories we witnessed while on the mountain for that short time.

This very herd of wild horses is in danger of losing 30 of their young ones.  The BLM would like to remove a third to half of the horses aged 1 – 3 years old.  They would like to move forward with this plan without even seeing how bad this winter will be for the horses on the range.  The don’t even want to wait to see how the PZP (birth control given to a select group of mares) has had an effect.  PLEASE, I am asking that you write a letter to the Billings BLM asking them to at least wait until they know how many will survive this winter season and how many mares will have new babies this spring and summer.  Last year there was 0% in herd growth.  The number of babies born was equal to the number of horse deaths.  There is no need to remove any horses at this time.

How can you help?  Emails will be accepted at BLM_MT_Billings_FO@blm.gov 

Here is a link to the PEA (Preliminary Environmental Assessment).  http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/field_offices/billings/wild_horses/2012pryorgather.Par.30061.File.dat/2012%20preliminary%20PMWHR%20non-helicoptergather%20EA%20-reduced.pdf

Please do not delay.  The deadline for comments is Jan. 20.

On behalf of all the horses of the Pryor Mountains, THANK YOU!  Without you, they would not have a voice.