Yesterday Christi Chapman of Rawlins, Wyoming took me on a 200 mile drive through her wild horse home range.
Christi and had hit it off at one of the gathers. She grew up on a ranch in Rawlins and has been making monthly, sometimes daily trips, even in winter, to observe these horses for several years. She knows the individual members and their relationships in the many family bands that live here, as well as being a dog trainer and running the local rescue, Caring-Learning-Connecting, so she has a good foundation in animal behavior. She, along with several other locals have documented and amassed a great deal of information about these horses. I appreciated her first hand knowledge and we found we shared a common vision.
The BLM manager for this area is forward thinking and open to using citizen volunteers to collect research data such as genetic information, which now can be gathered from dung. This is the kind of data gathering that volunteers who know the herds and individuals can do, takes thousands of hours to accomplish, and that the BLM and researchers, do not have the time or resources to fund. Unlike Divide Basin, Salt Wells Creek and Adobe Town, this area is smaller and more manageable; therefor it might work better here than in the huge, multi-million acre HMAs, but you never know. I just received an email from Wild Horse Preservation Campaign stating that trained volunteers are being used to dart horses with the contraceptive PZP in Fish Springs, NV.
Sunrise now is about 7am, so we met at 6 and Christi drove north of town to the Stewart Creek Horse Management Area. The Red Desert is high desert, at about 7,000 feet and the weather system that came through last night had dropped moisture and temperatures. It was in the low 40’s and flooded in the low-lying areas.
We moved slowly toward higher ground and after twenty miles or so spotted a herd of about forty horses. Christi knew the herd well but they were very far and galloped away from their watering hole. To conserve energy horses don’t do a lot of galloping, but they were frisky in the cold under the clearing skies, playing with each other and playing with us as well. Christi decided to go higher to look for another band and we would look for these guys on the way back.
We headed north toward the mountains. It was the first time since I’ve been in Wyoming I’ve seen trees not part of suburban landscaping. Scattered junipers appeared, getting thicker as we rose. The tree line here is down to about ten thousand feet, so there’s only a couple of thousand feet of scrappy forest between the desert sagebrush and upper tree line. We passed a hunter’s camper, a reminder that it is hunting season. I was informed that the horses get more skittish during the season. They are also much harder to spot in the trees. The military preferred black and dark bay horses since they were harder to spot, but here in the desert the fabulous variation in color help to camouflage the horses in the landscape, especially the buckskins, duns, dark greys, appaloosas and grullos. There is such a variety of color it’s mind blowing. One never sees these colors, in this much abundance in domestic horses. There were black, brown and gray paints, dark greys with black points, greys with white points, a stunning palomino stud, buckskins, duns, seal browns, claybanks, grullos, red, blue and grey roans, blanket, snowflake and roan appaloosas… The variety is endless.
For a good look at color variations click here. We speculated whether the color variation could be from close breeding or just an adaptation to the environment.
A little research revealed that the dun gene, which is considered a primitive and dominant dilution gene, will lighten brown and black colors and also bring in the primitive buckskin dorsal stripe and sometimes striping on the legs or even shoulders. In the famous Soviet experiment in which scientists attempted to domesticate foxes for the fur trade, they selected for tame, easily handled foxes. Within two generations the foxes exhibited spotted fur, and tails as well as floppy ears. Not only did this make them useless for the fur trade, it revolutionized thinking about how long it might have taken to domesticate the dog.
No luck up high. The combination of cold weather, rain, hunting season has shifted the horses to their coming winter movements. We did see amazing vistas and the unsettled weather made for incredibly dramatic skies.
Because one can see vast, uninterrupted vistas, the sky is huge and the clouds hung low over the land, while a fog line rose up between the low hills in front of us and the mountains behind to the east.
A small band of dark horses rode the ridgeline, silhouetted by the while fog. I scrambled for my camera, but they were very far away and had dropped off the ridgeline before I could get a decent shot.
The county roads are long, straight dirt roads that cut across the desert. Dry you can travel at sixty mph on the packed clay, but today was muddy so caution was needed. There were deep, serpentine tire tracks where people had hit the mud going too fast. The last thing we wanted was to slip off into the deep, muddy ditches off the shoulders.
We finally found the morning’s herd on our return in the afternoon. Now it was even larger, other bands having joined. We watched, approached, sat, photographed until they settled, then approached, sat, photographed, chatted until they settled a half dozen times or more. Christi told me the history of many of the horses she knew.
For example Navajo, a stunning brown paint with a lightning stripe of white down both shoulders and forelegs is a young stud which keeps slightly away from his band. Last year his nose had a severe injury, possibly a snake bite. He survived and this year is looking good. Anther grey was very lame last year, but now is doing well. She pointed out which adult horses were the colts and fillies of which mare or stallion, including who’s young studs had been driven off into bachelor bands. The herd let us know their boundary and after an hour or so had had enough and slowly moved off. We were done.
I’m very impressed with Christi’s 4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee. She was able to follow these barely discernible two tracks all over the dang desert. At one point we crossed what was either the Oregon or Overland Trail. I could see the faint rows of wagon wheel tracks going west. Once again I felt a bit of a shiver to be walking in the footsteps of history. By the time the pioneers crossed this desert the wild ponies of the Spanish were mostly gone, captured by Native Americans. By then they knew the value of and measured their wealth in those scrappy survivors of the Spanish ponies who had so successfully adapted to this harsh landscape.
This day we saw some foals only a month or two old and it’s already late September. To survive the sub zero winters, the horses will gather in a tight herd against the weather, taking turns on the outside, then pushing into the center to warm themselves. Ever protective of the foals, they keep them in the center of the circle. I fear that the oldest and weakest of the horses will be pushed to the outside of the herd and not be able force their way in to warm themselves, but I’m not so sure about this. The way they protect the foals, and their general cooperation makes me question whether this is true or not.
Christi told of a domestic grey with a brand in very poor condition that was with the herd last year. In a winter snow, he did not follow the herd down into a draw to seek protection from the wind. Another bachelor repeatedly went back to him, trying to get him to follow into the draw, nuzzling, walking away, looking back, and going back and forth between the grey and the herd. Finally, the grey followed, but Christi had not seen him with the herd this year.
It was getting late so we followed yet another faint two track in attempt to get back to the main two track! Cutting cross country, we came up on the south side of the herd we had been observing, and found another herd south of the road, this time with more blacks, and bays, slowly moving to join the main herd. We stopped and spent more time with these, letting them cross, get used to the car, then getting out to photograph and catalog.
The Ferris Mountains to the east were catching the late afternoon light, their long, white white stripe running the length of the range along the uplift.
Finally we made it back to the county road. Christi stopped when she saw the domestic grey from last year, off to the right by himself. Alone, but in very good condition, he had made it through last winter, though heavily scarred. Hopefully he’ll join the herd again this winter.
Christi dropped me back at my rig. I was exhausted both from being out from 6 to 6, and also full from the amount of verbal, visual and visceral information that had been uploaded. Always these days outdoors on the range, coupled with the amount of observational data and information gathered from the people I meet is more than I can process the same day.
Much thanks to Christi for her generous sharing of information, experience and landscape as well as a fabulous lunch at Huckleberry’s.