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Mustang Chronicles 003:First Gather

When I was packing for this trip my friend Karen and I went back and forth about why I should/shouldn’t bring my old chaps or riding leggins. I told her, as I had been saying for some months, “I feel horses in my future.”

If you had told me then, that today I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with Ginger Kathrens, the filmmaker who did the PBS Nature films, Cloud, Wild Stallion of the Rockies and Carol Walker of Living Images shooting wild horses in the Wyoming desert, I would have said, “GET OUT!” But this morning at 7:30 am found me sitting in a rented SUV belonging to Norbert Hoefler, a tall, thin German journalist who writes for Stern, a German human interest magazine similar to Time with a readership of seven million. Soft spoken, intelligent and thoughtful, I liked him immediately. We were on our way to the first gather of the Salt Creek Horses. I prayed that it wouldn’t be the group I had photographed on Saturday. We had met in the Rock Springs BLM parking lot at 6:45. Besides the BLM handlers there wered  a young local journalist, Ginger Kathrens, her friend Linda, Carol Walker, Norbert and me. I thought there would have been more public.
We drove to the Bitter Creek exit, 19S and turned off very soon into one of the oil & gas roads. We passed the trucks and trailers of the Cattoor family, the contractors who conduct the gathers. These days they are the only game in town. It’s expensive operation with two helicopters and two backups, drivers and a number of people on the ground. There were two medium and one small corrals set up at the end of a cut through two hills. After being gathered, the horses would be separated into stallions, mares and foals before being loaded. On the other side of the cut were long, jute snow fences narrowing into the cut into which the horses would be driven by helicopter. We drove up over a ridge, out of site of the trap and walked back a short way to the prescribed viewing area. It was at least half a mile away. There was much grumbling from those who had been to gathers before. Ginger has been documenting the wild horses for over twenty years, Carol since 2004 and Linda 2010. The subjects were specs in my new 400mm lens.
We waited for a long time listening for the helicopter that would signal the arrival of horses. The morning air was chilly. After a while we heard the helicopter and saw dust clouds. The fist group was arriving. About ten horses appeared in the distance being led by a Pinto stallion. They were herded uneventfully into the trap. Truly, it was very hard to see what was going on. There were a couple of foals with the group. The pinto was very upset in the corrals and once they got the stallions loaded they took him out of the trailer again as he was so distraught. The stallions were fighting in the trailer and at one point one went down. They were in the trailer for a long time, well over a half hour before being hauled down to the short term holding to be sorted and vetted, but the morning air was still chilly. The BLM vet catalogues each horse by sex, color, markings, vets them for infectious disease and vaccinates there. Every attempt is made to keep foals with their mothers unless they are old enough to be weaned and then they are kept with other weanlings.
A long time later the next group came in. We could hear the helicopter to the south below a ridge. This group was not coming so easily. There was some back and forth and finally a small family band of five horses appeared trailing a very young foal.

They had come a long way and were all tired. I have to say the helicopter pilot seemed to be doing a good job of letting them move at a pace that allowed the foal to keep up. Ginger and Carol thought the foal was only a week or two old. I thought a bit older, but they have much more experience than I. The foal was separated for safekeeping and every attempt is made to reunite them with their mare. In this case very likely since there is only one nursing foal and will most likely be only one lactating mare. Still, the separation must be terrifying. Horses have strong family bonds and mares and stallions are both very protective of foals.


We heard the helicopter go back out and work the draw on the other side of the ridge, out of sight of us. After a very long time we saw that he was bringing in a lone stallion who had most likely escaped the little family band that had just come in. He was shiny black with a wide white blaze and two white boots. Ginger named him Blaze Two Boots. The helicopter pushed him in between the fences toward the Judas horse, a domestic horse trained to run back to the trap in hopes that the wild horses will follow. The BLM prefers to use the term “pilot horse” but, hey… Two Boots took one look at the Judas horse, turned tail and headed out of the trap. The helicopter pilot tried to push him back, but Two Boots kept evading it, finally challenging the helicopter! Once I saw that he was no longer afraid of the helicopter I knew it was game over. The group was elated. They wisely decided to let Two Boots get away. He cantered back behind the ridge he came from.

We walked back to the cars discussing the days events when I heard Jay say, “There’s your money shot.” On the top of the ridge, staring intently at us, ears pricked, was Two Boots. I fumbled with my camera and was just able to get a few shots off before he turned tail and trotted out of sight. I thought I had gotten the only shot and was disappointed to see my photo on the front page of the next day’s paper. Apparently Shelley, the BLM communications gal who had been standing beside me also got the shot and the credit. Boo hoo. Still, it was a great ending to a sad story.

There was much grumbling among those more experienced than me about how far we were from the trap. Apparently the trap was on private land and we must be kept on public land. Also, these horses are no dummies. Horses are very xenophobic and if they sense anything out of the ordinary it makes the job that much harder. Thankfully, this was not the herd I shot on Saturday.

1 Comment

  1. jill Stanley
    September 29, 2014

    standing next to Ginger Kathrens ?! I would be dumbstruck ! Did you ask if this would be on PBS next season? Not sure i could watch the round up, too sad, but at least ,as you say, the black stallion got away.


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