Sitka and her colt, one of Cloud’s two new foals. (Cloud’s filly is pictured on the cover.) This 16-year-old mare gave birth to her healthy dark-colored colt the day I was there. I saw him from far away, across Big Coulee, and couldn’t believe my eyes. Sitka has been on PZP, the controversial infertility drug for two years. Regardless, she and Cloud seemed to say, “We are having a baby!”
Cloud's New Foals - Nature Prevails
Adapted from Ginger's Notes from the Field: The Search for Wild Horses
Mid-morning, Day Two on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range
Higher on Tillet, where the rugged canyons give way to open meadows I spot two more horses. This time they are close and familiar to me. It is Mateo and his new filly, another daughter of Diamond and the palomino mare. This one is a brown roan with big, soft eyes and beautiful conformation. Lucky Mateo. He was injured in 2003 and lost his family. Now he has a second chance.
I begin hiking over the hill and down toward Big Coulee. Just on a hunch, again. In a matter of moments I see Diamond and his family and new foal, a cute little black. When I was glassing yesterday from Sykes to Tillet I thought I might have seen a foal with the band. The palomino and dun mares in the group look very pregnant.
I set up my spotting scope. First I use the binoculars and pan the ridges of Sykes. Almost immediately I see a white horse. Cloud! It has to be him.
I count heads: Flint, the four-year-old filly, the five-year-old filly, Cloud's daughter Cloud Dancer, the mares Sitka and Velvet, and what looks like something orange at Velvet’s feet. A sorrel foal? Maybe it’s just a dead juniper. Their branches can turn burnt orange. I try to focus my scope on the small spot. The juniper gets up and goes to Velvet. It is an orange foal! Cloud stole the foal's mother from Prince in 2003 after the bachelors had worn Prince down, circling him like a pack of wolves. Cloud watched, made his move and drove Velvet and her two-year-old daughter away.
I can see Prince just up the road on Tillet with Cloud’s sister, Electra. Like Mateo, he lost his family but has a second chance. Two Boots comes trotting through with his two mares. The dun mare in his little group has lost their foal, probably to a mountain lion. Five foals are missing so far out of the 19 born.
Through my scope I make another discovery. There is something dark moving around. I zoom in a bit and focus. It is a baby, barely able to walk. Perhaps Cloud’s five-year-old grulla filly has foaled. But, no, the dark colt goes to Sitka. The 16-year-old mare has been on the infertility drug, PZP for two years. I can’t believe my eyes. But, it is a newborn foal.
Strange that Sitka gave birth since she has been on PZP. Nature has prevailed, in this case. PZP is an experimental and controversial infertility drug, and in my mind flies in the face of natural selection. Humans should not be deciding these issues; nature should. Many of the Pryor mares and fillies have been darted with PZP. The drug renders them infertile for a period of time which varies depending on how many years in a row they receive it. Consecutive doses render them infertile for multiple years.
Dinner with Cloud
After the drive down Tillet into town for gas, and the long drive up to the mid levels of Sykes, I am back at 5pm, creeping up horrible Sykes Ridge Road, and hoping that the band has not moved into the forested canyons where they will be invisible. By 7 pm I am near where I think I saw them. I grab an apple and some cheese, my water and still camera. I wander the finger where I saw them some 5 hours before. They’re gone.
Unlike cattle, horses move when they graze to aid digestion. Even domestic horses in big pastures may walk five miles a day. But, they can’t be that far away, not with a wobbly newborn. What am I talking about? Cloud could only totter on the day he was born yet he trekked Tillet, following his mother to snow under the dense canopy of Douglas firs.
There is little light left. Do I hike up or down? Which ridge might they be on? As I do so often I let something inside take over. My feet begin to move left, down slope toward Cloud’s wintering area. I hike through a deep, wooded ravine. “So quiet down here,” I think. And such a good place for a cat. I am on alert for any tracks or prey caches. Mountain lions will cover their kills and I found such a site once within a hundred yards from here.
Suddenly, a pine squirrel chatters and it rattles me a bit. Nearby a red-breasted nuthatch calls and in the distance I hear a response. I happily leave the dark place and climb onto the hillside, still sunlit, but just. When I crest the top of the ridge, I see horses—just the horses I longed to find.
Cloud looks up and I wave. “Hello, beautiful.” Flint is nearby with his half sister, Cloud’s two-year-old daughter, Cloud Dancer, the black and grulla fillies, the two mares … and their foals.
The little sorrel is a filly who looks to be about a week old. What a feminine little girl with a delicate star. The other foal lies flat, sleeping. I move closer and sit down, getting out my “dinner.” Two foals, two chances. Maybe this year they will live.
The wind, so brisk earlier in the day, seems to die with the setting sun. In time the dark foal gets up and goes to nurse. It is a male with white on all four feet and a faint star, more like a cobweb than a bold mark. What a cute, sturdy little guy. All of Sitka’s babies are fairly big-boned and this colt is no exception.
I leave them in the growing darkness. “See you tomorrow,” I whisper. Back at the car, I see Sitka and Shaman’s son, Custer, his mare and burly colt. ( Pic of Custer. Pic of mother and colt, and just colt)As I turn in, I can see them out the front windshield. Lucky me.
By afternoon, temperatures just continue to drop as the wind howls. It spits snow and rain. Cloud and his family stay in a sheltered bowl just above the Mystery Trail. The little orange filly is curious, wandering about and rubbing on sticks. Where did that color come from? I think back to when her mother, Velvet and Cloud were foals together. Velvet’s father was the grullo, Konik, and her mother was what color? I remember now. She was a roan, a brownish roan. I would bet the orange filly will roan like her grandmother.
The black colt is curious too, but Sitka is doting, making a soft snuffling sound when he gets out of sight around bushes or trees. What a good and experienced mother. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Cloud Dancer, her daughter, was one of only seven foals that survived in 2003 (when there were 28 foals born). Isn’t it a mistake giving PZP to these older mares? They have the most experience and the best ability to pass survival skills to the younger generation. Sitka walks around to the side of a small grove of trees and stares at her son, calling him in that soft voice. The colt responds, returning to his mother.
In the morning I begin my drive home to Colorado, and in the distance I can see new snow atop the mountains of my dreams. I hope when I return in a few weeks most of the foals will still be alive. Selfishly, I want Cloud’s babies to be among the survivors.
Ginger's "Notes from the Field" will be continued in the next issue.
Editor's note: The battle to save these beautiful horses from bureaucratic meddling still rages. Unnatural herd reductions - through PZP and roundups - have lowered numbers beyond the viable levels maintained by predation and other natural occurrences. Numbers are now lower than recommended to maintain genetic viability in the Pryor Mountains, their rightful and natural home for hundreds of years. For more information, visit www.thecloudfoundation.org.