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What Price Freedom?
Saving the Pryor Forest Service Bands
by Ginger Kathrens
The 2009 helicopter roundup of the Pryor Wild Horses was a gut-wrenching event made even more nightmarish by the surprise actions of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who announced they were going to permanently remove every wild horse from their home on Commissary Ridge in the Custer National Forest.[FOOTNOTE 1] Our pleas to allow 19-year-old Conquistador and 21-year-old Grumpy Grulla to go back together into the designated range fell on deaf ears. The BLM?s response was a curt ?no,? and the Forest Service said they did not have the authority to tell the BLM what to do.
The next day, four bands of wild horses, led by the stallions Conquistador, Bo, Shane, Trigger, and one bachelor stallion, Blue, were permanently removed from their home on Commissary Ridge atop the Pryor Mountains.
We were confident that the young Commissary Ridge horses would be adopted. However, we feared that most - if not all - of the older horses would end up in feedlot style holding facilities and would eventually be shipped to long-term holding in Kansas or Oklahoma. The stallions would be gelded and sent to all-male holding facilities, while the mares would go to all-female facilities.
I had known most of these older horses for their entire lives and was determined to stop this from happening. We had three weeks to hatch a plan. Just days before the sale, local Montana wild horse admirers found land to lease - a ranch just north of the Pryors. Here, the older horses could live in freedom in their original family groups within the confines of an expansive fenced pasture. Here, they could experience what wild horses hold most dear - freedom and family. All went well? at first.
The following spring, our youngest band stallion, Shane, stole Bo?s band, running the older black stallion through a fence in the process. A tree fell over the ranch?s back fence line and, for a week, Chalupa, her foal, and Sierra were loose on the Crow Indian Reservation. We spent endless days and sleepless nights before we could herd them back into their pasture. Then the owner of the ranch didn?t like stud piles in his driveway and evicted us. We moved to an even larger pasture with a creek and big cottonwoods just outside of Billings. Wonderful, right? Well, sort of.
Burrs from Hell
Before we could release Sierra, Chalupa, and Moshi into their new pasture we had to figure out how to remove the burdock they had gotten in their manes and tails at the old ranch. These giant burrs on steroids might infest their new home, but how were we going to get them out?
Luckily, we found a former trainer in Bridger who helped us sort the mares in one of our round corrals and load them into Effie Orser?s trailer (Effie is a terrific friend and a fabulous horsewoman). Sierra went first, calmly stepping into the trailer. Chalupa and Moshi followed her. We took the girls to the ?Horse Palace,? a place in Billings that had been located by Laura Pivonka, another terrific friend of the Freedom Family horses.
When we opened the trailer door, Sierra calmly led the mares out. All three walked quietly down a wide alleyway, took a right turn into the barn and, finally, into a narrower alley located next to the doors of three bucking chutes. From an attached, elevated walkway we reached down and began plucking burrs. No tranquilizers, no running horses, no whinnying. These three were so quiet it was almost spooky.
Upon completion, we opened the chute doors into the big arena. The girls trotted out and stopped, and we asked them to go back into the wide alleyway. Remember the scene in the movie Babe where the little pig talks kindly in ?sheep talk? to the ewes that walk calmly into the pen? Well, this was the scene. With quiet Sierra in the lead, the three walked slowly back down the wide alley and into the trailer. ?That?ll do, pig.?
All the horses were released onto the pasture outside Billings on a beautiful late afternoon in October 2010. On Bo?s release, Shane ran him through the fence but Bo wasn?t injured. Dodged another bullet, I thought.
Eventually, we had to remove Bo from the pasture before Shane, who continued to chase him dangerously close to cliffs and fences, killed him. Bo was gelded, expertly trained by Spencer Dominick of Wilsall, Montana, and is now owned by Effie, who can ride him bareback! Who says an old dog can?t learn new tricks?
Blue, our young bachelor stallion, who risked death or serious injury from unwisely challenging Conquistador, went to live on 25,000 acres of private land in 2010 and has become a proud band stallion and a new father this year.
During the winter of 2010-2011, Sierra began to limp and we noticed a small, innocuous-looking puncture wound on her front leg near the hoof. It became infected and she had to go away for surgery. But, in true Sierra fashion, she weathered the storm and is as good as new. As you can imagine, Shane was extremely happy to have her back.
In the spring of 2011, Moshi gave birth to Lily and Chalupa to BJ (Bo Junior - the son of Bo), both born into Shane?s band. Cavalitta gave birth to Augustina, a dun like her stunning father, Conquistador. All was idyllic until late summer. That?s when Cavalitta began to rapidly lose weight for some mysterious reason. Conquistador and Augustina accompanied her to our vet, Lisa Jacobson?s, ranch, where Cavalitta could be treated and very slowly nursed back to health.
Back on the big ranch, little Lily, just 7 months of age, got porcupine quills in her nose in early November 2011. We took her and BJ (also 7 months old), to Spencer Dominick?s training facility where a vet could get the quills out. We took this opportunity to have Spencer halter train them as well.
When Lily and BJ returned to their parents, you would have thought we brought alien invaders to the pasture. Shane chased the two, nearly running them through the fence. Quickly, we opened the round pen and had no trouble getting Shane into an isolated section of the corral. The handsome dun is not only a mare pig, but also a pig-pig, easily lured with oats or horse candy or hay. In time we got everyone else into the big section of the corrals. We left the band overnight, hoping that the close proximity of BJ and Lily to their mothers would ?rebond them? and that Shane would accept them. The scheme worked, and when we let them out the next day there was no chasing. Gradually, their parents began to treat them as before. Phew!!
This year we were evicted from this pasture so the owners could ?fill it up with cattle.? Again, we were fortunate to find a pasture, this time near Spencer and Lisa?s places. It has a view to die for. Three mountain ranges are visible from the new pasture - the Crazys, Bridgers, and Absarokees.
Many of you know we lost Conquistador, who died suddenly this summer, perhaps from a lightning strike. For the past three years we were able to preserve his freedom and his family. The light that went out of his eyes when he was captured in 2009 shone brightly up to the moment of his untimely death.
Just last week we visited our bands. Billy the Kid, our youngest, watched me fiddle around with the big can that holds oats and goodies near the water tank at the edge of his pasture. When he lost interest in me, he ambled back to his mother, Mae West. I watched them nibble each other affectionately and knew that, despite all the challenges, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Billy looked back at me when I closed the can. I wish for you Billy, what I wish for your relatives on the Pryor Mountains - freedom, precious freedom, and the company of a loving family for a lifetime.
SPECILA NOTE: Not coincidentally, the lands upon which the Freedom Family wild horses roamed is a Forest Service cattle allotment where a single permittee runs about 100 head of yearlings for a couple of months. The cost to the permittee for this use of public lands? $270 for two months of grazing?10-20 times less than the cost of most leases on private land, and a money loser for the government and the American taxpayers. Livestock grazing on our public lands costs the taxpayers $121 million each and every year because the $1.35 per cow/calf pair per month is far too low to cover the cost of the administration of the permits. That?s why the practice is aptly dubbed ?welfare ranching.? For $270 in revenues each year, 30 wild horses lost their freedom. The majority of the BLM?s Wild Horse and Burro budget is spent on paying private contractors to hold once-wild horses.
About the author:
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and Cloud Foundation Executive Director, Ginger Kathrens, has been documenting the Pryor herd since 1994, the year before Cloud was born. Her groundbreaking work in interpreting the complex world of wild horses has been compared to that of Jane Goodall?s study of Chimpanzees. Kathrens? books and films about Cloud and the Pryor Wild Horses are available for a donation to www.thecloudfoundation.org.
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