Pilgrimage to Pryor
Ten hours away from Boise, a band of Pryor Mountain Mustangs relishes the new growth on a high ridge line. At about 8,400 feet altitude, pockets of snow persist into late May along the summit of East Pryor Mountain. The BLM managed Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range straddles the Montana/Wyoming border, encompassing more than 38,000 acres of desert, subalpine rangeland and pine forested mountain tops. To be technical, most of it is in Montana. Water is scarce; the BLM and area volunteers have built “guzzlers” to capture rain/snow run-off and provide a greater variety of water sources. The Range includes part of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to the east and Custer National Forest to the northwest, as well as BLM land. The closest town is on the Wyoming side of the border; Lovell Wyoming, population 2,300 and home to the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center. That’s where I met up with Steve Cerroni of PryorWild Mustang Tours on a Wednesday morning in late May, and accompanied him in his go-anywhere Jeep on a rugged 5,000 foot climb to the top of East Pryor Mountain.
New Faces in a Historic Herd
It’s an exciting time of year as the next generation of Pryor Mountain Mustangs are born. These youngsters are the legacy of not only sturdy free-roaming horses but of the determined people who are passionately protective of them.
The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range was established in 1968, the first in the nation. But long before that local ranchers and residents of Lovell, Wyoming recognized and prized the wild horses of the area. Homesteaders in the early 1900s noted the wild horses of the area, before them, the Crow people bred and traded horses in the area. In fact, it is to the Crow that many historians attribute the beginnings of this herd some 200 years ago.
(above) Feldspar, an 11 year old mare in Mescalero’s band, protectively moves her three-day-old filly away from visitors. The buckskin yearling is also her son, Cloud’s Pride.
Roan, dun, black and bay are the historic colors of the Pryor Mustangs. In the 1980s several horses with strong Spanish Colonial characteristics from mustang herds in Oregon (Kiger) and Wyoming (Rock Springs) were introduced to the Pryor Mountain range with the intent of providing more genetic diversity. As Christine Reed, explains in her book Saving the Pryor Mountain Mustang: a legacy of local and federal cooperation, among them was “a young buckskin stallion from the Rock Springs, Wyoming, herd management area was on the (Pryor Mountain) range until his removal in 1992. The appearance of a palomino filly on the range raised eyebrows among some Lovell advocates familiar with the more typical Pryor Mountain Mustang colors. BLM field staff decided to release the filly back to the range during the 1992 removal. The filly was a cream colored horse named Phoenix, whose palomino roan son Cloud became the most well-known horse on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range based on a series of PBS Nature films by Ginger Kathrens.”
As of yet in 2016 Cloud, now 21 years old, has not yet been seen.
Midway up the mountain we saw a small family group, among them Washakie, (above) heavy with foal.
In 2011 the BLM Field Office in Billings, Montana, began implementing a fertility control plan for the Pryor Mountain herd they are responsible for. The plan excludes mares aged 5 – 10, and emphasizes that the breeding population is representative of all bloodlines on the Range as well as Colonial Spanish in phenotype.
(left) Sooty palomino stallion Bolder offers a glimpse of one of his sturdy hooves.
Equine color expert Dr. Philip Sponenberg has studied the Pryor Mountain Mustangs for many years and was instrumental helping to develop guidelines for the BLM to use in deciding which horses to retain on the Range. In his 1993 Evaluation of Pryor Mountain Herd Area BLM Horses, Dr. Sponenberg noted that "the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd is the single most Spanish of the feral horse herds in the USA at this time. The history, phenotype, and blood types of the herd all point to an origin from Spanish horses. This horse herd should be managed to maintain its uniqueness. This should include management to increase the excellent Spanish type already present and should also maintain the color variation present in the herds."
Stallions Tecumseh/Chance (below left) and Gringo (below right) and their respective mares were the first horses my guide, Steve Cerroni, and I saw. Below, stallion Irial/Indigo Kid gallops towards an interloper. I asked about the use of “double” names for some horses on the range and was told that there was a time when names were assigned by two different not-for-profit entities. Thus in order to prevent confusion for today’s visitors the horses are identified by both names in the Field Guide published by Steve and Nancy Cerroni of PryorWild.
Dark clouds had been billowing through the Range all day, chill winds brought showers of small hail. In mid-afternoon the clouds became even denser, warning us that our time on the mountain needed to end. Even with a brief stop on the way back down the mountain to visit Galaxy (below) and his band, we managed to stay ahead of the storm. When we reached the valley floor, some 5,000 feet below, we looked back up to the uppermost meadow where the photo above had been shot. The ridgeline meadow was transformed, glistening white.
You may visit http://www.pryormustangs.org/ to keep up with news of the herd there (especially the 2016 foals), or follow the Pryor Mountain Mustang Center on Facebook. The Center also maintains a lovely blog.
When I returned to the studio, I realized there had been a beautiful sort of synchronicity between these wild ones and a sculpture which I have working on for several years, only recently finished.