Climbing a Mountain

Growing up I have been fortunate in the places that I have traveled. Ever since a young age my parents have taken my sister and I to places as close to home as Mexico and Canada and as far away as, England, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I’ve even been fortunate enough to go to wildlife oriented places such as Costa Rica, and I’ve been as far away from home as Australia. Yet, sometimes the places closer to home provide a more lasting impression than those farther away. There’s a certain level of pride in knowing that my home country has so many unique places to offer. Sure Europe has more historical buildings than the US, but nothing says wilderness like the Western United States and The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is no exception.

There’s a certain level of pride in the knowledge that wild horses are living in the Western United States. There’s also a certain level of excitement gained in looking for the horses. Viewing the horses can be a challenge, however, since traveling the winding roads of the Pryors can be difficult. The Pryor range in unique in that the habitat is not just desert. While the road through the Dryhead Desert is paved, the rest of roads are not. The rest of the roads are in the mountains, dirt roads, and the quality depends on how well they weathered the winter before.

If you will, take a moment to imagine this road with me. Like I said, the road is dirt at best. As you rise in altitude the road gets worse. Dirt is replaced by rock, and in some places boulders need to be removed from the road. In some places there is only a thin layer of shelf rock, or a ridge of rock, to support your vehicle. The road was made for one vehicle and hairline curves make it hard to see oncoming traffic.

So what do you do when you can’t see ahead of you? What happens when the red dirt is so thick on the windshield that you can almost feel it coating your teeth? First of all, there are not many visitors that dare to traverse the roads up to the mountain. In order to even think about traveling up the roads you need to be either crazy or experienced, preferably both, so don’t worry, you’ll be in good company. However, since it’s not just people you’re looking out for but wildlife it is always a good idea to get out periodically to scout the road for anything, be it other drivers, wildlife, or debris in the road.

So how do you balance driving time with scouting time? After all it often takes the whole day to reach the top of the mountain. The general rule of thumb is to stop if the road ahead of you is hidden from view. Usually this applies to curves, but this can also apply to hills. In the Pryors or any horse range, if a hill is so steep you can’t see the bottom, then chances are you won’t make it back up when you head down the mountain. Don’t let the need to scout for obstacles worry you for getting out can help you in more than one way.

While walking around the road it can help you notice things you can’t while in a car. You’ll be lower to the ground, so you’ll be able to see horse signs easier than in the car. Perhaps there are hoof prints signaling that you are getting close. It’s a long drive and nothing gets the adrenaline pumping more than facing a vertical ledge than seeing your first sign of wild life. You may not see any horses for a while after you see the first tracks, but at least you know that you are getting closer. This is especially true if it is summer and you are trying to make it all the way to the mountain top.

Right about now you may be wondering what to do when you see a horse. The bottom line is giving the horse respect. It may seem odd to think about, but while in the Pryors you are in the horses’ home. They are severely family oriented prey animals and you were not invited to their house. While the Pryor horses get a lot of visitors each year and thus are used to people more so than in other ranges that does not change that as prey animals they have a strong fight or flight instinct. It doesn’t help that with our forward facing eyes we look like predators to the horses.

There are some steps that can be taken to alleviate this, however. First keep in mind that it is illegal to approach horses beyond 100 feet. Most horses enforce this rule themselves, even choosing to travel farther away. There are some things that you can do gauge if you are too close. The first one is to watch the horses’ behaviors. If they change them to look at you, you are too close. Similarly, walking closer is not a good thing. These are wild animals, and the point is to keep them that way. The youngsters especially are curious and have a tenancy to approach more than adults, although a stallion may approach an ‘intruder’ to check them out.

If horses approach the appropriate thing is to make them stop. Unfortunately, backing up can sometimes encourage them. So the alternative is causing a small ruckus. Nothing big enough to make them turn tail and run as that has a tendency to cause the whole group to panic. Usually rolling a small rock at their feet does the trick: you’re not aiming to hit them, in fact it’s best to aim well out of range of the horse, but you need to draw a line in the sand so to speak. Having a horse or any animal approach you is more stressful to the animal than you, so it is always best to stay at a respectful distance.

However, sometimes it is harder to find a distance that the horses will accept, so it is always important to ‘think positive thoughts.’ It sounds corny, but attitude is important with animals that communicate primarily by body language. Sometimes, without realizing it we can convey negative messages with our body. Maybe we are tense without realizing it and to the horse that translates into ready to pounce. In other words, horses have been hardwired to watch for and understand shifts in body language. If you think you are harmless long enough you may just look it.

If stress to yourself and the horses is not a good enough reason for not letting horses approach you, then there is one more thing. You’ll get better pictures and memories if you are patient, respectful, and wait for horses to make natural behavior than of them approaching you. Sure the horses can choose to approach you, but the bottom line is that it wouldn’t be something they would do on their own. Not to mention natural behavior makes for a better story than telling someone that the horse stared at you all day long.

One of my favorite behaviors is mutual grooming. It when two horses groom each other in the hard to reach places and it is one of the most peaceful things to watch. It also underscores the importance of family and friends to the horses. It also brings new meaning to the saying ‘You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.’ It is clear when watching mutual grooming between two horses that a bond is being strengthened. Sometimes, mutual grooming can also be used for one horse to gain reassurance from another, almost as if they are hiding behind each other. In other words, a simple action such as mutual grooming can reveal a lot about the social dynamic of the horses.

Another social behavior I enjoy watching is known as snaking. It’s a technique stallions use to group mares together, although I sometimes notice that mares are happier when it is not used. Usually it is used when a stallion is adding new mares to his band or another stallion gets to close, but sometimes it is used when a stallion senses danger. When a stallion snakes a mare he dips his head low, with his ears flat against his head. If his teeth are also bared he seems to be saying: ‘Move now!’ Most of the time the mares know to move, but sometimes it can seem like they are rolling their eyes as they do so. It is a fun trait to watch as it shows dominance between band mates.

Lastly, but certainly not least I love watching foal interactions. As a general rule of thumb foals tend to cause the most trouble compared to the rest of their band mates. It’s fun to watch them test their legs that are too big for their bodies. Sometimes they race around by themselves, but it does not take long for other foals to join in. If there are no foals around a family member will have to do.

Horses lying down seem particularly vulnerable to foals. There’s no rest for the weary possibly since when the older members are resting they are closer to the foal’s height. Often they will paw at their band mates to get them up, then they tug at their tail to get them to play. Most of the time family members will be patient with the foal, responding only with ears back in annoyance. Sometimes that is enough to for the foal to clack their teeth in submission, but more often than not they are more persistent. No matter what foals do, like watching any toddler, there actions are often both adorable and comical.

So, dear reader, those are my experiences about visiting the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. It truly is one of the best places to visit. You don’t even need to like horses to appreciate the beauty of the range. It has some of the most amazing views and spectacular sun rises. With its mountain range, desert, and wild horses the Pryor Mountains are the epitome of the west. Which is something that United States citizens should be proud of.

Custer's band makes 'improvements' to the road.

Custer’s band makes ‘improvements’ to the road.

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