Winter Vs. Summer Range

Since I live in the midwest, I try to prioritize visiting the Pryors during times that will enable me to see more horses. The earliest I’ve visited the range is May, so I rely a lot on locals, and others that are willing to brave winter conditions. This winter, for example, seems mostly cold. Recently, it sound like the area got 15 inches of snow. In the winter, the mustangs spend most of their time on mid-slopes.

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A view of the mountain top. (June, 2016)

I talk a lot about summer range, but that doesn’t mean one part of the range is more important than another part. They just have different pros and cons. The mountain top has the best quality forage, but at a smaller amount. There’s more room for the horses to spread out on Sykes and Burnt Timber, but the forage is dotted with rocks and sage.

That got me thinking: how do the horses survive year long? I could say things like they have furry winter coats, big hooves to dig through snow, or adapted to eat almost everything in their environment. All are true, but I’m a little more interested in how the horses use different parts of the range.

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Jack’s band on the way up Burnt Timber. (May, 2015)

The stereotype of the Pryors is the sub-alpine meadows of their summer range. People like the idea of mountain views, wildflowers, and frolicking foals, but they don’t always realize that there’s more to the range. There’s about 166 horses total, with about 100-120 of them using the mountain top for summer grazing.

That’s a lot of horses for a comparatively small amount of space. Since they don’t get supplemental hay like domestics, wild horses don’t always maintain the same weight. Although some horses can look healthier than others, spring is when mustangs are the thinest. That means, depending on conditions in the spring, the horses have just 3-4 months to pick up weight for winter.

There’s also horses that use the Dryhead for summer range, but not as many, and their ranges don’t overlap as much on the mountain top. With fewer horses, even though the Dryhead is also a small portion of the range, there’s not as much competition for resources. The main limitation to the Dryhead, is the forage is not as good quality.

In winter, the majority of the horses spend time on the mid-slopes of Sykes, and Tillet (Burnt Timber) ridges. Although the majority of the horses use the area, there’s also the most room to spread out. The range, is not all pristine grazing like the mountain top. It’s full of sage, and rocks, so the horses have to dig through the snow to find suitable grazing.

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Hickock’s band in the Dryhead. (June, 2016)

If there’s limitations to any portion of the range, then how do the horses look so good most of the time? As far as I’m convened, surviving another year is a two step process. Step one: regain all the calories for winter. This can be done by selecting one’s favorite summer grazing location. I already mentioned that the horses look their worst in spring, so at the very least, they would need to gain back a healthy weight. Ideally, they gain enough weight that they can have some extra before winter hits.

Step 2: maintain weight through winter. This is why winter forage is equally as important. It would be nice for the horses, if they could keep the weight consistent, but often even the toughest of horses have a hard time keeping all the weight they gained over the summer. It can be hard for people to see if they aren’t familiar with the range, but it doesn’t take long for the cycle to reset.

I also think the population is currently at a balance. The population has been around 160 for years, so I’d like to think that’s the number the land can sustain. There still needs to be management, and it’s nature so if it reaches carrying capacity it will crash. The horses are remarkable, and resilient, but it is also important to understand how the range works so it can be managed at sustainable numbers.

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