Let’s not lose our heads!

I’ve mentioned that I rely a lot on other photographers to know what goes on in the Pryors. Since the horses are elusive, it can be difficult to know what happens in winter. It’s part of the reason why horses are only presumed deceased after a year of no sightings. The horses spread out on Sykes, and Tillet Ridges, so if people didn’t give them a chance to at least show up over summer, then entire bands would be presumed deceased simply for being in an area inaccessible to people.

In theory, all  we have to do is be patient, but winter also means that people get a healthy dose of cabin fever. If a horse goes missing, it creates unanswered questions that people want answered (right now, gosh darn it!). If they don’t receive those answers, then it lends fuel for the imagination. If a stallion isn’t with his band it must mean he’s hurt, or worse! If a horse isn’t in a picture it must mean they’re missing, not just out of frame!

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The rest of Flint’s band was ahead. (June, 2016)

I exaggerate a little, but I do understand where people are coming from. It’s been a rough year for the horses. There’s a lot of horses that are in their 20s, and with a total of 11 foals born this year, only 7 are currently surviving. I think this is the first year that’s received zero population growth since the years in the early 2000 where the horses were being hunted by mountain lions.

I’m not sure what’s causing the foals to disappear, although I do have theories. Reports are Quest was not as strong compared to other foals, Quivira, and Quicksilver were both born in the fall. On the other hand, both Quietstorm, and Quivira were reported as healthy sturdy foals. It might seem crass to debate why a foal passed away, but if people want the herd to be managed primarily with natural selection, I think it is worth understanding how natural selection works.

Disappearance of older horses is a little easier for me to understand. If mares are having fewer foals due to PZP, it’s less stress to their bodies, and they live longer. Because of this, when they do reach their late 20s, we’re starting to see some of the old matriarchs pass away. I don’t think we’re going to have a population crash of those cohorts, but it does make me a little nervous that Phoenix, and War Bonnet are 24, and 23 respectively. There’s also a group of band stallions that are 21 this year. If they weren’t still strong stallions, they wouldn’t still have their bands, but it has to be stressful for them. There’s a lot of young bachelors on the range right now, so I think we’re going to see some older band stallions mentoring younger bachelors pretty soon.

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Fiesta is an example of a horse that hasn’t been seen lately, but my guess is he found an elusive group of bachelors to hang out with on Sykes. (June, 2016)

It’s true, winter is hard, and it’s tough seeing horses we’ve gotten to know pass away. Even in the ’10-’11 winter when the Billings BLM issued 3 memos about conditions I don’t think there were as many losses. I don’t write this to undermine the conditions the horses go through year after year.

I’d like to consider myself a realist, though. It’s hard on advocates to see such personable animals pass away, but we also demand that the BLM treat them like wildlife. The people that worry about a horse not being seen for a few weeks, are also quick to defend the horses’ adaptations to people that treat mustangs like domestic horses. I think a question people need to ask themselves is: would we have the same emotional connection if these were animals in the Cervidae (deer) family, for example?  It’s a little different since it’s rare for horses to have twins, but if natural selection isn’t controlling deer populations enough, then hunting seasons are the next step. I’m not advocating a hunting season for mustangs, but that’s what it would look like if they really were treated like wildlife.

The point I’m trying to make is: if we want the horses to live their lives out in freedom, then we need to accept the realities of natural selection. To us, the conditions are hard, but like all wild animals the horses are the most adapted to living in them. Sometimes winters like this one test the horse, but I’d like to think they’re adapted for every challenge.

I’m not going to deny the possibility that a horse missing from a band passed away, but especially in the winter when it’s hard to see all the horses, I’d like to think that they’re just out of frame, or with a band that hasn’t been seen in a while. The realist in me accepts the possibility that a horse passed away, then moves on from it. It’s only one possibility, and I have to calculate which possibility is most probable based on the options.

Winter can already be a hard time for the horses, so why make it harder than it needs to be? I used to be a, “well it could be worse,” type of person, and that type of mentality is exhausting. Another question for you delightful readers: does worrying help? I’m going to take the liberty of answering: no worrying does not help. If we, as advocates plan on promoting the horses as wildlife, ergo adapted to their environment, then there needs to be a point where advocates accept that they are equipped to handle the challenges of their environment. If they do succumb to their environment, we can take comfort in the fact that it was natural, and they lived their life in freedom.

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Phoenix, and her stallion Hernado. (June, 2016)

My main recommendation is: patience is a virtue. Easier said than done, I know, but there have been instances where horses are elusive for the entire winter. My second recommendation is: trust the word of others. This goes with living vicariously through others. Since I can’t visit the range in the winter, I have to rely on reports of those with firsthand experience. If they say the horses are fine, the horses are probably fine. This goes for the Sykes horses which are hard to see in winter. Just because that part of the range is inaccessible to people, doesn’t mean the Sykes horses are doing poorly.

It’s January, so spring is about 3-4 months away. I don’t think we’re quite to the 1/2 mark of winter in the Pryors, but we’re making progress. These next few months are going to be hardest on the horses, but this isn’t the first winter the horses have weathered. This winter has been tough, but they will be stronger for it. I think everything in nature happens for a reason. It’s hard for us to see, but natural selection is best for the horses in the long run.

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