A Tribute to Jaci

Part 1: Getting to know you!
You don’t have to stay long in a HMA to know that some bands are more tolerant of people. Some horses are so visible that they are affectionately referred to as “the greeters” to advocates. Admittedly, I haven’t been following the Pine Nut Ponies long enough to know if a band or horse fits the bill, but for me personally I really enjoy seeing Zorro’s band.
Although I’ve visited four wild horse ranges before making my way to the Pine Nut Mountains, there’s always anticipation before the first visit to a range. You’re not supposed to let a first impression define the experience, but they can still tell you things about the situation.
My first impression was if I hadn’t asked the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocate group for directions there’s no way I would have found it. The best HMAs have signs with regulations. Most let people know they’re entering BLM land. At the very least there’s a cattle guard. For this herd, one minute you’re driving on pavement, the next it is dirt.
With the choice of a steep rocky hill in front, and a deeply rutted road to my left, I spent a few seconds debating. Deciding straight was the better option; I made it up the hill, and started seeing more of the scenery. The road ran along a crest, and I could see horses in a valley to my right, so I scanned ahead to see if I could get closer before parking.
Not wanting to lose sight of them, or get further away since I was just learning the roads I opted to hike. Just in case I couldn’t catch up to them, I took an ID shot, and turned around to make sure I knew where I was parked before getting started. For all wildlife, but especially wild horses that have not seen me before, I try to avoid approaching directly. I want them to know I’m approaching so they don’t think I’m a predator, but I also don’t want to be so boisterous that I startle them.

Zorro's band

Having a telephoto lens is beneficial when viewing wildlife.

Most of the time the technique works, but Zorro’s band seemed to be on a mission to find higher ground. I gave up trying to approach them, and walked parallel to them until I could predict where they would stop. I was always scanning around me to see where Mushu the Subaru was, and watching the horses to make sure I was not pressuring them.
Finally, they found the end of a ridge, and made their way up it. I circled wide to give them space, and tried one more time to get at a good angle for photos. Both Zorro and his lead mare Brandy took turns watching. Often Brandy would put her filly Jaci in between her and the yearling Honey.

Brandy

The ever watchful Brandy and Jaci.

Brandy would get too close trying to get a better look at me, and when I would back up to give them space Zorro would snake them a different direction. Loathe at the idea of causing mustangs to expend extra energy at the end of winter, I decided the best thing for me to do would be to remain still. After weaving around sage to approach indirectly it seemed ironic that their wary curiosity was causing them to be too close. Letting them pass, I slowly walked away. They were letting me know that they weren’t sure about me, and I wanted to respect that.
Part 2: Winter coats and courtship
The next weekend I was fortunate to see several bands in the distance. Opting to start with the band that was closest, my hike took a different type of planning. Not only did I want to know where the car was, I also wanted to keep an eye on both bands. Zorro’s band is fairly distinct to me, so even from a distance I was starting to make predictions that it was his band again. That left me with a dilemma: do I pass them in favor of seeing a new band, or do I try to see if I would have better luck during my second visit to the range.
I’d like to think of myself as an opportunist, so after checking to see if the other band had moved, I made my way down to Zorro’s band. Brandy was as wary as ever, but after a few quick looks, Zorro started to ignore me. More concerned with scratching her winter coat, Honey was under a tree with Jaci nearby. Jaci watched her aunt closely and wandered over. Soon both fillies were scratching, and fitting under branches.

Jaci and Honey

Jaci mimics Honey by using a tree to satisfy itches.

Zorro was also keeping an eye on the youngest members of his band. He sauntered over to Honey. She’s only a yearling, but Zorro was talking to her softly. Honey struck out with her front legs, but she lifted her tail slightly. I wondered if she was old enough to be in heat. Honey turned and walked away. Zorro followed, and looked like he wanted to mount her, but I think they both know she is still very young. Honey tried to initiate mutual grooming, but Zorro was a little impatient, so she went back to the tree. It seemed like Honey was old enough to flirt, but not anything else.

Zorro and Honey

Zorro approaches Honey.

Part 3: unexpected action
My next visit to the range led to several bands almost at once. As much as I enjoy the subtle behaviors that reinforce bonds between band-mates with 3 bands and a large group of bachelors in the area I was expecting stallion action. However, with warm mid-morning temperatures, and a sunny day all the horses were napping.
It was still the type of morning I enjoy, enabling me to sit quietly with the horses an observe with out as much pressure to get the type of action shot people tend to enjoy seeing.
Since I try not to spend too much time hiking during the hotter parts of the day, I started back to my car. As I reached it, I noticed horses on the other side in the distance. They were a large band, so I knew I hadn’t seen them yet, so I decided to go on one more hike. It did not take me long to recognize Blondie’s band, and once I reached them I also noticed Zorro’s band.

Blondie

I’ve visited a few HMAs, and I’m not sure if there’s a hunkier stallion than Blondie.

I spent some time with Blondie’s band, then circled to Zorro’s band. Like all good band stallions Zorro was between his mares, and Blondie’s band, but he kept on inching closer to Blondie’s. I suspected Zorro was also looking for action, so I decided to stick with him at a respectful distance.

Zorro

Zorro checks on his band on the way to Blondie’s.

As Zorro got closer to Blondie’s band he spent less time grazing, and I thought that Blondie had to know Zorro was coming. Standing next to one of his mares, Blondie turned so he was completely facing Zorro. Part of me was expecting Blondie to chase Zorro away. Before that could happen, Zorro reached an invisible line, and contributed to a stud pile. He wandered to his band, and I followed.
As the rest of the band grazed, Jaci frolicked. If the band moved even just a step or two away Jaci would run, leaping over sage to catch up. I still kept my eye on Zorro. Even though they couldn’t see them, his band was getting closer to Blondie’s. But there could have been truth to the saying “out of sight out of mind” since Zorro spent most of his time grazing near Honey.
Since it had been a lazy day for the horses, I decided to head back to the car. Still keeping an eye on Zorro’s band behind me, I noticed him following me. Normally that means a horse is curious, or trying to decide if a person is a threat. Zorro’s young, and his band should have been used to me, so it seemed odd that he would be approaching.
Trying to keep an appropriate distance, I backed up, but he kept on following. I paused to see if he’d go around me, but he still kept walking. I tried changing direction, but he still was getting closer. As flattering as it is when mustangs are comfortable around people, the idea of a stallion approaching me was not appealing. I decided to make a more direct route to my car.
As I did, I realized that the path Zorro and I were sharing was a coincidence. Winter and spring had been wet in the Pine Nuts leaving small “ponds” along dips in the roads. Zorro was thirsty. So thirsty his band was in the distance. Zorro finished drinking, and lifted his head in their direction. He took a few steps in their direction, and gave a soft whinny.
Hoping this would prompt the mares to join him, I tried to find a good spot to get pictures.

Jaci and Brandy

Brandy leads Jaci to water.

Soon the mares came up, and Brandy led Jaci to a suitable spot to drink. Jaci seemed undecided on how to approach the situation. She was not interested in drinking, instead wading into the water. Then, she began splashing. Engrossed in splashing, Jaci didn’t notice how close she was to Honey. Normally the two enjoyed playing together, but Honey did not seem interested in the small waves. Pinning her ears slightly, Honey sent Jaci back to Brandy. As the little band grouped together I decided it was time to head home. I’ve seen a lot of wild horse ranges, but that had been one of my more satisfying mornings.

Honey and Jaci

Jaci splashing near Honey.

Part 4: Adjusting to Loss
Before my next visit to the range I learned that Jaci had gone missing. Although she would not have been the foal I expected to lose, she was too young to be separated from the band. The most likely scenario was predation. Although it’s hard when endearing foals disappear, but I hoped advocates that knew the horses better than I did could take comfort in the fact that she lived her admittedly brief life on the range.
Hoping to make a quick trip before it rained, I reached the spot where I was starting to expect to see Zorro’s band. I could recognize them from a distance, and could tell they were on the move. I felt bad seeing them so unsettled. Before deciding if I wanted to approach, I waited to see if they would slow down or stop. They did so circumnavigating them I slowly approached. Their energy felt more like my first visit, so I was careful to respect their space.
Zorro and Brandy looked up first as usual, but even Honey seemed wary. They seemed to recognize me, and even Brandy went back to grazing. Still, I didn’t want to add stress to a band that had recently lost a foal, so I did not spend long with them.

Zorro

Zorro keeps and eye on me as I approach.

In my experience loss is bittersweet. It’s sad to lose someone, but it can also be an opportunity reminisce. I’m glad I had a chance to get to know Jaci a little, and at risk of anthropomorphizing, I think the band has matured. I think people see Zorro’s status of band stallion and forget he’s still growing into himself. Brandy’s only lead mare by default since she’s the oldest. I think Jaci was her first foal.

Brandy and Honey

The two sisters standing close to each other.

We can’t compare Zorro’s band to mature established bands because none of them are mature. They may have lost Jaci, but they’re one step closer to figuring out how to be an effective band. Give them time, and they’ll be stronger for it. Zorro’s a tenacious horse who’s learning to be observant, and Honey and Brandy are learning to be more aware of where he is. I’d like to think we can expect to see this band grow.

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