The American West is steeped in romantic imagery and nostalgia, horses being a big part of that. The lack of water in the American West, however, is not romantic in the least. The drought in the western states is no joke. Almost a decade without adequate rainfall and yearly watershed, with only a year or two of replenishment in the mix, has created a real danger to free range horses, livestock, and wildlife. With extreme roaming prohibited by fence lines, and viable sites for digging for a trickle of water or seep few and far between, large herds of horses present a formidable task in regard to supplying water. Much of their territory is inaccessible to equipment with the capacity to supply hundreds or thousands of gallons of water daily or even weekly. Connected to this dilemma is wildfire dangers and animal responses to such events. Let the hand wringing and problem solving begin.
These images were taken in late spring, which was dry earlier than usual again this year.
When being assessed by a free creature you have choices to make about your response.
Though there is always a default to extreme caution, I try to allow for equal opportunity in the appraisal exchange between myself and the animal as peers in curiosity.
“We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” –Henry Beston
“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks.
Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”
“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted.
It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility.
All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently,
builds up our characters, purifies our hearts,
expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable,
more worthy … ”
– Orson F. Whitney
Stormy times for us all globally coincide with stormy days (weather-wise) for That Herd.
I have long debated with myself about sharing images of an incident that was traumatic.
It took me almost two years to be able to review the images that are shown in this post; I was deeply upset by what I witnessed.
I am accustomed to observing a wide range of wildlife and equine behaviors and interactions; nature is often surprising in good and bad ways.
Wildlife photographers are usually powerless to intervene and/or know they must not.
I won’t post images that are any more graphic than these, but I want to honor the courage of the mares that defended a newborn foal.
A couple years ago, on a routine scouting mission to check on mares close to foaling, I observed this small group for a while.
I suspected a mare was close to giving birth, unusual in the daytime, and I lingered to capture the scene. Usually, these hours are filled with
wonder and captivating observations, but the birth event was disturbed, then chaotic. The foal, still robed in the placental sac, was investigated by curious herd-mates, much to the mother’s disapproval.
Usually, a heavily pregnant mare wanders away from the herd in the night to quietly give birth and remains secluded from the herd for hours, or days, and sometimes weeks.
This time, however, that was not the case. When a young stallion burst upon the scene, his investigations of the foal became violent. He had no experience with the birth of a foal and was agitated by the
complexity of sensory cues and defensive behavior of the mares. Most of the mares fled the location when danger became evident, but three veteran mothers fought valiantly for the victimized foal.
Without giving more details, I’ll skip to the part where I felt I must intervene and pressured the stallion to move off, which was risky, but I could not simply watch and hope for a favorable outcome.
This was too intense and the foal was in grave danger of being savaged or trampled to death.
In the end, the mother, newborn foal, and other mares were separated safely. The mare and foal recovered from their trauma and are both thriving.
Normally, social and environmental issues are sorted out as a course of nature, but this time, for better or worse, intervention occurred.
… Nature can be cruel. Predators are everywhere … in the wild the female species can be far more ferocious than their male counterparts. Defending the nest is both our oldest and strongest instinct …
“Every summer there are a number of nights, not many, but a number, when everything is perfect. The light, the warmth, the smells, the mist, the birdsong-the moths. Who can sleep?
–Fredrick Siagberg The Fly Trap, A Book About Summer, Islands and the Freedom of Limits
Special attention is given to a responsive mare. Once her willingness is confirmed, actions move rapidly from there. This mare is much larger than the stallion in this case, so a few logistical steps had to be taken. The young colt by the mare’s side is confused by all this activity and sticks tightly to his mother.
There’s nothing like a “mare moment” to energize an otherwise laid-back stallion. In this free range setting, the stallion interacts continuously with his mares. This horse often tends to the mares in a companionable partnership. Sometimes he completely ignores them, at other times he’s commanding, and sometimes mover to aggression. A veteran stallion, he is often gentle and detached. He has a somewhat permissive relationship with the mares as far as their movements as a group are concerned. Interestingly, when the moment calls for it, he has their complete attentions and obedience.
Eyes darkened with kindness, a herd stallion greets his herd mate, a gelding. Stallions will live together with civility among other stallions and geldings as long as no mares or fillies are present. This dark bay stallion, a personal favorite, has always charmed me with his thoughtful expressions.
This stallion is forced to stay light on his feet around this big mare. One minute she naps nose to nose with him, and in the next moment, she sets him back on his heels over control of the air space over a mud hole. Granted, water is scarce, but this was a crabby moment, not a desperate thirst moment.
Receptive body language and soft expressions greet this young stallion when several mares are willing at the same time. Interestingly, on this occasion, he bred none of the mares. The estrus cycle in mares ripens into perfect timing for optimal conception, so often, the stallion waits when his service is spread thin, so to speak.
Without the usual heavy forelock covering his face, you can see the charming white eyelashes on this beast. He looks handsome and content.
He’s looks cute, but he’s a fighter. Shoving and biting, rearing and racing, the colts use their free time to practice techniques that may help them, in the future, win mares. Even the castrated colts engage with alarming intensity, securing social position or defending it.
A veritable treasure trove of information, horse manure holds clues to all sorts of social information. Used to advertise sexual status and territories for both males and females, determine useful information about forage, wellness, and surroundings, poop is an essential tool in a horses awareness of it’s surroundings.
… dreamers would have a vast herd of noble steeds, like this one.
A beautiful image captured of a horse I admire.
Quiet leadership from the herd stallion, on a day to day basis, can seem like an annoyance. All that driving and gathering of the mares sometimes seems without purpose or need. It’s as if the stallion is just being imperious. That being said, in times of confusion or stress, the leadership of the stallion can be life-saving. All that daily enforcement of his will is necessary when real danger is present. Leadership is a thankless role, until truly needed. Then you’re a hero.
Stallions can be curious creatures, sometimes almost romantic and sometimes brutish. In a moment of introduction, this stallion confirms the receptiveness of a mare.
When clicking on this individual post, a list of some other moments on this blog about mare and stallion interactions is easily accessed under the main image.
It has been five years since I first laid eyes on this ordinary bay colt. One of the last foals of the year, born with tight front leg tendons, this newborn colt caught my attention. He was not flashy or attention grabbing in the usual ways. It was the valiant effort he made to keep up with his mother, his expression one of earnest concentration, his resilience in navigating his bent knees over the challenging terrain and through the vegetation, that stood out. In a few days, his tendons were normal and he marched about with curiosity and good-natured acceptance of whatever presented itself to him. At five years old, he has the same thoughtful expression and pleasant disposition. He remains respectable in every way. He has remained a personal favorite of mine in the herd.
The behavior of a herd stallion changes often and with a moment’s notice. One minute, he may doze alone in the shade, the next moment he may thunder into the mares, head high, bellowing, marching about, with his tail sweeping from side to side. He may turn from quiet grazing to rambunctious patrols in an instant. Often, his expression may turn from gentle acceptance to fierce commander, as in this image.