In Wyoming last October, as I photographed the brave fight an older gray stallion put up to save his family from the helicopter and the trap, I had no way of knowing that there would be a way for him to be free again. I watched him valiantly struggle to keep his family from the trap for over a half hour, and finally the relentless helicopter pushed his family in in a great cloud of dust. But he was not there! He had escaped – but only for a short time – two wranglers went after him and roped him and dragged him into the trap. The proud old battle -scarred warrior hung his head down with fatigue. That was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen at a roundup.
I had been posting the events as they unfolded on Facebook, and Sandra Longley said that she would find a home for Gray Beard, as she named him. In the weeks after the roundup I sent his photo with the distinctive “W” mark on his left shoulder to Lona and Fran at Canon City, where all the Adobe Town horses had been shipped, and Fran found him in the pens. It would have been like searching for a needle in a haystack had he not had that distinctive scar – most of the older stallions were also gray!
There were 251 horses over the age of 10 years old from Adobe Town. These are referred to as “Sale Authority” horses courtesy of the Burns Amendment, which allows wild horses over the age of 10 to be sold without limitation. Sandra heard that a man was interested in taking all 251 of the older horse as soon as the stallions were gelded and that his plan was to drop off 1 – 2 horses all over the Midwest to people wanting the horses for “Agricultural Deferral.” However, this sounded like an all too convenient excuse for buying them to ship to slaughter. So a plan was born – Sandra decided that not only would she rescue Gray Beard, but also a load of sale authority horses, including mares and old stallions who would be saved from the difficult and life-threatening process of castration.
I volunteered to go select the stallions at Canon City, and arranged with Lona and Fran to do this at the next adoption. Sandra and I had already fallen in love with a Cremello stallion I photographed at the previous adoption she named Dust in the Wind, so he was already selected. Some advocated from Colorado had asked us if Ben, a bay stallion from the Piceance Herd could be included, so he was the lone Coloradan in the group. Fran allowed me to go into the pens with him, and I tried to select the older horses. It was so sad knowing that not all of them could go. Some of the stallions had already been castrated, and as we went to the last pen of intact stallions I had almost given up hope of finding the red roan who had so touchingly called for his mare during the roundup. He was in the back of the last pen – I was very sad to see him there at Canon City, but happy that he could be part of the lucky few to find a new home.
One of the stallions that we selected had escaped the day the trucks were unloaded at Canon City. He jumped two 6 1/2 foot fences to escape to a 2000 acre property that was across the road from the Canon City facility. None of the Adobe Town horses that had been adopted could be released to their new homes for over a month because they had been unable to catch him and do a blood test on him. They tried trapping, putting a gentle saddle horse out with him ( who then started following him around) and tried to dart him with a tranquilizer gun. My imagination was captured by this elusive gray stallion who was so unwilling to give up his freedom. I named him Liberty, and told Fran and Lona that we wanted him on the truckload of horses. But this was not to be. Two weeks ago we heard the sad news that he had been darted with a tranquilizer, and never came out of it. He was 20 years old, and died free.
On Thursday of last week, I traveled to the Blackstone Ranch in Taos, NM where we waited for the horses to arrive. Finally after 5 months in captivity and just a day before the stallions were scheduled to be castrated, Sandra received the message that it was a go. 32 horses had been loaded into a huge transport vehicle that morning at Canon City, the eleven stallions I had selected and 21 older mares Lona selected, most of them pregnant.
It was a windy day, and the trailer had to go slowly, so we waited anxiously for it to arrive. As it pulled up into the ranch, the sound of kicking and stamping of feet could be heard. The horses were moving around restlessly and we could see where hooves had bent the sides of the trailer! The driver told us that for the last 100 miles the stallions in the back had been kicking. As it drove around to the ramp leading to the stallions’ pasture, we realized that even the door had been bent, and the first efforts to raise it were in vain. The ranch manager John rode to the rescue on his tractor and was able to get the back door open. We were worried about the condition of the stallions, if they had been fighting. None of them wanted to come out – to venture down the ramp, out of the trailer, but finally a faded gray pinto came sliding down the ramp, then the red roan, that I had named Paprika, The bay roan followed, and then after some prodding through the sides of the trailer, one more stallion came out and ran into the large pasture. They all stood for a moment, waiting, then moved toward the hay.
The next divider separated the stallions form the mares, and the mares once again were initially reluctant to come out. And then we discovered the sad reason for all the uncertainty and disruption – there was a mare that was down in the trailer. She was not moving, and soon the driver told us she was dead. Finally the remaining mares in that divider section came flying out of the trailer, and grouped up to work their way down an alleyway to their pasture.
The next divider section also held mares, and the driver and John moved the mare who was down to the side so they could come out. They waited in the alleyway, as if for their fallen companion, and as the next group of stallions came out, the Cremello, Dusty, was the first to come out. He wandered over to the mares, over the fence in the alleyway, and started to make friends. Finally the rest of the stallions came out, Grey Beard neck and neck with Adobe Wind, of the long mane, and another gray stallion, then the last two, and the dark gray Adobe Steel was last to come off the trailer -he ran very fast to join the other stallions!
I was very happy to see them all finally free at last. It was sad that the mare had died, of a twisted colon, a month away from foaling. But she is free now.
The stallions would be kept separate from the mares, with one large pasture between them, so that they could settle from their trip. I moved to the back of the stallion’s pasture so that I could observe themas they settled down to eat hay and grass, which they had not seen for 5 months. Most grouped together, but Dusty stayed separate from the larger group, finally going over to greet Paprika, then moving to join the group. Three of the stallions who had been in the back of the trailer had cuts and bangs from the trip, but all appeared to be walking and trotting ok, so the decision was made to keep an eye on them and see how they were the next morning.
On my way back home to Colorado, I stopped to see the horses. I went first to the pasture with the mares, as I had not had a good opportunity to look at all of them before. there was a sorrel mare with a long blaze, two dark brown mares, and a lighter bay, a little mare with a very long mane and plenty of spirit! The rest of the mares were gray, which makes sense given the predominance of gray in the Adobe Town horses.
The mares were very alert and all grouped together looking at me, so I stayed well back with my long lens, and observed them. When I moved away, they finally turned back to grazing, but kept an eye on me as I moved toward the stallions.
I stayed in the pasture next to the stallion pasture so that I would not agitate the stallions, who were on hyper-alert status. The older stallion who is fleabitten gray that I called Freckles snorts at me several times. The reddish pattern on his coat makes him appear from a distance as if he is a roan. He is cut and swollen on his legs, but still walking and trotting. Dusty the cremello and Ben the bay are the most relaxed, walking leisurely while the other stallions move back and forth. It is Gray Beard who leads the stallions toward me, walking confidently. They all take a look, then move off. I see this as mu cue to go, and leave them to settle in their new home in peace.
If you are interested in sponsoring one of the horses, or helping with their expenses, please go to Spirit of the Wild Horse: