Any of you who came as guests during the second half of summer 2010 might remember talk about a wild horse that was patrolling the perimeter of the ranch. When we first noticed the wild horse, there was cause for immediate concern. The horse was right outside of the pasture where all of our young horses, animals ranging in age from one to four, live. It is fairly rare to see a wild horse alone, as horses are herd animals, so this lone horse on the other side of the fence from our young horses was an unusual sight. If you do see a lone wild horse, it is usually a young stallion who has been kicked out of his original herd by the dominant stallion and is now looking for a new herd of mares. We were concerned because it would be very problematic to have a wild stallion jump into the pasture with our young horses. He could cause a lot of problems, both impregnating young mares and hurting horses, quite quickly. When we finally got a closer look at the chestnut mustang, we were surprised and relieved to see she was a fairly young mare. After discovering her sex, we were no longer worried, only curious about her journey to our ranch.
She must have originated on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes. There are a number of wild horse herds on the reservation, and probably once every other summer or so, a few lucky Bitterroot Ranch guests have the great fortune of seeing one of the herds from a distance on a ride. The ranch shares borders with the reservation, the Shoshone National Forest, land owned by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The East Fork of the Wind River flows through the ranch and then through the valley below us. Below the ranch, the river serves as a divider: east of the river belongs to the reservation and west of the river belongs to Game & Fish. When we first saw the wild mare, she was across the fence from our young horses on BLM land. She must have crossed the Wind River, leaving the reservation, then crossed Game & Fish land, finally arriving on BLM land and the fence line with our herd of Arabians. How she was separated from her herd and why she made her journey, we will never know.
Just after she appeared, we had a guest, Judy, who was particularly enamored with the idea of a wild horse taking up residence right next to the ranch. She made it a mission to observe the wild mare throughout the week she was with us. One morning, Judy made a special request: could we devote a ride to the area in which the wild mare had been living in order to observe her? Nina, one of our beloved, long-time guests, also wanted to go, so I had the pleasure of taking them on a ride in pursuit of the wild horse, or as Judy had named her, Freedom. We rode all morning without seeing Freedom. We were disappointed, but the morning had been clear and the ride beautiful, so we were still in good spirits. As we were about to head back to the ranch, we saw Mel riding up to us– she also wanted to join in the search! We decided to ride one more circuit, and as we turned, Freedom appeared. We rode right up to the fence that separated her from us, and for about fifteen minutes, she gave us quite a show. At times she stopped, head high, ears forward, locking eyes with out horses. At other moments, she pranced the fence line, demonstrating the incredible suspension in her movement. Still at other times, she would drop her head to the ground, snorting and pawing the earth with her hoof. It was a breathtaking interaction, one I am sure none of us will forget.
For the rest of the summer and fall, Freedom would come and go from the fence line. There were plenty of native grasses for her to eat on the BLM land, and we could see her tracks to and from the river, where she would water each day. Sometimes we would not see her for days, but we would still see her tracks, and she always returned. When autumn turned to winter, Freedom explored less and less. Worried about her pawing through snow to eat grass, Mel started throwing her hay each morning after feeding our herd of horses. Freedom now knows the routine and waits each day for her ration. After you hay her, you can lean on the fence, not 5 feet from where the hay is, and she will come and eat it. She is certainly not tame, but she understands that people are providing her food this winter.
We plan to let Freedom decide her own fate. The fence is not prohibitively high, so if she really wants to jump in with our herd, she can. If she chooses this, we will welcome her. If she chooses to stay on the wild side of the fence, we will gladly feed her each winter and let her roam the range each summer. At this point, she seems quite content with her life. She can touch noses with our horses across the fence, while still enjoying the boundless expanses of open space. Time will tell what Freedom will decide! Here she is, awaiting her winter hay: