Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
Winter Friend-- $100 Annual Donation.
With your $100 renewal you will receive:
Winter is a difficult time for Man and horse. On the Sanctuary, feeding animals is a seven day a week chore and holidays such as Christmas are no exception. I have lived here on the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary for twenty years, and have gone through many a winter storm, but never anything I haven’t been able to handle. Yet still I worry.
I worry about the storm of the century coming in over the mountains of the west, or blowing north from Texas. So many horse lives depend upon us that we have to be prepared for Nature’s worst. Over in Chilson Canyon, our TD 15 track-laying tractor sits with brand new batteries ready to haul hay into the back country. At our headquarters great long stacks of hay in round bales, each weighing about eighteen hundred pounds, sit out the winter. A hundred ten horsepower wheel tractor with a grapple in front, sits plugged into heat so that regardless of the weather it will always start. We can do little but sit, wait, and hope disaster doesn’t strike.
The younger, tougher wild horses seem to avoid hay as a matter of pride. One by one, older horses team up with friends their age, and head to lower elevations where hay and protein supplements await them. Such relationships interest me. Maybe they tire of trying to keep up with more active animals, but, most likely, it is a matter of dominance. In any band a certain pecking order exists, and when I watch a whole band for a day I see evidence of bullying as in a flock of chickens. Often it is subtle, the laying back of ears as though to say “Keep away! That blade of grass is mine.” Sometimes, a mare will erupt in anger and fly at another, mouth gaping to bite, or hooves lashing out at the offender.
I see older animals that have been in a certain band for a decade, going from high caste to low. I notice them suddenly at the extreme edge of a group, and then, the next time they are observed, they will be grouped with others their own age and condition. There is not a lot of infighting in these older bands. Fighting takes energy, and these wise old animals seem consciously determined to take no action which might jeopardize their ability to last the winter.
Here on the wild horse sanctuary, communication is probably as much visual as vocal. When I start putting out hay for the horses, it is hard to realize what superb eyesight the wild bunches possess. Long before I see the horses, they are watching me, and respond accordingly, streaming down out of the hills, one band influencing another. Even in summer, when danger or even exuberance starts a band to running, bands miles away will spot them from afar and begin galloping until they realize that they are not threatened.
Often when a member of a band becomes separated from the others, it will nicker loudly, pausing to focus its ears for an answer. The answer will often be too faint for my human hearing, but the wild horse hears and goes running to catch up to its friends. Several years ago, there were two mares that were inseparable from each other, Funny Face, and Shaggy Roan. When you saw the one, you would see the other less than fifty feet away. Somehow, the two had a falling out, and, for a time one would not come in to drink when the other was present. This went on for at least a year before the pair finally made up and were inseparable until the last of their days.
Another pair of inseparables we called the Paint Sisters. Two identically marked black and white overos, the pair did not associate with other horses, but kept to a high ridge and were never separated. They died within days of each other and became part of the coyotes and eagles that roam the sanctuary. They were friends, those two, completely comfortable together, and never did I see a sign that one dominated the other.
This winter it seems as though the snows will never come, but, one bitter cold evening, I leave the old Prairie House and stand in my carpet slippers searching for even the faintest glimmering star in a once bright winter sky. For a moment silence is absolute, then from afar comes the creak of frozen cottonwood limbs and the sudden roaring of western winds in the pines atop the ridges. Still no glimmer of light, but the first tick of sleet on last year’s faded leaves, and suddenly big, wet flakes splatter on my upturned face. I picture the mustangs out there, haired out for winter, turning their tails to the storm as bay and sorrel, paint and black, roan and gray, all become white horses in the darkness.