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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wild Horses of the Playa~ SE Oregon Journal, Part II

Here is the second entry in my wild horse journal. I watch the various herds in south east Oregon, this herd lives on the east side of bare white playa flats in the rain shadow of the Steens Mountain range.

Zones of Tolerance: Wild Horses of the Playa

Besides searching for and observing the wild horses on Steens, another pleasure of ours when in the area is playing on the 10 mile long playa flat on the east side of the mountain, also known as the Alvord Desert. However, on this day, we didn't know the dried lakebed would lead us to a different herd of mustangs, a herd we'd never seen before. The playa flat is a stark white, parched and powdery alkali area- the remaining sign of what once was a shallow lake. It is roughly 10 miles north and south running parallel near the flank of the mountain, and runs about 5 miles east and west. It's spectacular sitting up on top of the mile high mountain from the desert floor, witnessing the full moon rise over Sheephead mountains to the east and then shining on the white of the Alvord Desert below. Mere words cannot accurately describe the incredible and stunning sight. The high desert of SE Oregon is one of the last frontiers in Oregon, with the lowest amount of human population, and little if any regulations. You won't see signs prohibiting your sense of adventure; it's a wonderful place for the wild little renegade in your playful Soul.

Rick and I enjoy taking a dip in the hot springs that well up from Steens. Steens Mountain is a 30 mile long fault block caused by volcanic uplift. From melting ice fields up high and volcanic thermal activities below, a beautiful hot spring is a result. The hot spring then spills its fiery liquid over the surface and becomes a stream of sulfur smelling water, meandering its way to the dried-up lakebed to a flood plane and then dissipating into the parched land. The spring water is too hot to touch, but interestingly some very long hair-like algae of different colors flourishes within it. Far enough away from the spring, a hot bath area was constructed. A little concrete outdoor pool, large enough for two people comfortably, up to 4 for close quarters, exists with vast views of the wide-open desert on one side and the enormous mountain on the other. There is also a sheltered sitting pool, the size of a hot tub (for those of us who exercise modesty for the most part) and is constructed with aluminum flashing ~ not without the artistry of bullet holes… convenient to use as lookout peepholes to scan the area for intruders. To sit in the hot water, naturally emitted from this large mountain, overlooking the vast Alvord Desert while drinking in the wildness and the pungent smells of the desert, is food for the Soul. There you feel part of the mountain. When you get out of the hot mineral water, you feel refreshed and relaxed all at the same time, not to mention as red as a blushing lobster. This tub is also known as the local wranglers' bathhouse.

After our bath and knocking off some dust-poundage, we drove our pickup across the alkali desert powder. A surreal experience it is, to be in the middle of the 10 mile long stretch of white powdery ground. The ground gets so parched it has cracks all over of about an inch wide and from all different angles. One solid section, on the average is about 6-8 inches in diameter. With no one around and nothing to crash into for miles, we've had tons of fun driving with our eyes closed or setting the truck in gear and letting it drive itself as we ran after it, and jumped on top of it as it was slowly rolling along. Of course, never try this at home, or near anything you can mow over! This place offers another incredible perspective, and that's to be out in the middle of this lakebed at night during a full moon-in the flats with nothing around you for miles, wearing what you choose! With the white playa surface and the light of the moon, it almost looks like day with a night sky!

We continued our trek and headed east to where there seemingly is not much but the dusty playa's edge, which has only little islands of bunchgrasses, until you travel out further where it turns into the well-known sea of sage and yellow Rabbit brush. On the surface we found some curious small pebbles (some a half inch in diameter), which were hollow and float in water. We came across a set of hoof prints… no sign of horseshoes anywhere. Initially, I didn't think much of it, other than free-ranging ranch horses, or someone had ridden out there. But why there, out literally in "no man's land"? So while my husband scanned the ground for mineral and other rock treasures, I followed these horse tracks up toward the sagebrush. The higher up I went the more pronounced the trail, with many more horse tracks and horse apples, and soon stallion piles. By this time, the "little horse trail", was obviously a major horse-highway! Apparently they traveled a regular well-used path, at it largest was approximately 8' across. Coming down over the sage lands, when they got to the playa flats, they apparently fanned out. But why? Why would wild horses- or any living creature come out here, this no man's land, with no shade, or shelter, or water? I still don't know for certain, but believe most likely, for the salt and mineral composition of the playa bed.

Farther up as we drove out of the playa and onto a single lane gravel rutted road, we came across a small band of wild horses. It appeared there were six mares of various ages and one stallion. I wasn't sure, considering the topography of the area, if this was one small band of a larger herd that split off temporarily for foraging purposes, or if this were a successful bachelor stallion that has been quite good at stealing mares. This is where my hunch chose to take residence. It most likely was a relatively newly established band within the year, as there were no foals with these mares…. yet. In my years of observing wild horses, I'm still fascinated today with herd dynamics and social structures that dispell the myth and folklore about "a wild stallion leading his band of mares to safety". I have found that it is usually the matriarch, the lead mare, who chooses when to go to the local drinking hole; move to other grazing grounds; or where to run when there is real or perceived danger. The stallion often runs the flank or rear of the herd, usually placing himself between his herd and the intruder, whether it be another stallion, human, or other predatory animal.

Within this band on the east side of the Alvord desert, there was one rather stocky stallion, a stout mahogany bay, all neck and long dark and knotted mane. We got out of our truck and eased our way towards the band with cameras in hand, daring to see how close we could get to these magnificent horses. The stallion whipped around with tangled mane flying with the motion of his head, as he turned to face us, snorting loudly 3 times, so loudly and suddenly it startled us. The mares quickly lifted their heads and shifted their positions nervously without taking an eye off of us. One big chestnut mare with much authority and equal grace and power, wielded around and galloped to a safer distance with others following suite, and again faced us trying to detect what we were by trying to catch our scent. This whole time, the stout young stallion stood his ground and stayed between his herd and us, but trotted side to side with both his head and tail elevated. He too was trying to catch our scent, however, the breeze was in our favor. His high tail carriage was a sign to his mares of the potential danger, and his arched neck and elevated head turning at different angles was to get a better view of us, as well as an attempt to detect our scent. He snorted several more times, and at one point with determined demeanor and arched neck, trotted a few steps towards us. My husband and I looked at each other and I'm sure I heard myself gulp, as we were a ways from our vehicle, as where there was no trees or boulders to jump onto to get out of his way. But the better of me "slapped myself silly" and back to what I know about horse behavior, and reminded myself that they on occasion, will posture to test intruders. But they will always preserve themselves first and usually flee, before taking a chance that they lose (flight usually wins over fight, unless it's another stallion interested in his mares or they're backed into a corner and scared for their life). Had he flattened his ears and charged at us, I'm sure I would have probably scrambled onto my husband's shoulders! We stood our ground, and I raised my arms in the air to make myself look bigger, and the stud decided my 5'2" stature plus waving arms was too much and wheeled around and followed his mares and stayed at their back, stopping every once in a while to re-assess us and the situation. Afterwards, I was in awe to see that he was trying to get us to 'show our cards'. Soon after, all we saw was a dust trail where the horses were.

Besides deep and complicated social structures, horse herds have very effective safety measures. Safety measures such as warning behaviors of each horse for the herd to recognize and respond to, as well as for the intruder to be aware of. They also have built-in zones of tolerance for safety, in terms of proximity to the herd…. all in the name of herd preservation. I observed a "zone of tolerance" with my own "band" of four at home. I have my rope horse gelding "Gus" who has labeled himself as "herd stallion". I have a mare who foaled "Storm", and a newly broke big bruiser of a gelding named "Henry" aka Hudini. I watch in amazement as the mare kept both geldings at a safe distance from Storm...... gracefully whirling around that fragile new colt, teeth bared, charging the geldings, never bumping into her newborn. That was the inner circle. From there, Gus, "the wanna-be stallion" didn't allow my other gelding within his "safety zone" of the mare and colt, or the outer circle. If Henry got too close to "his mare and colt", Gus would charge him and move him to a preferable distance. And then of course Henry kept the dogs and cats at bay, outside his own circle of tolerance outside of the lead gelding's, and so on in. When long-horns moved near the area (across a fence though about ¼ mile away, both geldings joined forces, and spent much time between the cattle and the mare and foal, and always facing the long-horns, until they got bored and used to their distant presence. Though not as structured within the wild herd itself, but there is a obvious boundary, or circle the stallion will allow between he and the 'intruder', before the inner circle of his mares and foals.

There are miles of fenceless deserts and no telephone poles…. nothing but natural ecosystems and room to breath. And still people ask, "You're going to the desert for your vacation… why?" If they only knew….

For the plight of the mustang: The longer I view and witness the deep tight-knit social structures of both wild and domestic horses, the more I am aware of how important it is to preserve them as "families" as much as possible. With domestic horses, there is a financial precedence that intercepts that concept, unfortunately. However, there is an opportunity to play a part in preserving the wild horse herds and their intense social structures, through in-the-wild management which, besides keeping thousands of horses from being frightened, removed from their families, and trucked thousands of miles, would also save millions of tax-dollars. For more information about the plight of the wild horses, and re-establishing the protection of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, please go to

Thursday, November 19, 2009

If It Were Your Last Day....

Someone on my facebook page asked the question "What would you do if it were your last day?", I mulled it around, and here's what I came up with. One day, I will have to draw the image of the steel grey mustang....

"... so last days, like Paul asked....
As I already mentioned but it got buried in the bantering :).... I would ride off on my favorite horse and old '76 Circle Y. Paul, I think roping and beer are really good choices. So had to rethink my choice and combine the two... roping some and riding the rest of the day...
... I would rope like my 30' RH 3... Read More/8" true's on fire, roping the fastest steer on the fastest headin horse I could sink my spurs into, breaking some records and getting a story in newspapers and magazines, with local... heck national news coverage. Then, riding fast with my duster flying behind me, I'd ride off to the big open country on my favorite horse~ where there are no fences (but I bring my Leatherman's just in case... ). I would then look for and locate my steel gray mustang with the windknots tunneling through her insanely long mane.... and grab handfuls and ride the badlands. At the close of the day, I would then blog and status about it (LM@O) as I'm sitting by the fire drinking a Snakebite and eating the best ribeye! Yup, sounds like a good last day to me...
What would others do?"

Simple things.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "I was surprised earlier today when headed to the barn, to hear a local starling mimick a MEADOW LARK. Starlings make all kinds of sounds, but in Oregon, Meadow Larks are NOW only found in the high desert of EASTERN Oregon (they used to be plentiful in the Willamette Valley more than 50 years ago). That's over the mountain chain and hundreds of miles away. How in the world did he hear this unmistakeable song to replay it for the barn critters?
Starlings have developed... for whatever odd fetish, the ability to mimick the sounds around them... such as crickets, even cats... but I was surprised to hear the beauty & clarity of one of the most beautiful bird songs, from this common and 'not-so-pretty' bird. This made me think of a story I wrote in July about this creative crooner ..."

Simple things.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Newest Art: BARBARO

I finally completed my latest drawing of the late-great racehorse, Barbaro...

Graphite & Pastel

"In riding horses, you breathe in the very breath they take away..." ~Sonya Spaziani

Simple things.

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "I must have a reputation with the blue heron by our pond like the 'poporoci'. He's gone in a flash as soon as he sees me with camera in hand at the top of the pasture, yet he's calmly perched on one leg with 3,300 lbs of horses around him."

Simple things.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani Today... I am THANKFUL for all animals big and small, and the richness they bring into our lives~ making us better people.

"Perfect Circle"
Goldie and Storm
My ferocious over-protective mare and her new foal

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani The Fury and Grace of a Mother : "you know, I've heard this time and time again about horses being so gentle around small children. I've also seen it with the tiniest and most fragile of foals as well.

I had my pregnant mare on close watch seperated from the other horses in a round corral. Then one early morning, I walked out to check on Goldie, and she had somehow gotten out and foaled in the pasture around the others. I felt like I was rooted to the ground watching this mare in action. I watched Goldie behave in such a protectively, vicous manner, equipped with such an instinct so strong to protect her offspring. She was so terrorizing to the nearing and curious geldings (including Gus... sheesh.. the 'herd stallion'). So manacing was she, that they respectively kept a safe radius from the pair, until their curiousity took over and took some steps closer, and her maternal fury kicked in..... and yet amazingly careful around her new foal.

I winced with a fearful and aching heart as I watched her "ferociousness" keep the curious boys at bay- running at them with thundering hooves, kicking, and striking towards them, with bared teeth! With the fast and flying commotion, I feared for the delicate and fragile little foal's safety. However, the longer I watched, the greater my confidence grew in Goldie's ability to care of her little man. I can recall as if in slow motion, those menacing moves, yet somehow at the same time, so graceful and agile was she when near the foal, keeping him in a 'protective bubble'. She'd run the geldings off with bared teeth, shaking her head at them, but each time return calmly to lovingly tend to her baby, looking him over, and licking him clean. Always aware of where her big body and strong legs were when near him when she wealed and turned on her haunches for another go at the pesky gelding.... so much protection, with such strength and grace.....

So much unyeilding determination to protect offspring.... the bare and basic instincts kick in, when a mother gives birth. The familial bonds and 'spirit' of horses are powerful, amazing, and inspiring.... something which cannot be taught and something which cannot be broken."

Simple things.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "jetting it through the countryside, a favorite observation is watching a little lone heifer mingle, trying to fit in with a large herd of sheep. Today, the wooly herd was making it's way south with the little cow right in the middle, walking along like she was 'part of the flock', none of which looked very confused."

Simple things.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cash... You Never Count the Cost

Last winter, during a heavy wind storm, I found Cash stumbling in the wind and rain outside when I went to feed. I didn't know what happened, as it was dark, could barely see by the ambiant, residual light. He nearly toppled over me as I was putting on his blanket. I walked him two steps at a time back to the barn, and closed him into a smaller stall with a door to be seperated from the other horses. Being late at night, with only a small flashlight, I assumed perhaps a stroke/seisure. He stood with frightened eyes, and stood with his legs splayed out for additional balance. It was a long night.

The following day, I found 2x4 boards in one of the stalls bent and broken, and the vet also concluded head trauma by viewing his eyes and witnessing the structural damage to the barn. Not sure how it occured, but mostly likely the fierce wind had something to do with it. The horses have free access into the barn at will from the pasture.

Nearly a year later, he's still recovering, with still a slight tilt of the head, but even that is nearly gone. He's doing well, even kicks up his heels when called up for dinner, though his gait is a tad unsteady. He has a harder time keeping his weight up, probably bc he eats slower. It was touch and go last year, as he got so thin and sick that we nearly lost him. It was daily intensive care, as well as the meaningful times sitting in his stall, talking to him. He needed to be stalled for long periods of time away from the other horses, as well as for the harsh Oregon winter weather.

Prior to his head trauma, he was top of the rung in the equine social pecking order here, but sadly dropped below the young filly, who too also attempted to pick on him, and behaved like a cutting horse in attempt to dominate him. He had to be kept away from the other horses, for his safety, as well as being able to eat enough without the other running him off.

Now, he waivers between being back at the top, down to second with the mane mare, Blaze.... but he continues to assert himself and continues slow but steady improvement.

It was a long road, but Cash is one of those horses with those big gentle eyes, that no matter how bleak the situation, and how I was urged to put him down by others... I couldn't let go, and wouldn't give up, no matter the cost.

Simple things.

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "Funny how conversations with others can get your mind working. In a discussion about how horses make you feel, here is my own summation:

In riding horses, you breathe in the very breath they take away ~"

Simple things.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Sparring Stallions" Taken from my Journal page

America's wild mustangs are our symbol of FREEDOM, SPIRIT, STRENGTH, and INDIVIDUALITY, as well as our historical heritage
Sparring Stallions

Steens, 2005

This was a much cooler trip than we usually experience out in eastern Oregon. In fact on some occasions, it was misting in our high desert, but it was a nice change and we were glad for it. We dug for sunstones the first day, and had a grand time sharing gut-busting stories with the miners, and were fed rather well, best of all we got to play in the dirt and rocks.

After our late dinner cookout, we settled into our camping chairs and stared up into the clear desert sky. There was a crescent moon that set an hour of so after sunset with planet Jupiter in tow. My toddler could tell you which of the objects in the sky were stars and which were planets. The starry sky was remarkable, the kind of sky that you can't keep from staring at in awe and wonder. This was the first time in my life that I sat looking up at the night sky and actually felt like I was sitting on a ball of dirt out in space. The stars were so bright and numerous. Some were brighter then others, and some were bigger or smaller than others. It truly felt as though I was looking at the sky multi-dimensionally, instead of a single dimension like a picture, for instance. There was no "peyote", or any other spirits of influence. I've gazed at many incredible night skies in the past, but perhaps because the thought of infinite space is so hard to comprehend, it is too easy to view it as flat "picture". But this night, there was no mistaking that we were riding atop a big ball of dirt and hurling through infinite space and time.

The Milky Way was so bright; it shined on the sage and lit up the vast desert. The only thing missing that night, were the evening songbirds who typically sing all night after a very hot day. We were out there later in the year, and missed hearing their beautiful songs as they sit atop the sagebrush, distinguishing their territory from other "gentleman" birds, while diligently trying to lure the ladies with their haunting melodies. This night, the silence was deafening, but we still did hear coyotes in the far reaches of the desert plane. They were so far away, however, that we could only hear them if we quit breathing for a moment and turned our heads just so.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast of "everything-I-could-find-in-the-kitchen", cooked over the open fire, we headed to Steens Mountain and camped near the top at Fish Lake. With much detail aside, we drove toward the summit beyond Fish Lake and stood overlooking Kiger Gorge, the giant U-shaped glacial carved valley on the 30 mile long mountain, that is home of the geologically isolated mustangs known as the Kigers. After overlooking the valley some 3,000 feet below, and brazing a cold hard wind, we headed higher, where clouds happened to be skimming the summit. Our son was thrilled when he was able to literally touch the clouds, which moving over our heads very quickly. He still tells people about it to this day, and those he tells it to, look entertained and confused at the same time. I just laugh and then feel compelled to explain.

Fish Lake was teaming with small rainbow trout. At dusk, there were many of these small fish jumping out of water catching low-flying damsels and mosquitoes for their late evening supper, the various tones of the 'kerplunks' sounded musical and soothing and this occurred the whole area of the lake - near and far. We listened to their interesting music while we prepared our dinner. As we sat by the fire, a lone mule deer came to investigate behind us of about 7 feet, a rather large and healthy doe. What a thrill for our little boy! We enjoyed our supper of steak, wild rice and sautéed mushrooms, and dutch-oven cornbread with pre-cooked bacon pieces and cheddar. Our dessert? Drinking in the pungent smells of the sage, hearing the splashes on the lake's surface, and the mild wind rustling the Quaking Aspen leaves, and watching the dusk fade to a partly starry night.

The next day was overcast and somewhat cool, a nice break from the usual searing heat. As we drove, I was immersed in conversation; so much so that my husband had to remind me we were approaching the vicinity of our beloved mustangs. It caught my attention, but thought… "Oh, but how likely to see them this easy and quickly off the road!". Not a minute passed when I saw three, and exclaimed my excitement, jutting my arm across his chest as I pointed them out. I exclaimed without holding anything back, so much so that Rick almost drove off the road! We stopped our vehicle and watched in amazement 3 young bachelor stallions playing, chasing, and sparring. One palomino, one medium bay, and a dark chestnut played in the cool of the mist. The palomino was larger, and appeared somewhat older than the other two by body maturity and steady demeanor. He was a bit weary of us and watchful, while the two younger stallions, though stopping momentarily to assess us, went right back to having a vivacious ball.

They took turns chasing one another, but always returned to where the palomino was "stationed". They reared at each other, threw front legs over the back of the other, and then had a fabulous game of biting at eachother's legs, bringing the other to the ground (both front and back ends to protect their own appendages). These were young bachelor stallions, run out of the herd by the main stallion, so they were older than two year olds. Their soon-to-be missions in life, will be to steal mares and begin bands of their own. But for now, they had a magnificent and innocent time sparring~ clearly playing, but more importantly, testing their own strength, should some day the need arise. Once the handsome palomino became accustomed to our vehicle's presence, he once in a while joined the others running around, but still watchful. We chose not to get out of the vehicle as they were less concerned about the big "metal box", then had we gotten out. Their behaviors would have changed, if not disappeared in the vast hills of sage. We got them on videotape, and some far away stills.

Their mock battles and play took them farther and farther up the flank of the mountain, so we continued our own journey to scout for the larger herd which should be nearby, based on these three youngsters. We turned off on the Steens loop road just a mile or two further. We drove a couple miles when the mustang radar of my peripheral vision, picked up a band of about twenty to our north. These horses were on a farther hill, but we got out and walked to the edge of the closest hill to see if we can see another part of the herd in the small valley below, where they tend to rest. We walked between the wet sagebrush where our shoes, socks, and pants were all saturated- but that was the last thing on my mind. I kept my eye open for mustang mane-hairs to use in drawings of wild horses. We got to the edge, but there were no horses below as we had hoped, just across on the other hill, too far to recognize distinguishable markings. But even as far as they were, it was so quiet, and along with the nearby hills (which created something similar to an amphitheater) we could still hear a couple mares squealing, either establishing or re-establishing their placement in the herd with another ("the pecking order"). That, or putting an interested stallion in his place.

When mares are near, but not in estrus, and are approached by the stallion recognizing the olfactory signals, the mares will typically squeal and strike the front legs towards him indicating they are not ready for his offer. A few days to a week later, the mare will then usually accept the stallion's advances. Even as far as they were, I was thrilled to see the herd again. They were about a hill away from the three bachelors, or roughly ¾ of a mile away, for those of us accustomed to judging distance in miles. After I was satisfied filling my sight of these horses, and breathing their same air, we continued our way to their local watering hole where I searched for more horsehair.This week-long trip was much too quick, but we were able to experience so many wonders of nature. Besides the horses, we were fortunate to see two different herds of antelope, one of which had young; a great horned owl sitting on a window sill of an old weathered and sagging barn from days-gone-by; coyotes, red-tail hawks, golden eagles, and a two barred owls who circled over our heads a couple times to get a closer look at us, before we headed for home. But it's the horses, their social dynamics, and their wild flying manes that are forever burned in my memory.

Simple things.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "Fed Clovis, then I punched down, kneaded, formed, and threw part of him in the oven. Looking forward to the sourdough/french bread. Didn't touch the mountain of laundry threatening an avalanche as intended, instead headed out to the barn. Then it's on to my new piece of art... Barbaro!! Coffee? Lost count."

Simple things.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani

Facebook | Sonya Malecky Spaziani: "Got home from Halloween fun after dark... fed the horses late in the pasture by brail and filtered moonlight. Must say it was a bit of an odd sensation feeding them in a hooded cloak in the pale moonlight. Caught a glimpse of my shadow from the moon....LOLLL! Ended up getting the bottom hem stepped on by curious horses, and I'm still picking hay out of it. :)"

Simple things.