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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

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