I just returned from California where I spent several days riding out to track and photograph wild horses. If you are a blogger reading this on the WordPress Reader, you should click through to the original post because it is just chock full of story and picture. That being the case, I will forewarn you as I did for my previous “longest blog ever” (see Mackinac Island for that one) that this one will also take some time to read, but it’s just such cool stuff!
My friend Merry, who accompanied me a few years back to “dressage boot camp” in New England, was my riding partner for this trip. Our ride started out at River Springs, which is in the Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory about 60 miles north of Bishop, California. The area we would explore would also include parts of Nevada, but first we had to meet our horses and ride about 2 hours up to our base camp site. Once we got there we checked our tents (Merry’s and mine needed a little extra reinforcement and we were glad we did it because one night it got really windy) sorted out our stuff and then relaxed around the kitchen and the camp fire circle to listen to what we were about to experience and how to best approach it. With wild horses, there is always the possibility that you can go on a trip like this and never see one. So while we had high hopes, we were prepared to accept disappointment. Fortunately we had very canny guides who knew the horses’ habits pretty well and we saw more than we ever imagined we would. Here’s a little photo break to show you the people accommodations–
Dawn at the camp site.
A section of the camp site. My tent was the green one on the left.
The camp kitchen, with our extraordinary cook Gene getting ready to make breakfast.
Our horses wait for breakfast as the day breaks.
The “water main” for our camp–from a stream somewhere up the hill! One night it got so cold the line froze.
Our camp shower even had hot water.
The “bridge” from the kitchen back to the tents. If you think a tipsy person would fall off this bridge, you would be right! Someone did (not me).
Our tack room…there was no rain, so no worries.
We rode out in two groups of eight along with two guides in each group. We sometimes crossed paths, but were basically on separate routes each day. This day we went out to an area near Boundary Peak, so named because it sits on the boundary between California and Nevada. Our first sighting was of a mustang stallion who has been dubbed “McBride” because he likes to hang out near McBride Flat. We found him near there at an area called McNamara Lake.
McBride is unusual in that he’s a loner stallion. He may hang out on the edge of a herd, but seldom has mares of his own. He will occasionally “adopt” a wandering mare, who will then leave when she decides to look for something more interesting. We heard that he had recently adopted an injured mare and was shepherding her to water and looking out for her. But our guide said she was so lame he was pretty sure she had a broken leg. As we were returning from this day’s ride we did find her dead just off the trail. There were no marks on her from an animal attack (there are mountain lions in the area and we did see lion tracks along a sandy part of the trail but not here). So the assumption is that she just couldn’t keep going on that bad leg and laid herself down to die. We would not have seen her if a scavenger bird had not flown up out of the brush as we approached and got our attention.
Anyhow, after we met McBride–I say “met” because he was quite approachable for a wild horse, which is why I got a good photo of him–we continued on until we stopped for lunch. Lunch was almost always at a high spot with a great view of flats and/or mountains. We tied our horses to the nearest tree while we ate and explored the immediate area. I was on a tough, savvy little trail horse named Topaz. He was 20 years old but truly tough as nails. And careful as they come. The trails were almost all exceptionally rocky, and when going downhill Topaz would stop to evaluate the situation and always pick the easiest route down. As a bonus, I was able to mount him from the ground except on the few occasions when I did need a 3-4″ rock to help me out. There were always plenty of rocks…
Topaz waits for his ritual lunch cookies. I did not fail him.
Natural seating, and plenty of it.
Petroglyphs, probably around 5000 years old, just a few steps down the trail from our lunch stop.
What the major portion of the “trail” looked like most of the time. Lots of rocks, not a lot of dirt.
Boundary Peak, from a lunchtime rock seat.
Mules and mountains.
After lunch we continued our mustang search. On the way over to Truman Canyon we took a little detour to see something unusual in wild horse country. A mare (not the one we found) had died quite a while back and almost the entire skeleton was still on the ground and bleached totally white. One of our guides showed us how the head and jaw fit together and I was also able to identify a lot of the bones even though they were a bit jumbled on the ground. Normally a lion will run off with various parts of the prey and bury it or cover it to save it for later, so finding all the pieces in one spot and visible is somewhat out of the ordinary.
Mackenzie shows us the mare’s skull.
Our second guide, Mark, went ahead after this stop to scout Truman Canyon and see if the horses were there. This is where the fun began. As we continued that way, he came back and told us he had seen them and which way they were moving. But we didn’t get there quite soon enough, so we revised our plans and started moving to another vantage point so we could get ahead of them. Did I say we were really high up and the canyon they would be passing through was a long way down??? Ay-y-y-y. Almost straight down. I’ve never gone down anything that steep, not even on foot. I kept thinking I should “help” Topaz a bit, but I decided he knew best and even though he slipped and slid a bit he did indeed get us down safely. So did all the other horses, some of whom carried first-time riders. Which may mean that those horses actually had it easier than if their riders had tried to take over. We made it down before the band arrived, and I had a good vantage point for photos. No photos of the actual descent, as I was not about to pull out a heavy camera while sliding down a cliff. As for the wild horses, the only drawback was that they were still at the very far end of the range of my 300mm lens, so if I wished for anything it would be sharper photos. However, I’m still pleased with what I got.
Lots of foals in the springtime!
Playtime, which was most of the time.
We saw lots of horses roll, but this one put on the best show.
This day we went back to McBride Flat, by way of Horse Trap Canyon, where you can still see remnants of fence left by folks who used to drive horses into the canyon. We stopped at a very high rocky overlook into McBride Flat and found several bands of horses there, including the one we had seen the day before in Truman Canyon.
Just to give you an idea of the size of the landscape. There were three bands here but I couldn’t get them all into one photo and still be able to distinguish them from little dots.
We were lucky to see a new foal who had just dropped to the ground a day or two earlier. The brand new foal is looking for lunch.
Exploring his (think it’s a “he”, but a little hard to tell) new world. He was a little difficult to see from a distance because of his sandy color which blended in with the scrub.
Horsey love. Although the mare looks rather bored here, when she’d had enough she kicked him away.
On two days on our way back to the camp site we stopped in a lush green meadow with a little creek running through it. It was such a treat to see green in the high desert–we rode trails from about 6,000 to 8,000 feet high–and also a surprise to find wild iris growing here and there in the meadow and along the trail.
Wild iris in a meadow where we stopped to water our horses.
Here’s what the more typical high elevation flowers looked like.
Yellow and red wildflowers at one of our highest elevations.
Day four was pack up your stuff and ride back to the trail head, but not directly as we did the day we came. We did a high altitude detour above River Springs where we could see that mustangs awaited us way below in a huge flat area that they liked to frequent. These horses always stay in the lower area and do not move in any area where we had seen previous bands. We kind of suspected that they would be there because they had been there on Day One. But we only rode by them that day and didn’t get close because our other trail group was already there and in position to observe them and we didn’t want to disturb them.
High view of the flats near the trail head at River Springs. I pasted together about 9 photos to get this. Sorry I’m not a perfect “paster”!
One of the resident bands at River Springs, after we descended to the flats.
This group had probably 5 bands in it, including one of young bachelor stallions. They provided lots of thrilling entertainment on our last mustang sighting of the trip. Their nature is to “play-fight” to prepare themselves for the real thing later in life, and they were practicing really hard while we watched in awe.
Lovely bachelor stallion!
Picking your sparring partner.
Setting up for a fight.
And here we go!
Another pair of bachelor stallions.
And so we ended our trip on a very very high note. Downsides? Not many. It got near freezing almost every night but the sleeping bags were cozy. There was a lot of dust but bandannas helped immensely. I got a split lip, I think because my lips got sunburned. I also got a nice blister under each seat bone because I have yet to meet a Western saddle that fits me. Fortunately I had brought along some huge Band-Aids just in case I got some sort of horrible gash but they fit perfectly over the blisters and I carried on. If you would like to go on your very own mustang trail adventure, you can get all the info you need on the Rock Creek Pack Station website, http://rockcreekpackstation.com/mustangs.shtml
These folks are the best–they really take care of you and they’re loads of fun. Happy trails!