Blithe Spirits of the White Clouds
Photograhy: Elissa Kline
(page 2 of 3)
“The horses made up a huge chunk of my childhood,” says Kenny Bradshaw, a local rancher who was born and raised in his family’s cabin on Road Creek ranch near Challis where he has remained for all of his 85 years.
“There was a time when my brother and I and other local ranchers would gather up sometimes as many as 200 horses and drive them all the way to the sale yards in Mackay. We would train a few we caught and then sell them as working ranch horses.”
These days, the public can adopt a mustang—weanling to stallion and mares in all ages and colors—after the BLM holds a roundup.
Genetic analysis has shown that the horse family lineage in North America dates back to the Cenozoic era nearly 60 million years ago. Their remains have been pulled from the tar pits of La Brea, California, and fossils have been collected from the landscape of Idaho, most notably Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, where a skeleton of one of the hundreds of horses dubbed the Hagerman Horse can be seen. Scientists believe those horses became extinct and were reintroduced to North America in the 1500s by Spanish explorers.
The written history of Idaho’s wild horses begins in August 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the Lemhi Valley, east of Salmon, Idaho, and encountered Shoshone Indians. According to one journal entry, at least 700 horses were observed with the Indians. In the 1870s, along with the miners came the livestock men with their personal stock in tow.
Many of today’s Challis bands are thought to be descendents of horses turned out by Native Americans when they were forced onto reservations, and even by ranchers, who were forced to trust the horses to nature when the Depression left them broke and unable to care for them.
The most wary wild horses have hidden out in these hills for generations, breeding and forming their own bands, and these are the horses I have been tracking on the trails and in the hills surrounding our ranch.
I have watched the Challis herds for many years. I move slowly, I must be patient. I’ve learned to read the movement of the horses, keeping my scent downwind. In the wild and during roundups, I have witnessed births and deaths, changing of the guard, fierce competition, blinding fear and loyal fury. What I have learned—and likewise supported through others’ research—is that wild horses emote. They love, they fear, they have a sense of humor and they mourn. They are loyal, follow rules and take time out to play.
The bands resemble a tight family unit. The stallion is the protector of that unit. He wards off mountain lions, wolves and other physical threats, including man. Once established—through bloody battles with the other males in the herd—the lead stallion will never leave his herd unless he becomes incapacitated or too old to take care of them. There will come a time when a younger or more powerful stallion will drive him away, taking over his mares and offspring.
This is a difficult time for the mares and babies, as they adjust to a new father, mate and leader. The stallion, whose time has run out, is left to wander alone. If he’s lucky, he may find the friendship of other retired warriors or young males who were run off for failing to fall in line behind the leader, or for being too sexually aggressive with the mares. Though seemingly cruel, these herds of “bachelors” prevent inbreeding within the herds and are essential to the overall health of the herd.
Over the years, the horse has developed a symbiotic relationship with the land. Grazing on native plants all their lives has developed in them a different, less decomposing intestinal tract than domestic horses. According to wildlife ecologist Craig Downer, PhD and author of Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom, this means that their feces are more nutrient rich when they return to the soil, ready to germinate and restore. The horses’ nomadic behavior helps spread the new growth as well, creating a self-sustaining cycle of life. >>>