By Arlene Gawne March 2015
Photos by Arlene Gawne & Darcy Grizzle
If you closely watch wildlife living in groups, whether lions or wild horses, elephants or elk, you quickly spot unusual characters who stand out for their vibrancy, leadership or curiosity. But seldom do you spot that charisma in a baby just a few days-old.
Three of us, devoted wild horse advocates, were amazed to see that true grit in a filly late born in September 2010 near the little mountain village of Cold Creek, Nevada. In these Spring Mountains, perhaps 400 wild horses and burros still roam just 40 quick minutes north of the Las Vegas Strip where over 40,000,000 people roam each year. What a contrast.
This filly was a pale Palomino with a long white blaze, one rear white stocking and huge knobby knees. Unafraid of us and our cameras, she shone as she danced around her mother, thin with age. We dubbed her Pale Ale and her darker buckskin mother, Wheat Ale. Yes, we like our beer.
That first winter of 2010 Pale Ale’s band stallion – and possible sire – was a powerful black horse with a particularly bad temper. He bullied tired, old Wheat Ale who often fell behind the large band that he was fiercely defending against the local competition. He snaked the filly and her mother back to the band by stretching his neck low to the ground, baring his teeth and flattening his ears until he truly looked like a striking snake.
But Pale Ale was never intimidated by him, only moving when she wanted to move. She played fearlessly with a sorrel colt her age, chewing off his winter coat as he did hers. I saw her in early 2011, a white ball of fluff in her white winter coat, leading the black stallion’s band. No one challenged her.
By early 2012, she had parted ways with the black stallion. Pale Ale was frequently spotted near Cold Creek, guiding her ever-weary mother and her latest sibling, a little buckskin. Pale Ale watched over them without fear of noisy ATV riders or stallions craving to add her to their bands. She firmly put off their advances – this young filly was going to pick her own destiny.
We cheered her spunk but wished she would stay away from tourists and their illegal handouts. Mustangs who hang by roads for an easy feed sometimes get hit by speeding cars. It is emotionally difficult to track the life of a mustang whom you are helpless to protect, but that is the essence of wildness – you have to respect what might happen.
By spring of 2013, Pale Ale was a beautiful 2-1/2-year-old, completely on her own. Her mother and buckskin foal were back in the black stallion’s band. Only Pale Ale came and went in different bands as if she were testing out whose company to keep. She disdained the cars and handouts, keeping aloof from humans and stallions alike.
Then in fall 2013, just after her third birthday, Pale Ale disappeared from her usual range around Cold Creek. We hoped she had migrated to new range north or west along the Spring Mountains looking for that perfect mate.
We prayed she hadn’t moved south toward Mount Charleston where mustangs were scheduled to be removed forever because they grazed in the territory of the endangered blue butterfly. Sometimes Nature’s threats like mountain lions, drought, lightning storms or scarce food won’t hurt a wild horse; mankind’s rules will.
In September 2014, I photographed a magnificent Palomino with all of Pale Ale’s markings leading an equally magnificent Palomino foal along the road to the watering pond at Cold Creek. Was this mature, self-assured mother our Pale Ale with her first offspring? The vigorous youngster appeared to be a “he” but when you are tracking wild ones in scrub brush you don’t always get the confirmation of sex or markings that can help you identify them later as they grow.
This foal was a carbon copy of his mother except his left stocking went a few inches higher and his blaze went slightly askew. If this was Pale Ale, she had become a mother at 4; a good age for a wild mare to bear a healthy foal. They were certainly healthy!
Good condition was rare that year as mountain lions were numerous above Cold Creek and even down into the village, effectively blocking the mares with vulnerable young foals from their rich summer range high in the mountains. Instead they were mowing through their winter range east of Cold Creek. That would make survival difficult in winter 2014-2015.
We advocates of the Spring Mountain Alliance could only grind our teeth in frustration watching this unfold.
In June 2013 we had proposed to the BLM and USFS that trained volunteers be authorized to dart breeding mares with a one-year PZP contraceptive. Some mares would breed each year to allow for genetic diversity but fewer foals would help keep the range and the wildlife in better condition.
We had already certified 3 volunteer darters on our own dime; now we proposed an experimental management plan to avoid a costly, deadly helicopter roundup and the removal of wild horses to feed lots, or worse. By fall 2014, the Federal government’s NEPA review process was on hold and thin mares were pregnant again with hungry foals at heel. It seemed so cruelly unnecessary.
Then in March 2015 near Cold Creek, Darcy Grizzle rediscovered Pale Ale, now a gloriously mature mare with a Palomino stud colt. We compared photographs of that colt’s distinctive blaze and rear stocking. Yes, this was her first foal that I had seen in fall 2014! The young stallion had all the assurance and calm of his dam, not just her beauty. They had survived the winter on the depleted range and were a little thin, but spring grass would fill them out quickly.
What a joy it is to follow a mustang’s life story right beside a glittering city like Las Vegas – go Nevada’s mustangs! They are unique, born from horses that had escaped or were abandoned along the Spanish Trail between Los Angeles and Santa Fe or from settlers and ranchers moving into this dry state.
More amazingly, just across the valley from Cold Creek, the bones of a tiny early horse, Equus scotti, lie in the ground of the soon-to-be opened Tule Springs National Monument. Horses began to evolve here over 13,000 years ago, but disappeared in the Ice Age.
Their living descendants returned to North America in Spanish galleons and they scattered across the continent, with or without man’s help. Today, maybe less than 400 horses are still wild and free – although under threat – alongside their ancient ancestors near Las Vegas.
There is an amazing parallel story to this wild one. From the time Pale Ale was born, a Vegas wild horse advocate, Darcy Grizzle, dove into photography with the same feisty, “I will create my life” approach as Pale Ale has done. Darcy began to experiment with camera details and subject matter everywhere, learning from everyone and anyone. Her no-holds-barred approach has paid off in five short years.
Darcy’s photos that began as a record of wild horses for the Alliance data base have become works of art. Proving once again, that lively, determined characters, whether human or wild, make life worth the living despite its challenges.
What a joy it is to watch two different ladies grow and shine, right here between the Vegas casino towers and the snow-tipped Spring Mountains. Keep growing, Pale Ale and Darcy. The world needs examples like you two!