By Mary Cioffi
Where do the wild horses go during these bitter cold, windy, wet winter storms?
After years of watching wild horses during all kinds of weather I find their ability to survive incredible! Sometimes people tell me that horses don’t need shelters because they don’t have them in the wild. In the wild the horses have miles and miles of terrain to wander over. The lead mares hold the memories for the bands and on the first signs of a change in weather will guide the family to the best spot to find shelter for the current condition.
I love photographing horses during a storm. All those lovely manes and tails flowing in the wind make such interesting shots. I sit in the warm comfort of my truck while I search for them on and between the hills.
One day, years ago, I was headed out to the hills of Nevada in the early spring to get some shots of wild horses in a wind-storm, suddenly the temperature dropped and the wind became a biting cold. I was driving out in my truck and called a friend who lived in the area, on a hill that overlooked the range and asked if she could see horses with her binoculars. She looked and looked and reported that she was unsure what she was seeing. A couple miles from her house was a big brown ball against the east hillside. It was too far away from her to tell what it was. I drove over the rocky jeep trails to the area she described on the range while I could feel the cold wind pushing at the side of my truck. As I turned around the corner, I was shocked to see all the horses in the area all standing together in a big giant circle. Over 60 horses were hugging the hillside to feel less of the bitter cold wind.
Every band was there and all the new foals and their Mom’s were in the center of circle protected from the wind. The babies in the very center, the Mom’s on the outside circle of the babies. Each mare standing at the hip or side of their own foal. The remaining mares and yearlings created the third circle with the band stallion standing behind and between the mares creating an imaginary line between the bands. Lastly on the outside circle, creating one more wind block with their tails to the wind were the young well-muscled bachelors. It was an amazing site. A large brown ball of over 60 horses packed in snuggly together in a tight circle to protect each other from the frigid cold wind. Each member of the community understanding their responsibility to protect the new foals and each horse having a ranking. Occasionally a band stallion would pin his ears to remind a yearling colt or a bachelor stallion where he belonged.
That was an extreme example. In general, on most days the horses will wander across the land searching for the best place to eat. Many things factor into their decision of the direction they head. How far to water? The time of the day. They keep a distance from other bands or bachelors. They move away from the noise of motorcycles, jeeps, humans, target shooters, predators and anything else that might make them at all threatened or uncomfortable. As they travel around, just like you in your home, they may get a little cool or a little warm. You might grab a sweater or take off one. But they are limited to their environment. If they are cold from the wind, they head to the side of the hill with less wind or drop down in a ravine or canyon.
As I drive across the desert looking for horses I use my binoculars to pan the landscape to find them. I pull the truck off to the side of the trail and hike to them with my camera. When I finally reach them I am frequently amazed at how the weather and temperature changes when I reach the area they are standing. They know where to go and what to stand behind to get out of those chilly winds and they stand together and share each other’s warmth.
I have often witnessed my domestic horses shivering in the cold, yet I have never witnessed a wild horse shivering. My horse has a barn to go in at any time. It is rare that you will see her in her stall during a storm or rain. Horses prefer cold weather to hot weather and prefer the open areas. You might see her stand in her stall in the heat of summer but rarely in the winter.
I once witnessed the old band stallion Shorty on a bitter cold and windy afternoon trot to the watering hole, jump into the pond and drop to his knees. He barely stayed in, just a quick second. Just enough to wet the outside of his coat. He then stepped onto the shore and rolled in the wet sand, stood up, and then rolled on the other side. He coated his entire body, even his neck and head, with a thick coating of mud which quickly dried. I mentioned to a friend that shorty stopped to put his coat on. In only a few short minutes the warmth of his body and the wind dried the mud and he stood behind his mares with his thick coat of mud keeping him warm. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would not have believed it.
Horses have been surviving in the wild for centuries. The most important thing to understand is that the strongest survive for a reason. It is not always strength… it is the smartest ones who follow the direction of their elders, remember the best places to go to stay comfortable and remember where all the secret watering holes are. They do not need humans to distract them with a flake of hay because they feel sorry for them. If we want to fight the cause to keep wild horse’s wild we need to let them be wild and only interfere when absolutely necessary for their survival.