Happy Thanksgiving! Or to anyone who lives outside of the United States and/or does not celebrate the holiday, happy random Thursday in November!
This is a story about Standing Bear & Ariadne – two very different youngsters. Their territories are miles away from each other, yet they are still part of the same herd.
Standing Bear is a treasure. Yes, I realize that all foals, and all wild horses for that matter, are a treasure. But Standing Bear has a special distinction. He is the first foal to be born into his family band since the 2011 roundup. Now that may not seem like a very long time, and in the scheme of things it isn’t – only three years and two foaling seasons. What is abnormal is that he is the only offspring born into an extremely stable band with five mares.
Cody’s band is a large one for White Mountain. So how is it that with five mares there is only a single little one among them? Some of this is the result of PZP, an infertility drug given in 2011. All the mares were given PZP before they were released back into the wild . That doesn’t entirely explain it, though. For one thing, the mares were not given the drug until September, a very ineffective time for the drug. They should have already been in foal for 2012 babies by then, especially since none of them had any 2011 foals. Having a foal was an instant prison sentence for any mare captured.
Now is not unheard of for a healthy adult mare in her prime to go three years in a row without foaling. It is a little unusual to have a band full of mares with this problem.
This is not a blog about PZP. There are plenty of those out there, and while I’m sure that at some point down the road I will talk PZP, it’s Thanksgiving week. Nobody wants to spend Thanksgiving reading about contraceptive drugs given to wild prey animals.
No, this is a blog about Standing Bear. Picture yourself growing up as the baby in a family with one mom, two dads, and four aunties. He is the center of this bands world, their legacy, their future …
Which is to say the little stinker is spoiled rotten. He has seven adults around him at all times, and does not have to compete with anybody for their affections. Consequently, the magnificent seven cater to Standing Bear’s every whim in one for or another. If Standing Bear wants to play then he gets to play. If Standing Bear wants to nap then the band will let him nap. If Standing Bear wants someone to scratch an itchy spot, then it is going to happen.
How could it not? He has oodles of aunties just looking for an excuse to live vicariously through their sister-of-another-mister’s son. When Momma Oakely won’t pay attention to him, Standing Bear can just turn to Dollar or Quicksilver for a little affection. Even Sarsaparilla cannot resist his charms. Never Ponderosa, though.
Now being the lone foal is not usually considered the most ideal situation by us humans. Years and year ago I once read in a magazine that when domestic foals are raised with other foals their own age, they tend to be more respectful towards humans and other horses. They’re more “well-balanced” if you will. It isn’t exactly 1:1, since wild horse lives are vastly different from their barn-raised counterparts. None-the-less, it is an idea that humans instinctively adopt. A foal with a sibling to play with gets more stimulation and in most cases just plain seems to have more fun.
So I can see that. Standing Bear is, well… bratty. Adorable, but bratty. The adults put up with his constant pestering with far more patience than an older sister or baby brother might. Yet when Standing Bear jumps all over his aunties, they allow it. Even when they are clearly annoyed but I rarely see them scold him. At the most, they will walk away looking mildly frustrated. For his part, Standing Bear has learned this is a signal to go bug the next closest mare who will probably put up with him.
On the other hand, Standing Bear has learned to be fearless, and even a little reckless. In the world of a wild stallion, that is not necessarily a bad thing. A little more courage, a touch of extra bluster can help in a fight. With stallions, attitude is everything. Serious fights are not as common as they may seem. Most of the time, it’s just dudes trying to look tough to impress each other. Hypothetically this also attracts ladies, but… well, I have my suspicions how “thrilled” the mares actually are.
Ariadne’s situation is a little different. She was born into an equally large band last year. This band had not been captured in 2011, and none of the mares were given PZP, including her mother, Makenna. She had her won share of aunties, but also a two year old sister and a younger brother to play with. Her mother was devoted by not overly indulgent.
In 2014 Makenna weaned Ariadne to make room for Ariadne’s baby sister. That was not the only change that she faced. Early that spring, Orion lost a majority of his band. Nautilus took Ariadne’s half-brother joined up with the stallion duo Big John and Bernoulli. June left a little while later to join Curly’s band. Who even knows where her two-year old sister disappeared to. Ariadne’s band shrunk overnight into a nuclear family where the only adults were her mother and her father.
Ariadne took this all in stride, and became a responsible and kind-hearted “big sister”, babysitting so her mother could focus on eating for two. Change comes on the west wind in the desert – it is inevitable, relentless, and constant. Learning to adjust with the changes, growing more serious is not just Ariadne going with the flow, it is a matter of life and death. Ariadne’s mother is a strong lead mare, and staying by her side and learning how to behave in groups both large and small will only help her later in life.
The goofball and the future mother. Some of their differences are gender related, though you might be surprised how many firey fillies and quiet, serious colts are out there. Some of it just comes down to personality. There are a million tiny variables that all collide and twist into influences that make each foal into the horse they are. A perfect combination of genetics and their environment influencing something so deeply internal as a personality.
I have always thought that above all else it is family that makes you who you are. How a foal is raised and who they are surrounded by can make all the difference in how they turn out as adults.
Looking at these families, my automatic reaction is to feel a little disappointed. It is ingrained in me to think that a proper wild horse band has one stallion, some mares, and 2-3 foals every year. That is supposed to be the typical, the center of the bell curve.
So I look at Standing Bear and his family and it looks wrong. I want to blame PZP, and see this as a side effect of human manipulation hurting the cultures of other species. But PZP is not the reason why Cody’s band has no yearlings. Humans did not cause Ariadne’s family to split into groups. June and Splash coming of age is what started those changes.
Instead of looking at what’s “wrong” with these bands, maybe it’s time to focus on what is right. No, they aren’t the wild horse equivalent of the Cleavers, because there is no perfect wild horse family. Nature forged these horses into amazing, adaptive creatures that survive all of life’s hardships. It didn’t take their personalities away. They still act like idiots, and make mistakes. They are not humans, and do not think like us – and let us all be thankful for that!
Neither are wild horses mind-numbed robots who act only on instinct with no thoughts of selfishness or personal desire. It isn’t all peace and rainbows. Yes, I tend to idealize wild horse families. From a distance, everything about them can seem so perfect. The devotion of the stallion who will risk his own health and welfare to protect his family… the mare who is a doting mother, and a wise leader… It just seems so wonderful. Everything that I wish I had in my life.
It’s not really like that. Each band is dysfunctional in their own way. And it’s amazing! They don’t have everything figured out, and that’s okay. A young mare may have to go through a number of stallions before she figures out where she belongs. A stallion will become infatuated and fight over mares that want nothing to do with him. Some foals will be spoiled rotten while others will be lose their way as yearlings, young & afraid of the world they are suddenly alone in.
But for now, the kids are all right. Standing Bear & Ariadne are going to pick up on their parents bad habits. They will make mistakes of their own and pass on their own eccentricities to their offspring. They will also pass on their families knowledge, good hearts, and tough as nails attitudes. Ain’t family grand? Annoying, crazy, off, and never the same, but wonderful none-the-less.
Prints are available through my Etsy shop and make fun holiday gifts! Please contact me if you are interested in a special order such as a particular photograph that is not currently in my shop, or for a different sized image. At least 15% of proceeds on all purchases will be donated to The Cloud Foundation. The rest goes towards feeding the Grain Monster (aka Leo). He is a growing boy!