This moving excerpt is from Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies by documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens. The book is a personal retelling of her years following the wild horse she named Cloud and features stunning animal photography. It begins with the author witnessing the birth of a helpless white colt, that will soon capture her heart and imagination. Excerpt:
I shoot movies for a living. Not the kind of movies you see in the theatre, but films about what’s going on in the wilderness. These are documentaries you’re likely to see on television channels such as PBS.
When Marty Stouffer, host and producer of the popular PBS series Wild America, asked me to film a documentary about wild horses in 1994, I jumped at the chance. At the same time, I was worried. Though I grew up on a farm in Ohio and had my own horse, I knew absolutely nothing about wild horses. So I set out to learn as much as I could.
On a trip with my sister to research potential shooting locations, I visited the remote Arrowhead Mountains of southern Montana and saw my first family of wild horses. This band was led by a magnificent black stallion who was named Raven. Years before, probably when he was a foal, he had been named by wild-horse admirers. Though he and the band, along with their newborn foal, ran away at the sight of us, I felt an unusual connection to them. I was hopeful that, in time, they might get used to me.
This would be a good location, I thought. The mountains, canyons, and deserts of the Arrowheads would make a photogenic backdrop for a film, and the mostly open country would allow me to spot the wild horses at a distance. I could try to get as close as possible to the horses on two rough four-wheel-drive roads that wind up the mountain ridges of the horse range.
As I began filming my program, Raven, his three mares, and their foals and yearling son appeared time and again. Strange as it seems, I felt they were finding me rather than me finding them. Was their story destined to become the focus of mine? I learned how to make myself less threatening, watching to see which direction the band was going. Then I positioned myself well ahead of them in plain sight. I sat very still. If they chose to come closer, I reasoned, it would be their decision. Amazingly, they grew accustomed to me hanging out with them. They allowed me to eavesdrop on their intriguing lives, and I fell in love with each and every one of them.
In September, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is in charge of managing wild horses on our public lands, had a roundup. Roundups are held to keep wild horse populations in balance with their environment. Animals who are removed are offered for sale. This roundup proved to be tragic for Raven’s family. Two of the three foals died in what was a terrible trauma for them and a nightmare for me.
The following spring, nothing could keep me from returning to the Arrowheads to look for what remained of Raven’s band. I had to learn if this wonderful family of horses could start anew and recapture what seemed to be a magical and joyous time.
This is where our story begins.
Raven lifted his head and looked out over the windswept ridges of his mountain home. For two hundred years, perhaps longer, wild horses have wandered this isolated corner of the Rocky Mountains, a flat-topped range that the Crow Indians called the Arrowhead Mountains. Two of the black stallion’s mares grazed nearby as their filly foals slept on the sunny hillside. The only clue to the presence of the two little fillies was the occasional flick of a stubby tail appearing over tufts of windblown grass.
Raven’s two fillies had been the first foals born on the mountain. On a crisp, sunny day in mid-March, I had spotted them through binoculars, a mile off, in the desert lowlands near the base of the mountain. Later, when I could see them closer, I named the chunky reddish-brown filly Mahogany and her more delicate sister Smokey. Both had stars on their foreheads like their father and their mothers.
The two fillies were inseparable. They explored around the juniper bushes in the lowlands, and investigated downed logs and mysterious little rock outcropping. They groomed each other, nibbling on those hard-to-reach places like just behind their wooly upright manes. Sometimes, they stood butt to butt and rubbed for all they were worth, creating a sort of rhythmic mustang mamba. Only when it came to meals did they split up to nurse.
The mothers of the newborns were as different as night and day. Mahogany’s mother was a small, pale buckskin, a color the Native American people called claybank because it matched the nearby riverbanks. She seemed quiet and easygoing like her yearling son, who I had named Diamond. The other mare was larger and darker, a short-tempered horse I had named Grumpy. When the two fillies and Diamond kicked up their heels, running and jumping, Grumpy interceded like the “fun police.” She signaled the youngsters to cool their jets with a simple ears-back, head-bent, don’t-fool-with-me gesture. It seemed to work every time.
When the little fillies wandered too far from the band, it was Raven’s job to bring them back. Lowering his head to the ground, he stretched out his neck in what is called snaking, and gently herded his errant daughters home. Mothers can’t do this job because they run the risk of being stolen by marauding stallions looking for mares.
Raven shook his head, revealing a bright white star under a forelock so long it nearly reached the white snip on the end of his nose. The stallion was restless and alert. It is the job of the stallion father not only to guard his mares but also to protect his foals and yearlings. Together, stallion, mares, foals, and yearlings form a family group called a band. Raven knew at this moment that he was missing an important member of his family. It was late May and the height of foaling season.
Only hours before, I had watched Raven’s youngest mare, a four-year-old palomino, disappear into a stand of dense Douglas fir trees. She was heavy with foal, so I guessed she might be going away to have her baby. Most wild foals are born under cover of darkness in a spot well hidden from their main predator, the mountain lion. Lions in the Arrowhead Mountains prey mainly on mule deer and newborn foals. I hoped the young mare would hide herself well.
I returned to the mountain the next morning. It was sunny and still, a warm day for late May in the high country of the Rockies. By mid-morning I had not yet found Raven and his family, but I was watching an immature three-year-old stallion with fascination. He was trying to breed his father’s newly acquired red roan mare. Usually when young stallions reach the age of two, they are kicked out of their bands by their fathers. In this way, wild horses avoid inbreeding. This youngster had been allowed to stay with his family, although I thought his days were numbered.
Again and again the young mare tried to rebuff the advances of the young stallion, kicking him squarely in the chest with resounding thuds. Only when his father returned did the young male retreat, opening and closing his mouth apologetically like a tiny foal, as if to say, Don’t hurt me, I’m little.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught some movement and a flash of light color through the trees. I turned to see the palomino walking calmly from behind the firs. Following her was a spindly colt who took my breath away. The color of his coat was blindingly white. His sisters flashed past him at a trot. Then came the older mares, and then Diamond. The little foal tottered after his mother on long, rickety legs. Raven walked just behind them, acting as rear guard. The colt looked terribly thin, yet he appeared determined to keep up the brisk march. I knew where they were going. During spring, the mountaintop was still buried in deep snow while the water holes in the low country had dried up. The horses were going to find water in the only accessible place. They were going to the lingering drifts under the canopy of the Douglas firs more than halfway up the mountainside.
I followed the band at a cautious distance, wondering how far the fragile youngster could travel before keeling over in his tracks. But he kept going. To fall behind was unthinkable for the colt. The family group is central to the emotional well-being and survival of every member, especially a tottering newborn. The colt tried to keep his body touching his mother’s as they climbed.
It must have been a mile or more before the band stopped at the first large snowbank in the deep shade of fir trees. The horses pawed the drifts and then ate huge bites of snow. Water dribbled out of the corners of their mouths. Exhausted, the white colt slumped near the trunk of a tree, laid his head down, and fell asleep.
Did I hear a rustling in the forest, in some dark recess where the sun seldom shone? I stared into the darkness and imagined a mountain lion moving stealthily into position. The large cats wait quietly in the shadows to ambush an unsuspecting quarry. Once detected, they have little chance to make a kill. Ridiculous, I concluded. No mountain lion would creep this close to a human or to cautious adult horses. Still, I worried that this bright little colt might invite unwanted attention.
Through binoculars, I watched the white colt intently. I could see his ribs heave up and down and his fuzzy ears twitch at an occasional fly. The sun dipped behind a huge thunderhead, and I felt a chill breeze off the snowbanks. In that instant, the name came to me—Cloud, I would call him Cloud.
To learn more about Cloud’s story and see stunning animal photography, check out Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, Revised and Updated, available now.