The wild Mustang stallion Chaco encounters a lost foal separated from its mother and becomes her unlikely protector. When another bachelor stud, Chiricahua, threatens the foal to claim her or kill her, Chaco goes on the defense. The stallions fight brutally, with the tiny filly clinging dangerously close to Chaco. The battle lasts into the night; neither stallion will concede. All three horses could be mortally wounded. At daybreak it is clear that Chaco has prevailed; the foal is safe at his side. The stallion will eventually lead the baby back to its mother before resuming his life in the wild.
The X Factor
Wild horse bands can vary considerably in composition and size, but the essential elements are a stallion, mares and their offspring. To protect his harem, a dominant stallion may also engage other males who share protective and leadership duties – and thus earn opportunities to breed.
Maintaining a large band requires strength, courage, intelligence and often an intangible quality that Meg refers to as “the X factor.” Call it charisma, charm or character, it’s the glue that binds the group, insulating it from the constant pressure of outside challenges and the corrosive effects of internal strife. Leaders who possess “the X factor,” Meg says, tend to enjoy the longest reigns and the most loyal mares, and therefore sire the most offspring.
One example of a horse with the “X” factor is Cortez, a bay pinto who has steadily increased his entourage in the past several years. According to Meg, Cortez has pride in his carriage, and he’s aggressive to any stallion that challenges his authority and his space.
“The stallions all seem to know one another; they create zones of tolerance. Cortez has very little tolerance. When Cortez sees a stallion, say, down at the bottom of a hill, he will go out of his way to go after him,” says Meg. But within his own band, Cortez can be sweet and affectionate.
“He has that certain ability to control his band. He grooms them, nickers at them, talks to them,” she says. “He’s not one to follow the mares. It’s the opposite. The mares are attuned to him.”
That, in a nutshell, is the “X” factor.
Majesty was another South Steens’ stallion capable of inspiring affection and loyalty. With a dark dapple-gray coat and a silvery mane and tail, he cut a handsome figure on the range. He commanded one of the largest bands in the preserve; more than a dozen individuals that included broodmares, offspring of varying ages, plus several mature males who helped keep outside challengers at bay.
At the heart of Majesty’s band was a palomino mare named Chardonnay. Photographs show that the two formed a relationship at least as far back as 2006. Their bond rendered them inseparable. At one point the horses were swept up in a BLM roundup necessary to manage herd numbers. They were later returned separately to the 130,000-acre preserve, an act which threw the normal stability of the bands into chaos. Despite the dissolution of their band, Majesty and Chardonnay found each other in the wilderness and resumed their courtship and family building.
Their tight bond created one of the most poignant and lasting memories of Meg’s 10 years in the field. In a rare occurrence, several bands joined together to move to a new grazing location en masse. Anticipating their pathway, Meg and two friends made for a canyon rimrock 150 feet above the trail. As more than 70 horses filed past, Majesty somehow detected the human presence. He stopped to look up at Meg and her two friends. The horses continued to file past like a river. But Chardonnay and her colt, Merlot, stopped and waited for papa.
“It was a very distinct moment,” said Meg. “There was such a bond between the two, an apparent awareness of one another at all times.”
During the 2012 breeding season, a stallion challenged Majesty for possession of Chardonnay and the band. During the battle, Majesty fell and was impaled in the abdomen by a tree branch. Majesty survived, but the injury was grave, making it impossible to keep up with his band. Rather than seek the safety of the group, Chardonnay stayed by his side. Alerted to his injury, wild horse specialists were forced to euthanize the mortally-wounded mustang.
Since Majesty’s demise, the band has fallen under the control of Jack, a red-roan pinto lacking in Majesty’s charisma. For Jack, Chardonnay proved as irresistible as she had to Majesty and the pair are now strongly bonded.
“Jack would fight to his death over Chardonnay,” says Meg. “He sees the big palomino mare and doesn’t seem as concerned about the others.” That’s led to instability and uncertainty within Jack’s inherited band – and an opportunity for other stallions to move in. A circle of bachelor stallions is now ever-present, perhaps waiting for Jack to demonstrate weakness.
Casper, The Sly Thief
When you think of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” does it bring to mind two rams locking horns? Or a mighty elephant defending her baby against a lion attack? Though both fit the meaning, it was not Charles Darwin’s intention to imply that “fitness” meant physical conditioning alone. Rather, Darwin meant “fit” as in the fit of a jigsaw puzzle piece: Individuals well suited to their environment and able to take advantage of the circumstances of the moment.
In this sense, Casper is an apt example. Casper is a smallish stallion who operates on the periphery of Jack’s band. Since he took his place among the bachelors that surround Jack’s group like satellites, Casper has employed a stealthy approach to carving out his own broodmare band.
Casper began his campaign by intimidating a yearling colt named Wild West. He approached the colt and began circling him like a cat wrapping himself around a person’s legs. The young colt became nervous and fearful, quaking and buckling at the knees, according to Meg. Wild West’s mother, Lexus, came over to investigate – and Casper proceeded to coax the pair away from Jack’s group.
Lexus, a powerfully-built black mare, at first rebuffed Casper’s advances. At one point, Meg said, she walked up on a battle between the two. Their fighting was so intense, Meg assumed at first that it was a pair of rival stallions. But through dogged determination, Casper managed to isolate Lexus from Jack’s band. With a powerful mare under his control, Casper continued to recruit family members to his side.
An interesting fact about Jack’s group is that it is clearly divided along color lines. Many of the mares are palomino colored, with golden coats and flaxen manes and tails. These trace back to Chardonnay, the former love interest of the charismatic Majesty. Whimsically, their names tend to reflect varieties of wine; Chardonnay, for instance, has a daughter named Chablis and a colt, Merlot.
On the other side of the coin are dark-coated mares like Lexus. Amusingly, the dark-colored mares in this group are mostly named for luxury cars – Casper has managed to acquire Mercedes and her daughter Mazerati, along with Mazerati’s brand new foal, Porsche. Through trial-and-error, Casper figured out how to “snake” these mares and foals, who are bonded by family ties, away from Jack’s herd.
“Casper can’t win mares through fighting, but he’s been able to split the band and take control over the dark-coated mares and their babies,” says Meg. “”They’ve become accustomed to grazing apart from Jack’s band.” In time, Meg believes, sly Casper will have completely disengaged his mares and formed his own harem.
For his part, Jack seems complacent and accepting of Casper. Smitten as he is with Chardonnay, Jack appears more concerned with maintaining his wine cellar than minding the luxury cars in his garage. And Casper, by employing a strategy that avoids conflicts he’d likely lose, has proven himself the fittest of the bachelor band, the one whose street-smart genes will likely be passed down through the next generations.
Stud colts occupy a tenuous place in wild horse herds. As they reach sexual maturity, they’re likely to be chased from their natal bands and are forced to roam with others of similar circumstances. Ultimately, their goal is to form their own harems, so they are always on the lookout for courting opportunities and chances to steal mares from weakened or inattentive stallions.
Since horses are highly social animals, bachelors form fraternal groups for self-protection and companionship. These bands, too, can become very close-knit. In Meg’s own words, “there’s a lot of ‘bromance’ among the young stallions.”
An example of this is a silver dapple pinto named Maestro, a son of Majesty, and Benson, a strawberry roan by Jack. As adolescents, the two were nearly inseparable, spending hours of the day playing together and with Jack, who at the time was just one of the band’s dominant stallions. But Meg began to notice that Benson was interacting less with Jack until, one day, he went up on a hill and began posturing and behaving aggressively toward his own band sire and other mature stallions in the group.
Spitfire, an especially pugnacious “lieutenant” in Jack’s family group, took it upon himself to threaten and chase Benson. Sneaky Casper and even Jack made it clear that it was time for Benson to hit the trail. But rather than flee completely, Benson took a position on the outskirts with the other bachelor stallions. He carefully maintained a position just outside of the other stallions’ zone of tolerance.
Meanwhile, Maestro, younger than Benson by a year, seemed to hold a secure spot within Jack’s herd. But this past spring, the brightly colored and handsome pinto with the silvery mane and tail suddenly grew tall and brawny on the high desert forage. This rapid maturation likely earned him the boot, too. Well liked by horses and humans alike (Maestro has his own social media following), the young stallion found pals in a trio named Tuaca, Oasis and Juniper.
For now, Benson maintains his tenuous position as an outlier, but Meg fully expects he’ll leave Jack’s band eventually and join his old pal, Maestro, as a free-wheeling bachelor on the range.
Chaco, the Protector
Mustang Meg is part of a larger group of wild horse supporters across the West who seek to document, protect and preserve wild horses and the public lands that support them. One of those advocates, Colorado-based photographer Pam Nickoles, captured an epic battle between two stallions living in the McCullough Peaks Wilderness east of Cody, Wyoming.
In the high desert of the McCullough Peaks Wilderness, winter temperatures drop well below freezing at night. In summer, searing heat and dry winds strip the land of what little moisture falls from the sky. But in springtime, precious snowmelt runs off distant peaks, feeding streams, filling stock ponds and ultimately making life possible for the roughly 165 horses living in the 100,000-acre McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area. Despite the temperature extremes and desolation, the horses grow strong and robust on native prairie grasses.
Soon after arriving here in April 2008, observers told Pam and her husband, Tom, about an abandoned filly they’d spotted out on the range. It was their presumption that the straying may have happened as the mare fled the humans’ approach which can happen during foaling season. Alternately, the filly may have laid down to sleep near a pasture fence, rolled underneath the wire, and woke up on the other side – unable to return to her mom. It was impossible to know.
Fortunately, a bachelor stallion named Chaco found the foal and became her protector. Chaco, a dark-chocolate colored stallion with black mane and tail, expressed a paternal attachment to the orphaned baby. It was a choice that would have grave consequences.
As Pam came within lens range, the couple spotted another bachelor stallion named Chiricahua approaching the foal. Alarmed by the encroachment, Chaco entered into a battle with the brightly-painted trespasser for possession of the pale palomino foal, later named Little Medicine.
Like a bout in a Rocky Balboa film, the epic fight continued round-after-round, with neither horse conceding defeat despite the pain, injury and exhaustion they must have felt. Pam calls the confrontation “the fiercest stallion battle I have ever witnessed.” Throughout, the foal remained close to her protector – so close in fact, that Pam feared for the newborn’s life.
“I wondered, ‘Are we about to watch this little foal get caught up in and possibly trampled during this confrontation?’ That was not an image I wanted to capture,” she said. Pam could not know whether Chiricahua wanted the foal as a “prize,” (perhaps to lure her mother into his constellation) or whether he intended mortal harm. But she knew that his overzealous interest had put all three lives in jeopardy.
“I felt sure there would be no happy ending for this little baby,” she recalls.
The following morning, the Nickoles’ returned to the battlegrounds with Tricia, a BLM Wild Horse Specialist based in Cody.
“Without a mother to nurse from, we’d expected the pretty little foal not to last the night,” Pam recalls. “But that morning, we were amazed to find the foal up and walking under Chaco’s watchful eyes.”
As they looked on, Chaco gently guided Little Medicine to an open fence gate. Eventually, he nudged and herded the wobbly-legged filly down a long hill, where she was reunited with her dam, Sierra, part of a band belonging to a stallion named Olathe. Today, Little Medicine is herself a dam with at least one foal of her own. She is still living free in the McCullough Peaks HMA.
(Originally published in the August/September 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).
(Photography by Mustang Meg & Pam Nickoles).