Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Following Her Heart Saved The Wild Stallion, Traveler: Part I Interview with TJ Holmes

Can you tell us a little about your life and experience with horses, and how you came to be so passionate about Mustangs?

I've had horses all my life. I was blessed to be born into a military family - my dad was a career Army officer, and we moved a LOT. Only in a couple of places, when I was a baby and in Germany, did we not have horses, although we still found ways to ride, and my parents gave me dressage lessons in Germany.

Both my parents grew up with horses, as did my mom's mom and dad's dad - with riding horses/ponies and farm horses. I showed horses growing up - mostly in 4-H, some lower level dressage, and equestrian team one year in college. So I brought a significant amount of horse knowledge when I embarked on this experience with mustangs, which started in 2002, when I found out about a herd about three hours from Durango, Colo., where I was working (and now work again) at a newspaper.

First Round-up and Meeting Traveler

The first three years, I visited the horses two or three times a year, enjoying and taking pictures and getting to know a few favorites. I moved to Montana in 2005, and the last thing I did, before I left, was visit the horses ... never guessing I'd be back within a year, never guessing how they'd change my life.

In 2007, BLM held a roundup of Spring Creek Basin horses - the first one I ever attended. I had just met some people with the Colorado chapter of the National Mustang Association, so my journey of documenting and advocating for these horses began at basically the same time.

The roundup, while fairly well done, I thought objectively, was nonetheless one of the most traumatic experiences of *my* life - to say nothing of the horses'. I shook and cried the entire time Grey/Traveler's band was brought in ...

We had to deal with someone who insisted that it was NOT Traveler - I'd only a few weeks earlier found out he had a name (and a human following) when I showed my pictures of him.

We had been promised Traveler would stay - he is to Spring Creek Basin what Cloud is to the Pryor Mountain herd - but the last day of the roundup, when the horses were a) released, b) loaded for the adoption outside Cortez and c) loaded for short-term holding at the Canon City prison, we found out that Traveler may NOT have been released, that he may have been on a trailer bound for Canon City prison.

I was at the roundup Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but had to leave Tuesday evening because I was the editor of a small paper at that time with a Wednesday deadline. So I missed Wednesday's captures, and I was on my way to the basin Thursday when I "met" the trucks and trailers bringing horses to Cortez (so I turned around and headed back to the fairgrounds where the adoption was held).

Springing Traveler From Prison

I made a frantic call to someone from the government who had taken pictures of the release horses, but he was useless as an identifier of horses.

When asked, the herd area manager told me, "I released the horse I thought was Traveler". Five minutes later, he came back and told me, "Traveler wasn't gathered because at the 2005 gather, he was seen to have a broken tooth, and no horse came in this time like that."

However, we later saw Traveler handled in the chute at Canon City, and he had a tooth that was high in his gum--making it appear broken.

We were able to convince the wild horse specialist for Colorado that we, or I, could identify the stallion, Traveler, that we had been promised he'd stay in the Basin, and that he was important to the herd and to its supporters.

With an NMA/CO board member and a civilian who had the legal ability to drive a BLM truck and trailer, we went the next Monday to Canon City, and I identified Traveler when we were taken to the prison facility.

(TJ was able to do this, prove it was Traveler, because of her photography and documentation.)

Heading Home:

Before the release, he was in quarantine for three weeks.

Free Again!

On Sept. 19, 2007, he was returned to his home and set free. One of the happiest days in my life.

That day was also the start of my personal "documentation project." I had attended the Little Book Cliffs roundup just a few weeks after ours, and although they also used a helicopter, they did not use contractors. Instead, they had volunteers from the very involved Friends of the Mustangs group.

No yelling, no mass hazing the horses with plastic bags on the end of whips (that was only used once, when two stallions' bands came in together--a stallion with a mare and a stallion with two mares. They used the bags very briefly to separate the bands into pens, but they kept the bands together). Best of all, because the horses were known and quickly identified because they'd been thoroughly documented, they were able to separate out particular horses and release the horses that had been gathered within about three hours.

This was amazing compared to ours: yelling, whip-bags constantly going, horses banged up, scraped up, separated immediately, and a mare mistakenly put in one of the stallion pens (Traveler's mare). In our roundup, it took three days for the horses who were gathered first to be released.

(The bay in the picture is Traveler's mare. They did finally get her out, but not before she had gotten punctured or scraped and bled all over several of the stallions. The vet on site stitched it, apparently, when they got her out.)

Immediately after that, I visited Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range for the first time and learned they also document their horses (have for decades) - and their previous gather had been done by bait trapping - not helicopters.

Bait Trapping

Bait trapping takes longer and costs more per horse (though I'm not sure about overall cost because it's done by one man) but is extremely low stress and also singles particular horses out for removal. It also requires a temporary holding facility because the horses are removed in small numbers as bands come to the bait trap (the bait is usually a mineral mix), so it takes longer than the mass roundups and removals of horses BLM typically conducts.

Why TJ Prefers Mustangs Now

What an education that year was ... and every year since. I love horses, but there's something about mustangs - self-reliant, independent of human "care" (and I think most domestic horses are too babied - and that has resulted in a lot of problems - founder, colic, pacing, weaving, etc.), tough, incredibly social, indulgent of their babies, fierce protectors of their families, terrified of being separated - but capable of surviving alone.

Before I ever saw these horses in 2002 - and they were my first experience with mustangs - I was a little worried, expecting to see skinny little runty hammer-headed, knock-kneed "cayuses." ... Yeah - not. I've been in love with these beautiful free spirits ever since!

Spring Creek Basin Mustangs: A Tragic History

A little about Spring Creek Basin mustangs: There were originally three major herds in that basic area: where they are now, tucked up in the northeastern part of Disappointment Valley; an area called Slickrock, just west of Disappointment Valley; and near Norwood, north of the herd area as the raven flies.

My understanding is that they were consolidated to Spring Creek Basin in about the 1950s. They're thought to descend from Indian horses (Ute and Navajo), white settlers' horses, even stolen cavalry horses brought from Montana.

In about the 1980s, three stallions were introduced from Wyoming herds, before it was known that mares make better introductees. One was a grey stallion with a Roman nose named Miguel, one was a grey stallion considered very Spanish in type - believed to be Traveler's sire - Mr. Ed (yeah, I know), and one was a pinto stallion named Spook (2-year-old pinto filly Spook was named after him). Until Spook, there were apparently no pinto horses in the herd.

Spook was later found dead along the fenceline border with the county road (shot, though BLM would not confirm that). Mr. Ed was taken to Little Book Cliffs, where he was later found dead, also shot. And Miguel was taken to a sanctuary, where he bled out and died after gelding. But they all left their legacy in Spring Creek Basin ... from Houdini's Roman nose to Traveler's refinement to the pintos' spots.

So, while I've known the horses and herd since 2002, I have known them intimately since 2007. With the exceptions of bad weather (thunderstorms, blizzards - the roads are exceptionally bad when wet) or I'm out of the state visiting my parents or Yellowstone country (my other favorite places on the planet), I visit the horses every week of the year.

This is the first of what will be a four part Q & A with TJ Holmes, of Spring Creek Basin Weblog. The next three parts will concentrate on what TJ has learned about the Mustang contraceptive, PZP: the good, the bad, and the unknown.

If you have any questions for TJ, please ask them in the comments, and she will be happy to answer them for you--or just say a quick, "Hello."


  1. I have a question for you, TJ--what does your documentation look like? Do you do it mostly through your website? Do you keep all the deatils and dates of births, etc?

  2. What a story here, one that most people would never be aware of. Thank you for sharing it with us. And how wonderful that you document the horses with photography. I'm someone who loves the perspectives I find looking through a camera lens, and so my question is about that. Do you think that observing the horses specifically through the camera lens as you document has actually enriched your knowledge of them? Has the camera opened your vision, internally and externally?

  3. I've been a photographer a relatively short time, and I think just in the short time I've been visiting and documenting the horses, my way of capturing them has changed. I've always been fascinated by their behavior, so I try to capture that ... but I'm also trying to find a little more artistic side - their beauty for beauty's sake. Certainly wanting to get close enough to get pictures of their colors and markings helped me get to know the horses better ... and that all means I can get close enough to (most of) them to eventually dart. I want to capture it all - they give me so much, and I want more. :) I like to just sit with them and watch, camera down, so I *experience* them, too, and not just see them through the tunnel of the lens. I'm not really sure how to answer your question ... it's all intertwined for me. I will say that there's nothing I love to photograph more than horses - the wild ones in particular! I will say that it's true about "know your subject." The better I know them, the more I "see" in them, and hopefully I can capture that enough to share them!

  4. TJ answered my question about documentation via email--and I'm going to run a post later with the pictures she sent me of her notes, etc.

    I have a couple of other questions. 1) Did the mare get released after the incident in the stallion pen? and 2) How old do they think Traveler is?

  5. By released, I mean released back out into the wild.

  6. Yet another question: How large is the Spring Creek Basin, and is there an overpopulation of wild horses there? And, how many horses do they generally pull off to maintain the size?

  7. I'm so wordy, I have to answer your questions in parts:

    None of Traveler's band was released after that roundup. BLM was "worried" (?) about the mare's wound, so they decided to remove her for "continued care." When I first started visiting the basin, Traveler had 19 horses in his band (he made 20). When I came back after the 2005 roundup, he had nine. After 2007, not only was he removed, all his family was.

  8. Traveler was aged at 17 in 2007 - I don't know if you can make it out in the pic of him lunging at the other stallion, but that "17" on his side in green indicates what they thought was his age. Interestingly, he was apparently aged at 10 in 2005 (so I was told). Even in horse years, that's something, eh? No one is entirely sure how old he is. Based on his rate of greying since I've known him, I think he was probably around 12-14 in 2007 ... so around 15-17 now? He got a little "down" last year when Chrome dogged him for a couple of months before he stole Jif and Hayden, but Traveler is in pretty good shape again now.

  9. Spring Creek Basin is almost 22,000 acres with an appropriate management level (AML) of 35 to 65 adult horses. We have 70 now, so the population is over AML. Population on a given range is something that gets talked about a lot, too. Because I didn't stay for the whole roundup in 2007, I'm not sure how many horses were rounded up. I said a figure once that was on the PZP-22 report, and the herd area manager said that was wrong ... but then he wouldn't elaborate. I think there were between 110 and 120 horses in 2007. The horses that came in weren't exactly skinny (a couple of mares were fairly thin), but they were all very lean ... and by October (the roundup was in late August), the remaining horses' condition had significantly improved, I thought. I don't have a background in range science beyond a couple of semesters in college, and I will tell you that based on my experience, the availability and quality of WATER is by far the limiting factor in Spring Creek Basin, even over forage. The horses look really good right now. We'll have somewhere around 20-25 foals next year, I think. I would much rather the roundup be held when the horses - and the range - are in good condition than when they're in the condition they were in during the 2007 roundup. It helps the range not get so degraded between roundups ... It's desert out there: poor forage, extremely poor soil to hold it in place, and it just doesn't recover well or quickly.

  10. BLM likes to try to round up as many horses as possible and get as close to the low end of the AML as possible - and in the current style of management, that's about how they have to do it. In our proposal, we suggest leaving a few more horses, anticipating slower population growth anyway. In 2007, 43 horses were left, not the 37 BLM thought (counting horses previously took place from the air); I'd like to see them do that on purpose this time. They also want to skew the gender ratio, which I'm also not a fan of, but I'm not sure we'll convince them against that - yet - this time. They claimed to have done that last time but released five mares and a filly foal and four stallions (Traveler made five almost a month later). Yet we still ended up with a very skewed ratio - 26 stallions to 12 or so mares. I'm sure they look at that now, three years later, as a reason to gender skew in the future (because it will be four years between roundups, even when the PZP-22 didn't work).

  11. Wow--so all of his herd was rounded up? I guess I'm surprised at that. I'd think they'd leave a few. And the ratio of stallions to mares is staggering.

    On another note, I've noticed with my domestic horses--the mares have a huge part of deciding whether they're "stole" or not. Last spring my mares wanted to be stole really, really bad by the neighboring stallion. My poor geldings ran themselves weary trying to keep the mares in the fence! Also, mares seem to appreciate certain qualities in their males.

    Is Traveler one of those stallions mares prefer? It seems so.

  12. Thanks TJ, it's fascinating to learn how the camera is such a great tool that helps you get closer to the horses you love.

  13. Yes, all the members of his band removed. I know only about his band because I hadn't yet documented the whole Spring Creek Basin herd. This next roundup will be different in terms of all the horses being known.

    I've noticed the same thing. Chrome stealing Jif and Hayden is a case in point: Jif is pretty independent and pretty young, I think. I think she wanted to be an alpha ... but Houdini is definitely alpha in Traveler's band. I think - and this is probably as much anthro as sheer observation - that Jif stayed with the band long enough to have her foal (Hayden) and enjoy the protection of the band when he was little bitty, but he was about 2-3 weeks old when Chrome "stole" her. I've always had the same feeling - that it was as much her decision as his. ;) And same kind of thing with Two Boots, who is Houdini's daughter and young enough to be subordinate to Jif.

    Traveler seems to have those qualities that have elevated him to legendary status - the ability to "attract" AND hold and protect that many mares (and sire numerous (?!) foals). I don't know how many horses were in the basin when he had his big band, but that size band is unheard of - for us. At its largest, Steeldust's band was about 14, plus a few bachelors. He held that for about two years until this year when it started "fracturing." Now, there are 10 with the two bachelors. I think Traveler had his big band for years, fractured by roundups. He seems quite content now with Houdini and their two daughters.

  14. Linda thank you for posting this and introducing TJ to more people. I had looked through this before, but just the photos and intended to read when I was up to it. I have a real problem with stress and get very upset over the BLM's treatment of these horses.

    When I thought of the mineral/salt idea, I wasn't sure it was sensible, but wrote about it anyway, fully expecting ridicule from the BLM apologists. lol. Now I read not only is it doable but has been done! I feel really pleased. It was Echo digging like a little gopher that made me think of it.
    I have a vision of oasis in the sagebrush containing shade trees, good water and salt/minerals. I just knew there was no need to rough house these horses. Now I'll read the next instalment.

  15. Arlene--That was very insightful for you to come up with baiting with minerals before even knowing they do it. Maybe that's because it just makes good sense so sound logic brings you to that conclusion. TJ did say it takes a lot longer, so there is an increase in man hours, but if volunteers were to do it--I'd imagine they'd save a lot of $$$--and if volunteers like TJ do the PZP darting--the populations would be controlled--like an Asseteague Island--and maybe someday--hopefully--there'll be no more round ups and no more Mustangs in long-term holding or.....WORSE.

  16. By the way, there's going to be more to this interview--TJ's going to tell us from first hand experience what has happened to the mares in her herd since they administered PZP-22 and she's going to show us what her documentation project actually looks like. Maybe more people will be interested in doing what she does out here further west.

  17. Arlene - I think you made a good point about the minerals! And it's much better than hay or grain for wild horses. Mustangs do seek out minerals - I've seen pictures of particular places on Pryor Mountain like this. The soil in Spring Creek Basin is very alkaline, which makes the water pretty salty, and is one reason we (NMA/CO) keep pushing for good *quality* water sources. We have a water catchment (takes in moisture from rain and snow and it flows down to a big storage tank, then is released into two troughs via floats), and we've been proposing guzzlers such as Pryor Mountain is installing.

    I know Dan Elkins of Mount Taylor Mustangs in New Mexico, who does a lot of bait trapping for both BLM and Forest Service (and at least one Indian tribe), determines a specific mix of minerals depending on his experience of what might best draw particular horses in different places. He can gather whole bands, or he can set up his trap to selectively gather - this is possible when the horses are documented.

    We have volunteered to put out the mineral (Dan puts it out for about a month before he sets up his trap, to get the horses used to coming) to lower costs as much as possible. Dan is very interested in the welfare of the horses; we met him and his business partner Karen Herman last summer when we invited them to come out and see the basin and let us know what they could do.

    There are lots of ideas out there put forth by people like you, Linda and Arlene! It takes a lot to change BLM's mindset about things, but I must think it's possible - I keep working at it!

    I'm not sure we'll ever get away totally from roundups. Fertility control - with either PZP or PZP-22 - is labor intensive. I guess that's a downside, actually. The horses have to be known and identified so you know who you're darting from year to year. And they have to be approachable. Researchers ARE working on improving PZP-22 and longer-acting fertility control that can be administered remotely. On Assateague, they use PZP only - but the reproduction of mares is severely limited. But if the mindset could change from removing "excess" horses to limiting/slowing reproduction, I think the improvement in the management would be huge. And why not shift from roundup contractors to fertility control contractors? (Dan and Karen are trained to dart, too.) The current management is simply unsustainable, but whatever they choose, they'll have to work at it. And the mindset definitely needs to change.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.