Ivana Crone – wild horse photographer and Rock Creek Pack Station Mustang trip guide – asked if I was okay riding a mule. The other Wild Mustang Viewers on Sunday’s trip – a family of five and Izzy, my girlfriend – had horses. Someone needed the mule. Red, named Bart, short for Bartholo-mule. I thought about Cormac McCarthy, and Blood Meridian, and Mule Days, and I said yes.
We saddled up and rode into the Adobe Valley pasture. Where the wild horses stood and stared at the ones with reins.
“Are the saddle horses jealous of the wild horses?” I asked Crone.
No, she said. The opposite. Later, when I called her for a longer interview, she explained. “It’s funny – sometimes the saddle horses are so pampered and brushed and fed well, they almost look down at the wild horses. Like, they’re more like a deer to them,” she said. Some of the saddle horses ignore the wild creatures. Some are a bit interested in interacting. It varies from saddle horse to saddle horse.
While I’m not sure how Crone knew what the horses were thinking, I took her 25 years of experience guiding Mustang trips as a sign to trust her.
Crone said a lot has changed the past 25 years. The horse herds used to be bigger. Stallions with 15 to 20 mares in one herd. “Now,” said Crone, “they decided to change it more to their family bands, so each stallion gets a mare – sometimes two or three, but that’s the most I’ve seen lately.”
The horses are traveling differently, too. They used to roam the high hills – sometimes 15 to 20 miles a day. Approximately 10 years ago, some of the family bands decided to stay down in the flats. “The other herds noticed them from the high hills and started joining in proximity,” said Crone, “and then they decided to start getting closer to each other.” It looks like one big herd of horses from a distance, but the educated eye can see that the herd is composed of about 20 separate family bands.
This winter was a tough one for the horses. There are around 30 mares in the group. Typically, after the snow melts, one would see 20 to 30 new foals (i.e. baby horses) among the family bands.
“We only saw one foal which survived the winter,” said Crone, adding that 25 to 30 mares died, too.
With fewer mares, stallions have more competition.
More competition means more action.
Standing stallions clapping hooves with other stallions. The few remaining mares being shepherded (e.g. chased and bitten at their ankles) by the stallion with which they’ve mated.
A tragedy, yes, but also an opportunity for photographers like Crone to capture the action.
She recently started her own photography business – you can see her shots and sign up for workshops at ivanacrone.com.
Crone grew up in the Czech Republic riding English style – for the uninitiated, English riding is done with two hands on the reins. Western’s done with one.
For a while, she was a travel writer and photographer throughout Africa. Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt. “I remember once we had to be escorted… because a civil war broke out,” said Crone. “There’s definitely some interesting stories.” At one point, she did a two week, nearly thousand mile trip on horseback across part of the Sahara.
She came to America for the big, wide open spaces. The wild horses represented that space. That freedom. Her original degree was in geophysics and geochemistry. From a university in Prague. Then, she started studying wild horse behavior with UC Davis, leading field trips and sharing facts.
It’s believed that the wild horses have been here at least over 500 years, “from the Spanish conquistadors,” said Crone. “So they have a lot of Spanish blood – what really makes a true Mustang.”
Then, some 1800s wranglers decided there was more money in mines than horses and let some horses run free, adding to the numbers.
“And also, when you talk to the very old Paiute Indians who have their stories and old, old remembering from their great-great-great grandfathers’, they also know the horses have always been here.”
We lingered among the Mustangs for a few minutes more before climbing a hill for an overlook lunch. I ate my apple and gave Bart the core.