A Three Hour Life - It's Tough Being Wild & Free

A wild mare stands vigil over her new foal as it takes it's last breath.

by Capt. William E. Simpson II

When you live in a mountain wilderness as my wife Laura and I do, you never know what to expect day or night. This seems especially true when living among free-roaming wild horses as we have for these past five-years.

It was in the pre-dawn light of March 1st (2019) that I spied a mare laying down in what seemed a somewhat awkward position off in a distant meadow about a quarter mile from our cabin. 

As I focused the binoculars it was apparent that 'Lakota' a big bay mountain mare, who is well-known to Laura and I, was in the process of foaling. Her previous 3 foals were all lost to predators at ages between one month and fourteen months of age. And the hard part is we knew and loved them all. And there in the nutshell is some of the price that we pay for the  knowledge that we gain by being immersed into our wild horse study, which is truly a lifestyle choice for us. It is a lifestyle filled with amazing insights, love, joy and heartache.

The meadow where Lakota was located was sloped at about a 30-degree angle. As I watched, another stallion 'Blue Boy' with his mare in tow entered the area above where Lakota and her stallion 'Andre' were positioned about 100 yards below. 

Andre also had a second mare in his harem named 'Cinda' who was obviously in estrus. Her scent had drawn Blue Boy to the meadow and the two stallions met to determine who was dominant. Andre being much larger and more powerful easily dissuaded Blue Boy, but nevertheless, Andre decided he was going to move his mares out of the area. 

When Andre began 'snaking' his two mares, Lakota was still laboring, and when she stood up, the foal fell out onto it's head. At this Lakota put her ears back at Andre and spun around threatening to kick him. Andre moved off and instead of moving his mares, decided to instead repel Blue Boy, which he did, sending Blue Boy and his mare back up the hill to the top of the meadow. This reestablished about 100-yards of buffer zone.

The new foal was up and seemed to be nursing within 15-20 minutes, which was comforting after the nose dive onto the cold hard ground. 

At that point, I decided to launch our specially designed wildlife observation drone and conduct a closer look with some photo and video documentation. But to launch the drone required about 2-hours for all the batteries to reach a full charge. By that time, both Lakota and her new foal had moved father down slope about 100-yards. 

I maneuvered the drone to a location about 100-feet above and off to the side of Lakota and her foal, where due to it's stealthy low-noise and tiny cross-section, resembles little more than an odd bird or giant dragon fly. I zoomed-in on Lakota and her foal, which from a distance appeared to be napping on its side. But as the magnification increased, I saw something troubling. The new foal was having very labored breathing. At this point, 3-hours after birth, it seemed this foal was fighting to live. But why? 

I maneuvered the drone into different positions to gain different angles of perspective, yet I could not see any obvious reason or injury for the foal's distress. Of course any intervention at this point would have been potentially dangerous, and an intervention in the event of some congenital condition would be working against evolutionary natural selection. 

Somberly, Lakota stood over her foal for about 30-minutes after the foal had ceased breathing. Then, she turned and walked away, leaving the lifeless foal laying in the cold morning sun. Upon seeing this, I flew the drone back to base, grabbed a camera and jumped on my quad. After a ten minute ride over the rugged terrain, I arrived at the meadow and parked the quad about 10 yards from where the foal lay. As I walked up, it was clear the foal had passed. Lakota had lost her fourth foal, this one a filly. 

I began an examination of the filly looking for any signs of injury, starting at her head. Immediately I observed she had been bleeding from her nostrils and it was now apparent she had suffered a catastrophic blunt force trauma to her nose and mouth when she was dropped, likely hitting one of the many rocks that littered the meadow. 

The lessons from this event are many; but the simplest one was this: Andre, even with his great physical size, seemed to have made the wrong decision in trying to move his mare as she was foaling. And with four of his own foals lost over the past 5-years (none of his foals have survived), it seems his genes may not pass into the next generation. Natural selection appears to clearly work against poor strategy and tactics. 

If Andre had stood his ground, and moved the other stallion off, the foal he sired would have had a better chance of survival. Nevertheless, in balanced ecosystems such as ours, apex predators take a large share of adult and sub-adult wild horses. Over the course of our 5-year observation period, only 1 out of 20 foals born to a live nursing mare survive to their first year, and of those yearlings, only 1 of 5 make it to their second year of life. These low survival rates may also reflect the unusually high density of apex predators (cougars) in this geographic area.

So when I see a vibrant adult, I truly appreciate it's having survived some very tough odds.

A true in-depth understanding of the behavioral ecology of wild horses can only be obtained by living among them; that much is now clear to me having come to this wilderness with a background in science and livestock production from my formative days ranching on the family ranch in the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon, where we had several domestic horses.

It seems important to recount the fact that about 15,000 - 17,000 years ago, some of north America's wild horses were able to migrate across the Aleutian land-bridge that existed for a relatively brief period (in geologic time frames) back then, while some horses clearly stayed behind, as evidenced by the fossil record on the north American continent. 

Even today we are discovering wild horse fossils dating in the post Ice Age period, with finds dated as recent as 7,600 years ago, well after the Ice Age ended about 11,500 years ago. This means that American wild horses did not go extinct during the Ice Age as previously believed by most people and scientists. 

Moreover, the cultural archaeology of the North American continent also supports that wild horses existed in the pre-Columbus/pre-Spanish period, as posited by Dr. Claire Henderson of Laval University in Canada. These and other facts are further explored in this article.

Given about five-millennia of horse domestication and selective breeding off the North American continent, the genetics of the original N. American wild horse species that crossed the Aleutian land bridge was certainly diluted due to selective breeding for breed characteristics, coupled with a significant change in their evolutionary environment off the N. American continent. Meanwhile, as we now see, North American wild horses continued to exist on the north American continent, which is an important fact for many reasons, not the least of which is engaging intelligent management of the remnants of the species on the landscape.

The reason for my having digressed to the foregoing is that mankind's extensive association to domesticated wild horses creates a tendency to make assumptions as to wild horse management based upon an ingrained experience with domestic horses.

Even though wild horses and domestic horses appear the same, the behavioral ecology of American wild horses is considerably different than most domestic horse breeds.

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions – Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary.

Capt. William E. Simpson II is a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Simpson has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. He holds a U.S.C.G. 500-ton captain’s license for commercial-inspected passenger vessels and he is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot.

Simpson spent his formative years growing up on the family’s working ranch in the mountains of Southern Oregon, where horses were an integral part of the daily life. William left the family ranch to attend college, which turned out to be a stepping stone into a bizarre lifestyle that led him around the world on an entrepreneurial quest. An adventurer at heart, Simpson and his best friend and wife Laura, spent many years at sea during two sailing expeditions (1991-1994 and 2008-2011) where they experienced some of the many wonders and mysteries of nature. Since retiring, Bill and Laura have changed lifestyles and are once again engaged in a new adventure; living an off-grid lifestyle in the remote wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains, where they enjoy coexisting with herds of wild horses, along with a myriad of other wild animals. The staggering beauty of the local mountains and valleys is awe inspiring and has influenced Bill to frequently write on subjects related to wild horses as well as wild and domestic horse advocacy, rescue and sanctuary.