Every year for the past three years I have been involved in the feral horse fecal collection project in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It may seem like a strange and nasty job, but it is the best way to determine if the contraceptive used on 28 mares in 2009 is successful at preventing pregnancy, since a fetus will produce enough estrogen after 90 days of gestation that it will be very evident in the feces of the mare. Therefore, every mid-November several of us, who have been working with the Colorado State Feral Horse Reproductive Study and a few volunteers head out to find every mare and collect two sample of fresh manure from each. The first two years we had plenty of help and warm weather, so the collections went quickly, but in 2012 it had just snowed 3-5 inches and then started melting, which made spotting the horses very difficult against a mottled black and white landscape. Plus, we only had two of us who knew the horses, so we were limited to two teams or sometimes one team and one single.
Maggie went alone the first day finding several bands along the fence near the Interstate. Sandy and I found a couple small bands that were generally hard to locate, so we were short on numbers, but glad to have found them without much searching. The second day, Dan and Maggie found all the bands that usually hang along the Interstate and Sandy and I spied Cocoa and Mystery from Buck Hill. We had to climb up the north side of Buck Hill through the Cedars and the snow to find Cocoa and confirmed that Busy Blue was still missing. Though climbing down and up the steep muddy east side of Buck Hill was a challenge reminiscent of a pyre trip to those same flats, we made it out to Mystery and even had barely enough daylight to catch a sample from Ruby who, along with her two fillies, had been taken by Granite’s Boy and were right along the loop road. At the end of two days we were still missing about half the mares. The third day, Dan and I hiked a good ten miles and found a few horses, but none that we needed. We say Blaze’s band just north of Talkington Trail but we were a long way from them and even farther from our vehicle so opted to hurry back to the road where we could meet Maggie on her way by and catch a ride back to our vehicle, then our hike in to Blaze wouldn't be so far.
It was a great idea except that when I got back to the road my phone was no longer in its pouch. In all my hopping and jumping over gullies and sliding down slippery slopes, it had worked its way out and disappeared. I told Dan I would go back for it and he could go get the Durango. After checking all the pockets I had, off I went back across the meadow, up the hill, over to where we had eaten lunch, saying a little prayer that God would help me find my phone. Back I came, again tracking myself through the mud and snow. I could hear Maggie calling to me, so I tried to run the rest of the way to the road. Maybe they had found my phone in my bag. I wasn’t so lucky and neither were they; I had the Durango keys in my pocket. Back I went across the meadow. I knew I had bent down to look at a skull and had not found it the first retracing of my steps, so I was intent to find that skull this time. Finally after going almost to the hill, I was able to look back and see the skull. Back to the skull I trudged, but still I found no phone. I was beginning to wonder, but still had faith the Lord was going to show me where to go. About fifteen feet farther, there it was, my bright orange phone, facing up, but still showing its narrow orange frame. Thank you Lord! And, we still had enough light to head out for Blaze. Out we went, my body feeling like that of a marathon runner, but Blaze was nowhere to be found.
The next morning I volunteered to scout. I took the big scope we call Bruiser and climbed every high hill I could find to scout for horses. I scoured the park from Buck Hill, but could not find Blaze. From the top of Horse Trap Hill, I did see Coal with his new mare, Busy Blue and her filly. Climbing down again, I found them and spent the next hour waiting for a sample. I headed back to Buck Hill. Maggie and Dan called that they had gotten a couple bands on the east side and had hiked in from there to find Blaze, but had not found him. Taking one more look through Bruiser, I saw movement north of Talkington. It was Blaze. It was 3:00. If I hurried, I would maybe have time to get to them and have about 45 minutes to collect before it got too dark to see. Since they had alluded us all week, I was determined to get them.
After calling Maggie to let her know where I was going, I almost ran the ¾ of a mile out to where I had seen them, hoping to get most of the samples I needed. When I got there, I saw that Blaze had Flame and Jud from Redface’s band. Half of his mares were on one side and the others, along with him, Flame, and Jud were on my side of a wide gully. Flame was extremely agitated to be held away from her band. I could read the fear and anxiety in her eyes. Just then Satellite and his family showed up over a nearby hill. I was about to try to get my camera out as all the horses stood facing me when Flame made a break with Jud glued to her side and Blaze close on their heels. Flame broke directly toward me, since she had never had anything to fear from me. Blaze was not so trusting of me and hesitated, giving Flame and Jud a little head start. It did not last long; Blaze was soon in front of them, driving them back at me toward his band. Flame would have none of it; she was determined to go back to Redface and the rest of her family. They churned around in the cedars and breaks for long minutes as I worried about delicate little Jud trying to stay out of the way and keep up with his mother. His eyes were huge with fright, but he would not leave his mother’s side. I momentarily lost sight of them in the cedars. Just then Blaze’s mares on my side of the gully took off across the gully to the rest of the band. That must have been what made Blaze give up on Flame, because he came charging back, wheeling away when he almost ran up my trail, and joined his band running off in the distance. I was so happy for Flame and Jud. Flame had been with Reface for at least six years; that was where she belonged.
I followed Blaze’s band to a meadow wondering if they would continue to run, since they were all so wound up by now, but they settled to grazing and I settled among them to wait. The sun had set several minutes ago and it was almost dark when Diamond gave me a sample. That was it, I could still get it and get back before I lost all my light. I hurried to the pile and plunged my gloved hand into it to see if it was warm, proving it was the fresh sample I needed. It was, but I had forgotten to take my knit glove off that I had put on over the latex glove. Oh, Well, it was washable! I collected the samples quickly, stuffed them into my pocket, put on my head lamp, and almost ran through the near darkness back to the Durango. I thought a little about what would happen if I got hurt or if I ran into some animal on the way back. I was careful where I put my feet, but thinking how stupid I was to be so stubborn. I guess the really good adventures never come without a little risk.