While this blog is mostly about a very interesting meeting that we witnessed between two stallions, it is also about the Cerbat herd. This is a very small heritage herd in western Arizona. You will find information on the herd at the end of this blog.
We visited the Cerbat herd for the first time in February of 2014. We saw only one band at the time, plus another band far on the hillside. We were intrigued enough by the horses in this small Heritage herd to visit again in late March of 2015.
The first day there, we saw the same band we saw last year. Named Blacksmith by the people in the area, he had the same mares and youngsters with him. However, this time, he was far away on an inaccessible hillside.
Blacksmith and his band, 2014
We went back in the afternoon and saw another band, again far on the hillside above a waterhole. We hoped they would come down to water, but they were finished and went up the hill instead of down. Well, darn!
This tune is a familiar one to every wild horse photographer that I know!!
Not to be discouraged, we went back the next morning. Nothing. The afternoon….well, maybe.
There they were on the hillside again. But were they coming down or going up? Only time would tell.
We parked a good distance away, expecting they would be shy due to the new foal in the band.
It was an interesting band. The bay stallion had a gray pregnant mare and a bay mare with a very young foal. Not far away were two young stallions; a two year old and a yearling. They were too young to be on their own but they didn’t appear to be with them in the usual sense. The stallion never attempted to chase them away but they never made an effort to closely join them. I wasn’t sure what to think.
We were trying to get some photos of them high on the hillside. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a horse running.
A stallion. Running. Toward us. This was more than a little exciting!
We thought, at the time, he was running for the waterhole. He would have to come right past us. Though he would still be some distance, at least we would have a chance to photograph him. And he was a beauty!
Realizing the galloping stallion was likely to stir up the bay stallion up on the hill, we got ready. Sure enough, the bay saw the roan and tore off the hill in his direction!
They tore into each other. It looked like a fierce fight. The roan was obviously older and considerably bigger but the bay held his own.
Suddenly they stopped fighting. They tucked into each other. Sniff, sniff. Okay. We’ve seen this. Nothing new. We’ve been around the block. We’ve seen it all in the last ten plus years. Yep. Got it.
We were ready for the rest of the scenario, which we knew by heart. Right.
They started to groom each other. WHAT?
Now, I was talking tongue in cheek. We are constantly surprised by wild horses. However, after spending thousands of hours, months every year for a lot of years, with the wild ones, you DO think you know what is going to happen next. It will always be exciting. It will never be routine. But you think you know…
In all the years and hundreds upon hundreds of stallion interactions/confrontations/discussions, we have never seen it end in *grooming*. Never.
They were still a little edgy with each other. But they stayed close together, nuzzling, grooming and yes, posturing…
Suddenly they both stopped, turned around, and stared at something behind us.
I see! More horses behind us!
They both tore off toward the other horses. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Would there be a fight? The sun was in our eyes and we couldn’t see much, other than the fact there were three horses.
The stallions raced to the other group.
The next few photos will be backlit, as we were shooting straight into the sun. There was no alternative and we didn’t want to miss this…
It appeared there was a pregnant mare, a two year old colt and a yearling.
The colt immediately started grimacing. It was his way of saying, “I don’t want to fight” to the two stallions.
The colt is grimacing to show the stallions he does not want to fight.
It quickly became apparent this was the roan’s band.
They were all excited. But there was no fighting.
The bay stallion and the two year old proceeded to…play. Play. PLAY. The roan stallion stood by, appearing uninterested in the shenanigans.
I glanced up on the hillside where the mares and young stallions had been left for nearly a half an hour. You would not see this in any other herd. It’s risky to leave mares unattended for any length of time. But this is a small herd and apparently, there was no danger of the mares being stolen by another stallion. The bay stallion acted as if he had no family at all. He was having a heyday!
To my surprise, I saw the two young colts start to move in toward the mares. Thinking this would upset the stallion, I kept my eyes glued to him. They moved in close to the gray mare. The bay stallion continued to ignore his family band.
After a few minutes, it was clear the bay roan’s mare wanted to go to water. Enough of this boy stuff! She started moving toward the waterhole.
The bay stallion decided it was time to go back to his band.
He clearly saw the young stallions with the gray mare. He wasn’t upset. He trotted back, unconcerned.
We were distracted by the bay roan’s band coming in for water. What a lovely band!
If you want to know more about how a yearling can be so roaned out, read about the history of this herd at the end of the blog.
After they drank their fill, they wandered up the other side of the hill.
Starting up the hill
Once the bay stallion was back to his band, the colts drifted away again. They didn’t appear afraid and the stallion was never aggressive. Yet, they didn’t stay close.
They also drifted up the hill.
The mare and foal made it to the top first.
The stallion followed with his pregnant mare. She was heavy with foal and clearly didn’t want to move too fast. He stayed close by her side.
The youngsters stayed below, grazing.
We were ready to go too. The sun was almost gone. It had been a good evening. We’d seen something very interesting. Something we’d never seen before.
My last view of the stallion was him looking over the top of the hill for the two colts. It made me smile.
Before I talk about the history of this herd, I’d like to propose a couple of explanations for the behavior we had witnessed. While we have a lot of experience with wild horses, I am not familiar with this herd. Nor am I familiar with the two bands. I can only guess what was behind the behaviors we witnessed.
I think it is very likely the bay and bay roan stallion are related. The bay roan was probably old enough to be his sire. They could have been brothers but I am going to guess the former. Their stallion instincts came first, but once they got *that* out of their systems, they appeared to be happy to see each other and in fact, were quite affectionate toward each other. I have never seen mature band stallions from different bands groom each other. There almost had to be some connection between these two.
This herd is quite small and the majority of the horses live in the mountains. Only two or three bands come down into residential areas. That would mean they are likely very familiar with each other. There is no big herd to band together, so perhaps, it is a delight to see another band.
I am guessing the two year old and yearling colts were not the bay stallion’s offspring. They appeared to belong to the gray mare and they wasted no time joining her after the stallion left. The stallion showed no aggression toward them and didn’t seem to be ready to run them off – thankfully, because they are too young to be alone – but he may be concerned about his other mare, who is not their dam and has just foaled, and is enforcing some distance between her and those young hormone-filled boys. On the other hand, he seemed genuinely concerned when they didn’t immediately follow. He stood on the top of the hill for quite some time, looking over at them.
Whether my guesses are right or wrong, I loved seeing this. A new type of interaction is always fascinating and a joy to see!
On to the history of this herd. There are some interesting facts here. I hope you will read on…
The Cerbat Horses
This is a very small heritage herd - The Cerbat Herd Area. It is not an HMA, largely because there is so much private land mixed in with BLM land.
These are small horses that live in the desert. And I mean desert! Complete with minimal forage, scarce water and loads of cactus. Yet, these horses survive. Their small size is probably due to desert forage, yet they do not look thin - just small (14 - 16 hands).
At the most recent count, early in 2015, it was estimated 70 horses remain in the herd. Numbers are stable, probably because of cougar predation. Gathers haven't occurred in years.
The terrain varies from the desert of the valley floor (~4000 ft) to the Cerbat Mountains - at ~7000 feet elevation.
One sources states, "The rare Mustangs of the Cerbat Mountain area of northwestern Arizona are some of the purest descendants of Spanish horses in the United States. Blood testing shows that they carry genetic markers typical of Spanish horses. They are also laterally gaited, with a gait similar to the Paso breeds, but not with such extreme action. Cerbat horses are mostly bay and chestnut but at least 50% are also roans, with the dun dilution also occurring. Cerbats are unusual in that roan foals are born roan, whereas in many other breeds roaning occurs only after the foal coat has been shed." [http://horse-genetics.com/Taos.html]
Which explains the very roaned yearling we saw!
Whether they are truly descendants of the Spanish is controversial. However, there is not much doubt they have been surviving in this unforgiving terrain for nearly 300 years!
From the BLM website:
The Cerbat HA is one of only two HA’s in Arizona known as home to wild horses. There are several popular beliefs concerning the origin of this particular herd. One theory is that the Cerbats are descendants of Spanish mustangs, introduced as early as the 1500s. A second theory is that these horses escaped from early explorers in the 1700s. Yet another belief is that the horses were abandoned by livestock ranchers in the early 1800s. Though the horses do typically show some signs of Spanish descent, their exact origin remains a matter of speculation by scientists. Regardless, this herd is protected by law.
Population: About 60 wild horses roam the Cerbat HA today (~70 in 2015 – source BLM wild horse specialist for the herd). The population is relatively stable, and as a result, recruitment is fairly low. It is believed that the high density of mountain lions roaming within the HA keeps the wild horse population stable. The body size of a Cerbat horse is usually small, with an average weight ranging between 750 to 800 pounds and an average height of 14 to 16 hands. The horses are predominately bays, with numerous red, strawberry and blue roans. Other colors include grey, black, sorrel and dun.
Management: The horses are managed as living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. To date, an Appropriate Management Level has not been determined for the Cerbat wild horse population. With relatively stable numbers, removals by the BLM have not been necessary, and the habitation conditions remain good.
We feel very lucky to have seen bands both years we visited.
Lovely horses and a lovely setting. So very exotic for a northwestern girl!
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