One spring morning, a 3-year-old wild mustang grazed contentedly with his herd on the sagebrush high desert near Steens Mountain. Eight hours later he no longer had a band.
His sudden rejection by the rest of his family shocked Maggie Rothauge and probably the horse himself. She’s reluctant to impose human emotions on wild animals, but she thinks even the horse appeared confused by his abrupt change of fate.
Rothauge, who called this male Cruiser, realized this was an event in every colt’s life that humans hardly ever get to see. At the moment a colt grows mature enough to become competition for female attention, the stallion drives him off.
Rothauge frequently names the horses she has watched and photographed for four years. She took her first photo of Cruiser when he was 1 week old. She had never seen the young male challenge the lead stallion, Cascade. Everyone seemed at peace with one another early in the day.
Late that afternoon, the herd seemed tense. Cascade charged at Cruiser. He trotted away, then drifted back. Then several mares joined Cascade in running at Cruiser, forcing him to flee a little farther.
The young male didn’t understand and kept returning to his herd after the skirmishes.
“Oh my!” said Rothauge. “This is it. I’ve never seen this before.”
This was rejection day, an inevitable day in every colt’s life when they cross a threshold into adulthood. The lead stallion now considered Cruiser competition.
Another herd grazed just a few hundred yards away. A stallion nicknamed Arrow for the white pointed pattern on his side had just three mares. Could Cruiser join them?
Not a chance.
Arrow not only noticed Cascade’s aggression, he jumped into the chase as well. Arrow charged from hundreds of yards away, galloping through the sage.
Cruiser bolted. This time he had to keep running. Arrow didn’t let up as quickly as Cascade had.
Still, the chase ultimately petered out. Cruiser had to satisfy himself with grass far from the family he’d known for the last three years.
Arrow stared from the distance, then tucked his head and galloped again. This time, Rothauge really thought he looked dangerous. The horses ran right by her, then Cruiser turned, kicking up a cloud of dust to run back the way he came. In that turn, Arrow opened his mouth wide, baring his teeth. If he’d been two feet closer, Rothauge believes, he would have taken a chunk out of Cruiser’s flank.
“I’m worried,” says Rothauge. “He could get hurt out here. I wish I could camp out all night to keep any eye on him.”
By the time the sun had dropped below the horizon, Cruiser had been chased from his band eight times.
The message was taking time to sink in.
Cruiser had to leave. He was too mature. It was time to look for a bachelor band until he could recruit his own mares.
He’s a stallion now.
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