Monday, May 11, 2009


Kathleen and I were making good time on our drive from Boulder to the Disappointment Valley until we decided to take Highway 90 between Montrose and Naturita. It was already dark, and we didn’t think to check the legend on the map, which clearly indicated that this was an unpaved road. Even though our instincts told us to turn back, we continued on. As the road degraded into a snowy, muddy one lane trail, it felt as if we had entered an enchanted forest

where the trees were warning us to turn back as they closed in on the road.

I stopped the car in order to think through our choices. Here we were, two women out in the middle of the Uncompahgre National Forest during hunting season, trying to get to Naturita in order to visit the wild mustangs in the Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area. Since we had already been driving down Highway 90 for forty five minutes, we were more than halfway to our destination. But, would this road get us there safely? If we turned around it would take us at least three hours to return to Montrose and take the other route. We chose the latter, and didn’t arrive at the National 9 Motel in Dove Creek until well after midnight. However, we made the right choice; Highway 90 does not go all the way through. If you’re headed to Naturita, TAKE THE LONG ROAD!

Awakened before dawn by the anxious yelps of hunting dogs, diesel fumes filled the room from trucks that sat idling outside the door warming up for the hunt on this cold November morning. After preparing a breakfast of tea, bagels, cream cheese, tomatoes and avocado, we packed up and headed north towards the Disappointment Valley. I felt like one of those retrievers as my excitement mounted at the prospect of spending time with the wild mustangs.

Colorful red rock formations line highway 141 towards Gypsum Gap which ascends to the top of Disappointment Valley. Rugged, mountainous country of pinion-juniper woodland surrounds the rim. The scenery is spectacular as the road winds its way to the top of the basin. In many ways, it resembles the Grand Canyon. On the descent into the Disappointment Valley, the landscape changes to rolling hills and dramatic buttes, sparsely vegetated with rabbit brush, black sage, Indian rice grass, winterfat and galletta grass.

TJ Holmes, who offered to be our guide, met us at the entrance of the Spring Creek Herd Management Area, donned in her signature visor and Oakley sunglasses. We followed her into the valley where she spends nearly every weekend sleeping in her Jeep,
photographing and documenting this herd of 50 mustangs, which she posts on her blog –

From her first-hand experience out in the field and through collaboration with other avid mustang observers, TJ supports some exciting new ideas on how we could improve our methods of gathering the mustangs. She promotes the premise that close documentation of the herd, and gathering the mustangs by bands are two vital, yet simple elements that would greatly reduce the stress on the horses, and the amount of time they need to be restrained.

She watches over this herd as if they were her children, taking note of the well-being and whereabouts of the 10 bands of mustangs as they move around on the 22,000 acres of this herd management area. She has named all of the horses, and closely follows their social interaction, documenting when mares have been stolen by a stallion and have moved from one band to another; when foals are born, and to which sire and dam. She celebrates the initiation of the bachelor stallions acquiring their own mares, thus creating a band of their own; her heart aches at the thought of the peril of death from sickness and injury.

TJ proudly describes herself as a country girl. She grew up in the saddle. As a baby, her parents carried her along on many trail rides, and she would cry in frustration when it was time to dismount. Until recently, she has always owned horses; now they don’t fit into her work schedule and budget. Her interest in the Spring Creek mustangs was ignited when she wrote a story about this herd for The Durango Herald in 2002. She visited the herd intermittently for the next five years. After witnessing the gather in August 2007, TJ committed herself to precise documentation of this herd for its future well-being.

That first morning, TJ took us for a tour of the herd management area. First we drove to the water tank where she had spotted Traveler and his band earlier that morning. This water tank, which is monitored by the National Mustang Association, is very important due to the fact that it is the only fresh water supply for the horses. Since this terrain is a salt desert shrub ecosystem, the natural water sources are extremely alkaline and below the level considered acceptable for livestock.

We drove along until we came upon a large band of mustangs sunning themselves on the hillside. We unloaded our gear, set up our tripods, and started filming. After photographing for a while, I offered to intuitively check in with this family of mustangs. TJ agreed, and wanted to know if the horses were happy and feeling good. Closing my eyes in order to tune in to the horses, I kept feeling TJ’s energy. Opening my eyes to find out why, I saw that TJ was crying. Turning my intuitive eye on her, we searched for the source of this emotion.

TJ shared that experiencing the gather of 2007 left a deep wound in her psyche. The certainty of more gathers and the uncertainty of the future for these horses caused her to suffer. As I listened, and observed the herd, I was so puzzled. These horses were content, resting in the sun, many of them lying down and napping. Animals don’t worry; they live in the moment. There was such a contrast between the animals’ happiness and TJ’s angst.

In an effort to ease TJ’s pain, I explained to her that I intuited that the mustangs were happy. Even though they never forget anything they have experienced, they don’t agonize over the past or worry about the future. They are extremely adaptable, as evidenced by their ability to survive all these years on land that is sparsely vegetated with native bushes and shrubs and very little green grass in extreme temperatures that can fall below zero in the winter, and rise above 100 degrees in the summer. I cautioned her that they feel what we feel, and if she is grieving for them, they feel her grief. If, on the other hand, if she focuses on the blessing of their presence, the joy they bring her, and the love she has for them, they feel her joy and love.

After getting our fill of photographing this herd, we drove on until we came upon Traveler and his band. During her visits with the mustangs between 2002 and 2007, TJ became attached to this handsome grey stallion. Until the gather of 2005, Traveler was the most powerful stud in this herd, having the largest band of 19 mares, foals and stud colts.

When it came time for the gather in the fall of 2007, Traveler was among the horses chosen to remain on the range due to his desirable genetics. His foals possessed good conformation and temperaments, and there was a high success rate in those that had been adopted. However, when the horses were released after the herd was culled, Traveler was confused with another grey stallion and was shipped to Canon City to either be sold or to go to a long-term holding facility.
When TJ found out that her wild friend had been taken away, she was devastated. Pati Temple, who is on the board of the National Mustang Association, worked with Fran Ackley, leader of the Wild Horse and Burro Program for the BLM in Colorado, to arrange for Traveler’s return. Pati and TJ drove to Canon City to identify Traveler from amongst the stallions taken from Spring Creek Basin, and then hauled him to Pati’s ranch where he was quarantined for three weeks. Under the care of Pati and her husband, David, Traveler fared well. After the quarantine had been satisfied, TJ had the joyous experience of watching the proud stallion re-enter his homeland.

Since the family units of the mustangs are permanently divided during the gather, Traveler spent six months with a bachelor band waiting for the right moment to steal some mares and foals to rebuild his band. Much to TJ’s surprise, over the course of just a few days, TRAVELER, THE WEEKEND WARRIOR, (to see the UTube, click here:, stole a mare, her foal, and an orphaned foal from another band.

Traveler and his family were very comfortable with our presence, allowing us to come quite close. As TJ and Kathleen were photographing, I sat down and did an intuitive animal communication session with this stallion (Link to AC session with Traveler). We had a luxuriously long visit with these animals, and when they finally headed down the ridge into the valley, we hiked up to the top of Round Top where we had a 360 degree view of the herd management area. This lookout was a great spot to use our binoculars and locate the different bands of mustangs. We decided to head northeast and search for a small band that TJ had not yet seen this weekend. We didn’t find them, but as we circled back toward the herd area entrance, we came upon a large group of mustangs. As the sun set and the temperatures dropped, we filled our memory cards with photos of the horses playing against a backdrop of pink tinted hillsides.

The next morning we rejoined TJ and located the three new mares that had recently been shipped from the Sand Wash Basin mustang herd after their gather in October. We found them on the north side, where the landscape changes to pinion pine forest. They were a little skittish, and had not yet mingled with any of the other mustang bands. However, they looked healthy, their coats shining in the sun, revealing their new freeze brands. After photographing “the girls”, it was time for us to head back to Boulder.

A few weeks later, I received an email from TJ saying that Kreacher, one of the more timid stallions, had joined the 3 mares. “This is what kept me going back all year.” TJ said, “So much more to find out after every visit!!”

Many thanks to TJ for a wonderful weekend!


Traveler grazed on a clump of winterfat with his eyes closed. I approached him slowly, feeling for that invisible line that if crossed will cause a mustang to turn and run. Cautious not to make any quick moves, I lowered myself down onto the parched earth. I prayed, offered gratitude to the Ancestors of the land, and settled in for an intuitive communication session with this handsome grey stallion.

The ground beneath me was soft and warm. To communicate across species, I simply imagine that the animal and I can speak to each other. Often, as soon as I do this, the animal does speak! In the case of Traveler, what I heard was not only clear, but a teaching.

He said:

“We are the healers; we do not need to be healed”

“We are not afraid to die. We will fight to the death with dignity for our freedom.”

“We love the land and we work with Mother Earth to bring balance and harmony.”

“Carry our strength within you.”

“There is nothing to fear. Life is good.”

“The Spirit of Horse can never be destroyed.”

I asked Traveler what we could do to help the herds. He replied, “Bring the children.”