Week 9- Golden Boy: The Life and Death of a Stallion

July 02, 2012  •  13 Comments

It is with a very heavy heart that I tell you all that the stallion called Golden Boy was humanely euthanized on Wednesday of last week.  This blog is about the parts of his life that touched ours, including much of the last ten days of his life.


If you are against what we did to intervene in his end, this blog is not for you.  Yes, we went to the BLM with videos, immediately after we caught up with him a few days ago.  It is not less than what we would do for our own beloved animals (and have).  He possibly could have survived for weeks, maybe even months, but it would have been a gruesome and unkind ending.  For those who say it's "natural" to leave them alone to die, I would say yes, that's true.  Many wild horses die a natural death and are never seen- but in this case, humans did see him.  We simply could not let him die a so called "natural death."   We are relieved his pain is over.  We wouldn't, in fact, couldn't have done it another way.


If you are anti-BLM, this blog is not for you.  We have nothing but praise for the expediency, professionalism and compassion for the way the Burns BLM (Oregon) wild horse specialist  handled this situation, both for Golden Boy and for us.  When we took the videos to him and another person in the program, they were carefully looked at and the injuries were explained to us.  The wild horse specialist was on the Steens early the next morning, hiked for six hours looking for him and when he didn't find him, came back early the next morning.


If you want a fairy tale ending, this blog is not for you.  We all know that wild horses don't live fairy tale lives, right?


You may not want your young children to read this blog.  There is nothing graphic here but I have tried to be very honest about the situation as it evolved.  Golden Boy does not survive.  But he does go out valiantly.


You might wonder why I want to chronicle a stallion's end days.  It's because there is a great deal to be learned about the dynamics of wild horse families, the dynamics of the herds and how things shift with the passing of a stallion.   I certainly learned a lot.  There is much I don't understand still, but it was an amazing process.


If you are ready to read this week's blog, you will likely learn some things about wild horse behavior and herd dynamics.  I know I did.  This one is not about pretty pictures, funny stories or videos.  It is about the real life of a stallion, through Barbara's filter, which happens to be the only filter I have.  


I have screened the photos to the best of my ability to show Golden Boy at his best- there are no photos of his last day, other than the one where his mares are surrounding him.  This is intentional on my part.  It's not necessary for you to see see him as he looked the last few days of his life to know what happened.


Many of you know that we do not use names for the mustangs.  We have known the South Steens horses for many years and to suddenly have horses assigned human names has been difficult.  This is not the time for that though.  This once, I will use the horses names to the best of my ability, as I know many of you know them.  It will make the story easier for you to follow.


You will likely want a hanky.  Don't tell me that I didn't warn you.



We first saw Golden Boy in 2003 or 2004 and first photographed him in the spring of 2005.  At that time he had two mares and a newborn foal with him.  


We had seen wild horses before but they were always far away.  The Hollywood Herd has existed for a long time, but it wasn't the way it is now.  You rarely had horses walking to you like what happens commonly these days.




November 2005


Hanging out with McCloud. There were no mares with him at this time.














When I looked at these a few days ago, I was surprised to see how young he looked.  


Golden Boy did not have a freeze brand.  I'm sure he has been gathered, but was probably released at the trap sight, which sometimes happens with horses they definitely want on the range. He is estimated to be between 10- 14 years old by the wild horse specialist.







Golden Boy has never really been a member of the Hollywood Herd, though there have been times he has been living in close proximity to them.  We've seen him there, even this trip, but it's almost like he's cruising through.  We've seen him in the high country and in the back country.  He has gotten around!



Though we visited each year, we did not see him in 2006 or 2007.  In the spring of 2008, we saw him again with a band.  From that time on he always had a large band.




Yes, that is Majesty coming over the ridge.  


This sorrel mare was with Golden Boy to the end, even with a gather in between.











A little friction between Majesty and Golden Boy.  Spring 2008




Spring 2008



























Spring 2008




Golden Boy simply walked up to his young filly to check her out.  She must have been cranky that day because she bit him on the lip!  He blinked, shook his head as if to say "Women!" and walked slowly off.  LOL



Spring 2008









We can't say we've seen him every year.  In fact, there have been long stretches when we haven't seen him or have seen him from a long distance.   In fact, this wasn't exactly close range.  One Eared Jack is in the foreground, Charm and Sage on the far right.  In the Hollywood meadow, September 2008.





Fall 2008
















Spring 2009

















Spring 2009













Much to my surprise, the day this photo was taken, Golden Boy walked down the ridge, went behind our pickup and stopped on my side of the truck.  I gently opened my door and looked into his eyes at a distance of about 6 feet.  Today, this would not be a big deal, but at the time it wasn't a common occurence.  I was just beginning to realize it was safe to be closer than 100 yards to the horses, though I would never recommend approaching close, even now.  They are wild animals and unpredictable things can happen, even with the tamest appearing horses.


I learned over the years that Golden Boy had a very calm, quiet personality.  He would certainly defend his family but he would not go out of his way to look for trouble.    It certainly doesn't mean he wasn't ever seen "in action."  





Spring 2009













Snaking his mares.  He was a strong, capable stallion with a very stable family band.




We missed him in the spring and fall of 2010, though we spent two and a half months with the South Steens horses in the spring.  See how elusive he could be?





Spring 2011















Spring 2011, with his family band




Fall of 2011

With one of his wildly marked pinto fillies. For a buckskin, he certainly threw the color!













Golden Boy was seen by several photographers on Memorial Day weekend of this year and was healthy and fit.  By the time we arrived,  on June 17, the situation had changed.


The first thing that we noticed was his limp.  He had also lost a lot of weight since we had seen him last fall.  I thought at first that he had a hip injury, as it looked like he had lost muscle mass in his hip.  I was wrong about that- he had a foot or hoof injury.  Subsequently, it was discovered he also had a hock injury on the same side (left) and a few days later sustained a serious right knee injury.


As I reported on Facebook the first day we arrived in the South Steens, Blue was chasing Golden Boy and his mares.  Golden Boy was chasing him and while he was limping while walking, he ran without any problem.  I knew it wouldn't be good for his injured foot to run like that, but he was getting around relatively okay.



Fighting and chasing even in the waterhole.  June 17, 2012





























Golden Boy and his band, June 17, 2012


Over the next two days, we saw Blue harassing him more and more.  The first night he had gone up to the rimrock and put his band up against it so he only had to defend in front of him.  The next night he had done the same thing by backing his harem up against a fence.  He was only visible with high powered binoculars that second night and was not moving away, so we couldn't see how well he was doing.  The second night, the black and white 4 year old pinto, Domino, and his bachelor companion were hanging on one side of Golden Boy's band.  They didn't appear to be doing anything other than standing and watching when we saw them.  They were keeping the blue roan busy.


We couldn't find Golden Boy, his band or his hangers-on for four days, though we looked hard for them.


We finally found him a week after we first saw him.  He had deteriorated considerably and had a new and significant injury to his front right knee and his left hock, in addition to the foot or hoof injury on his left side.  He was having a difficult time walking.


Now he wasn't just being harassed by Blue but Domino and his sorrel stallion buddy, though the sorrel seemed more interested in being with Domino than acquiring a mare. Domino was becoming aggressive.  Bachelor stallions had showed up and were surrounding him on three sides- eleven bachelors, counting the blue roan, Domino and his friend.  


It seemed so odd.  The bachelors somehow knew...


Blue had his hands full keeping the other bachelors away but was also trying to breed Golden Boy's lead mare. We were surprised to watch her not only fight him but aggressively approach him- more like a stallion than a mare.  She was defending not only herself but the other mares, it seemed.



While Blue was busy on one side with the bachelors and the mare, Domino was trying to pick off Golden Boy's young bay mare, who may have been in estrus (season or heat).  Golden Boy was defending and Domino was, so far, backing away.  He had an injured eye, so the fighting had likely been going on awhile.  It was clear that he was becoming more and more aggressive.



We took the video we had taken the first day and the one from this particular night into the BLM the next day.  It was clear that the foot injury (left), knee injury (right) and hock injury (left) were not going to heal.  One of those injuries would have probably ended his life but three injuries made a very dismal prognosis.



The wild horse specialist did not find Golden Boy the next day, though he hiked for six hours in the area we had last seen him.  We found him the next morning and the wild horse specialist met us there.



The young bachelors were gone, with the exception of Domino and the sorrel.  However, mature stallions were now in the picture.  Dibs and Cortez were now actively fighting Golden Boy.  You all know how I talk about fighting as posturing or practicing and that it is not often serious.  What we witnessed this morning was the real thing- what probably happens in the winter or early spring when stallions fight for mares.  It was for real and it was not pretty.  



Interestingly, the mares were surrounding Golden Boy.  There was no doubt they were protecting him.  Marty has seen this with elk during hunting season, but I have never seen or heard of it.




The stallions were fighting each other viciously.  Every one of them had an injury of some kind. Golden Boy took on all comers, giving as good as he got, even though he was in very poor shape.  We were awed by his valiant fight.  There was no doubt where this would have ended had humans not intervened, but he was giving it his all.  He could not rear but he bit and kicked with his front legs.




Cortez and Blue


The blue roan has several injuries and is very obviously fatigued from a week of harassing Golden Boy.












Domino and Cortez


Dibbs would mainly dash in and out, rather than challenge one of the other stallions












Within an hour or so of this photo, Golden Boy was euthanized.  One of the last things he did was cover his lead mare.  I am still surprised he was capable of breeding considering he could barely walk.



When it was over, the mares were quickly divided up.  We did not see this but they were all gone within about 20 minutes.  





After about two and a half hours, we saw Domino with three of the mares and two foals.  The tables were suddenly turned- bachelor stallions were now circling Domino and his new band. Blue was obviously exhausted and did nothing more than hang around him.












It was no better that evening.  Even more stallions were coming out of the woodwork.  He had his hands full!














Even Shaman joined in, though he was not particularly aggressive.  It seemed like he was concerned he would lose his new mare and foal and just didn't want to leave them.














Cortez was nearby with a new addition to his harem- Golden Boy's lead mare.  



Cortez's lead mare was not very happy about this- she was chasing her at every opportunity.  Cortez covered his new mare multiple times, adding to the general discontent.  You can see the new addition standing at a distance from the family band.







Obviously missing were four of Golden Boy's band and Dibs.  Dibs had been hanging around in the junipers while the other mature stallions fought, just before Golden Boy was euthanized. He wasn't doing much fighting but he stayed close.  I thought it suspicious that both he and the mares were gone, but we couldn't find them.


Everything stayed much the same for the next three days.  Domino had his three mares and he was still being harassed by bachelor stallions. Even a few mature stallions, such as the silver bay, were hanging in the area.  He maintained control though.


Cortez was wisely off a ways with his band.  Golden Boy's sorrel pinto mare didn't look much happier but things had settled down a bit.





The evening of day three brought a sighting of Dibs.  Sure enough, the other four mares and yearlings were with him.


He was off by himself at a distance from other horses and from us, but there was no doubt it was them.  Three of the mares and foals are under the tree above Dibs, the mare and her yearling.








On day four there was a big surprise.  Domino was with his mares and Cortez with his.  They both went down to the waterhole with their bands.  We heard a lot of squealing and could see heads from their rearing but nothing else.  Suddenly, Cortez came running out with the young dunskin mare and her perlino (or cremello) foal.



We watched for about an hour and a half.  Cortez's lead mare was very unhappy about this new addition and was chasing her and the foal. She kept trying to run away, obviously thinking that being with Domino was safer than this new situation.  Domino looked defeated but never attempted to go for her.  Thankfully, Golden Boy's sorrel mare was settling in and seemed much more content.
As we drove down the hill, Dibs was a bit more visible with his mares, but still keeping them off by themselves.
One last update- last evening when we went up, Cortez had lost his sorrel mare to the pinto with the buckskin mare and cremello foal.
Dibs had one sorrel pinto mare with her buckskin pinto yearling and pinto foal from this year.
I am quite sure the shuffling has only just begun.
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It is obvious that the situation with the mares is far from settled.  I believe that Domino, who has the qualities of someday being a very good band stallion, is not ready to have his own harem.  He is only 4 years old, which is quite young to keep a family band together.  I suspect that his mares will be picked off one by one by more mature stallions.
I think Cortez will keep his mares and maybe add to his harem.  He is showing patience and maturity.  He waited a full four days, until his new mare was comfortable in the band, before attempting and succeeding at stealing another.  He seems ready to have a big harem and is doing a good job.  He is keeping the mares from leaving by snaking them back, but he is not overly aggressive and is not being too pushy, though he has made sure the sorrel mare is bred by him.  He has attempted to cover the dunskin mare, who at the time we left, was not allowing that.
Things are still very unsettled and will likely change a few times before it's all over.
When I put aside my great sadness at Golden Boy's passing, I feel very privileged to have observed this transition.  Mature stallions die unobserved most of the time and all we know is that we don't see them again and the mares show up with different stallions in the spring.  
Several things stood out for me; how tough Golden Boy proved to be- literally fighting off other stallions to the end.  I am quite sure he would have not given up until he was completely incapable of defending his mares.  I don't think that was far away...
I was also struck and moved by how his lead mare fought off Blue and then his entire harem surrounded him when the mature stallions moved in.
I don't understand how the young stallions knew he was vulnerable nor why they moved off at the end and the mature stallions moved in.  What kind of signal was given that stallions from all over the HMA showed up at just the right time?
Young and older stallions demonstrated completely different behaviors when it was time to divide up the mares. Patience and timing made all the difference for Cortez, who, at least for now, has successfully added two mares to his harem.
Blue spent all his energy in the first couple of weeks and when the time came, he was too exhausted to fight for a mare.  Ironic.
Dibs must have moved in quietly, like he had been doing earlier, on the edges of Golden Boy's band and then moved his new harem far away from all the other horses.  So far, it has worked.  The mares appeared contented or at least at peace for the first time in quite awhile.
Cortez's lead mare is asserting herself and while it is uncomfortable to watch, it seems like a natural part of adding mares to the family band.  It's just as important to have a strong lead mare as a strong stallion.  It's clear the new mares will respect her position, or at least have no doubts about who is in charge.
Based on what we had seen with the mare death a couple of months ago, I had expected to see grieving behavior from Golden Boy's mares.  However, I think their exhaustion after weeks of harassment and the fact that several stallions moved in on them within seconds of Golden Boy going down, did not allow for that.  Early on, the mares that Domino had with him were very obviously trying to go back to the area where they had been with Golden Boy but he wasn't letting them.  I think it's possible they didn't even know he was gone.  The wild horse specialist told me that both Cortez and his lead mare walked very close to Golden Boy and checked him, even bumping noses with him, after he was down.
Lastly, I could not help thinking over and over, how different everything would have been, for both Golden Boy and his harem, if he had a lieutenant.  I have never known him to have a lieutenant.  He was always so strong, who would anticipate such a rapid transition for his band?  This was in such a sharp contrast to what happened with Majesty's band when he was euthanized- Jack simply took over and things went on as before.
It is no small thing for this herd to lose two very strong band stallions.  The whole herd seems very unsettled. Horses are moving around like we've never seen before.   There is a lot of fighting among the stallions, even before Golden Boy started deteriorating.  There are more injuries than we've ever seen.   It has been noted by many of us that come here frequently and also by the BLM, who are also concerned.  It's a good thing this herd has a lot of watchful eyes right now...
 I will end with my favorite photo of Golden Boy, from last fall.  What a beautiful boy!  He too, will be missed...









Anita Stelle(non-registered)
What a valiant stallion, in all respects. Thank you for sharing his story in such detail and respect. Although my curiosity wants to know more of the injury details (just the way my mind works), I know not everyone can handle that. What a privilege to have witnessed the transitions and interactions.
Mary Tabar(non-registered)
Thank you so much for sharing! It is very unusual for me to read about the ending of a horses life in the wild to be described with such passion for the life they lead in the wild.
And the tears still come as freely as they did when I first read this... you are missed to this very day Golden Boy.
Awww, I always wondered what the story was behind golden boys demise. thank you for letting me relive that with you, although it was very very sad and disturbing. I'm glad he was euthanized as peacefully as possible under the circumstances. so what happens when he bred his mare right before he died, but then Cortez did multiple times... Did golden boys sperm have a chance in the short time span before Cortez took over? how the heck does that work? which foal did she have the following spring ?
thank you again so much for documenting this and then sharing with those of us who can't get out there. so what mare were you referring to that died apparently not too long before golden boy did? in what order did these stallions die? Goldenboy Majesty and I believe Spitfire must have been the last because I was already following all you guys on Facebook by that time...
Carol wilder(non-registered)
It was a sad time for Golden Boy. But I got to see a lot of my Cortez in this video. He just melts my heart. Sure hated we lost Golden Boy he was awesome. But really glad to see so much of my Cortez. He looked to be doing alright snaking his mares away even though his lead mare didn't seem to like his flirting. Looks like she was very jealous. Well he is a beauty. Thanks so much for taking this of Golden Boys last days it was a wonderful tribute to him, and picking up on Cortez. I enjoyed that part, but was sad for Golden Boy. You did a wonderful job with this thanks so much for all you did. Thanks so much for all you share with us.
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