Long renowned as a symbol of the United States’ frontier era and our indomitable spirit, the American Mustang is a must see for horse loving visitors to the Rocky Mountain West. Scattered in small herds throughout ten western states, the wild mustang is a relic of a bygone era. While many herds are a conglomeration of genes from horses that escaped captivity or were simply turned loose because their owners could no longer feed them, the Pryor Mountain mustang herd along the southeastern Montana/northern Wyoming border is unique in their heritage.
Testing has shown that this particular herd has been isolated genetically from other horses and can be directly traced back to the Colonial era Spanish and Portuguese horse that originated on the Iberian peninsula and were imported to the United States and Mexico with early explorers. To the casual observer, the horses are also distinct in their coloring and stature. Many have a dun or grulla pattern with primitive markings such as a dorsal stripe or zebra ticking on their legs. They have also adapted to the rough, arid terrain in which they reside. Like other mustangs, they are typically shorter in stature than the average domesticated horse and have a very sure-footed gait, enabling them to quickly and safely maneuver through rough terrain.
Viewing mustangs in general, and the Pryor Mountain horse herd in particular, can be an inspiring experience for lovers of horses and the spirit of the American West. However, it is a trip that is not for the faint of heart. The Pryor Mountain region is characterized by isolation, often desert-like conditions, and roads that become impassable after summer downpours (infrequent as the rains may be). That said, a little planning, some patience, and a four wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance can safely take you to the Pryor’s in what could be just a day trip or a multi-day excursion.
For out of the area visitors, Billings is the closest metropolitan area with major air service. Major car rental companies operate out of the Billings Logan International Airport with most offering four wheel drive vehicles. The Pryor Mountain area can be reached within about an hour from Billings, although visitors may first want to visit the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell, Wyoming for current day viewing tips and more in depth information that can be provided by those intimately familiar with the members of the herd. The Billings BLM office (by phone at (406) 896-5013) is responsible for the management of the herd and is a highly suggested contact for rules and regulations regarding the use of the Pryor Mountain Herd Management Area (contact them for camping, hiking, vehicle use, and mustang observation policies).
If you choose to visit the Pryor Mountains and learn more about this unique part of the American West’s history, remember to plan wisely by mapping out a route of travel, packing excess food and water, alerting someone to your intentions, and bringing along lots of patience – a must for all observers of wildlife. And as with other types of wildlife observation, remember that these horses are wild and a respectable distance should be maintained at all times. As much as they may look like your backyard pony, they are wild and unpredictable animals.
The Pryor Mountain mustangs and the region in which they live are a sight that you will never forget once you have taken the opportunity to view them. To see the creatures running free and thriving in such a harsh and desolate setting is truly an eye opening experience. Do yourself a favor and learn more about the history of the American Mustang – then plan your next trip to see this special herd in person.