On the Road: Oh baby! Chance reunion with striking, pure white wild horse

Youngster had made it through its most vulnerable time, surviving the first winter of its life.

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I’ve seen this horse before.

It was just a baby back when I first saw it nearly a year ago but now it’s nearly as big as its momma. How do I know this is the same horse? Well, a few ways. But mostly because of its lovely, creamy white coat.

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And its squinty blue eyes.

The abrupt return to winter the previous week had brought a lot of snow to the foothills so I figured I’d better go have a look while it was still there. But I was in for a bit of a surprise.

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Yes, there was a lot of snow but not anywhere near as much as I thought there would be. While I had close to knee-deep snow in the yard of my palatial mid-city mansion, out in the countryside it was closer to ankle. Still a good blanket but not quite what I expected.

Snow southern Alberta foothills landscape
Snow on the hills and mountains west of Cremona, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was pretty, though. It had fallen almost straight down with no wind to blow it into drifts and it draped like a soft, milky-white sheet over the landscape. The snow on the still-frozen — or maybe re-frozen — ponds and lakes was perfectly uniform, barely marred by the tracks of passing animals.

Away from the water bodies, the snow cover was a little more chaotic with grass and shrubs poking through. But it was also supplemented by frost that had formed as the thin blue mist that hazed the mountains on the western horizon crystallized onto nearly everything. At least it wasn’t too cold. Yes, it was chilly around -4C but not bone-numbing. And as I drove along, the sun was finding cracks in the morning cloud cover to shine through.

The spring-fed trickle of Beaverdam Creek over toward Madden was tinkling along with pairs of mallards swimming in its flow. And though they were few, I saw new blades of green grass along the shore. Up the road on the south side of the creek valley were ponds with open water in their centres and I could see backlit wisps of mist rising from flowing springs further down the way.

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Richardson's ground squirrel gopher
A little Richardson’s ground squirrel chirps out a warning north of Water Valley, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The open pastures were covered much like the ponds with fresh snow stitched with tracks. But here I could actually see — and hear — what made them.

Gophers — Richardson’s ground squirrels — were running around everywhere. Though the snow cover was well past their low-slung bellies, they were negotiating it in their usual funny hip-hop fashion, bouncing from burrow to burrow or scratching in the snow to get at the grass below. Ravens were perched on the fenceposts hoping to catch one unaware while a bald eagle sat on a snag at the far end of the field hoping for the same thing.

I could hear the ravens croaking and the gophers whistling as I shot my pictures but suddenly, a multi-voiced yipping came from somewhere nearby. It was coyotes, a pair of them, barking back and forth. Swinging my big lens around to try to find them, I managed to pick one out over in the next pasture but as soon as I did, it took off running. How it knew I was looking at it from that distance, I have no idea.

With the day warming nicely, I kept heading north and west toward the Dogpound Creek valley. Up here, the snow was a bit deeper and the ice on the ponds and streams a bit more consistently frozen. Cattle and horses had to paw a little farther to grab a snack while the gophers that I knew had to be there seemed to have decided to stay in their burrows.

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Whitetail deer
A whitetail deer does what a whitetail deer often does west of Cremona, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Deer were all over the place. Just past Cremona, I found a trio of them out in a stubble field, two does and a young one. Like typical whitetails, they were nervous as I stopped but they stuck around long enough for a couple of pictures before bolting.

The landscape shifts pretty quickly from farmland to forest out this way so I soon found myself surrounded by trees. Down in the valley of the Little Red Deer River the snow was even deeper than it was back in my yard, a nice supplement to the water flowing downstream once it starts to melt. And up among the pastures along Big Prairie Creek it was just as deep there, too.

Stopping to take pictures of the water burbling along under the ice, I saw fresh footprints. Not sure who had made them but I think it might have been a mink, maybe even a couple of them. They certainly weren’t gopher tracks even though there were dozens of them running around in a pasture close by. A vigilant bald eagle was watching them so I’m pretty sure the little rodents wouldn’t have strayed that far.

Possible mink tracks
Looks like maybe mink tracks along Big Prairie Creek north of Water Valley, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The roads were getting sloppier as I rolled further west. With the temperature now well above zero, the packed snow was starting to turn into slush and thanks to the mud underneath, I had to put the truck into four-wheel drive at a couple of places where I stopped too close to the edge of the ditch. The weather was pleasant. The driving not so much.

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So I decided to head to the open country in the Grease Creek and Harold Creek valleys west of Water Valley if for no other reason than to find more consistent roads.

I love the willows over this way and the willow flats beside the road in the Harold Creek valley are particularly nice. Wide spreads of red stems cover acres of beaver flats and they are particularly lovely at this time of year with the reds intensifying as they come out of their winter torpor and the little catkins begin to pop.

But if I thought the roads over here were going to be better, I was mistaken.

Frozen pond west of Airdrie
New, deep snow on a frozen pond west of Airdrie, Alberta, on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Even though it was breezier and a few snowflakes were being blown in from the dark clouds hovering to the west, it was even warmer here in the valley. And being out in the open, all that packed snow on the road was now just loose slush.

The truck kept getting yanked back and forth as I alternated between patches of mud and snowmelt making not only the driving difficult but the observing as well. Even though I was going slowly, scanning the roadsides for anything interesting was nearly impossible as I tried to keep the truck between the ditches.

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But then I saw the horses.

They were ferals, wild horses that spend their lives out here in the foothills. And I knew they were wild for a couple of reasons.

Feral horses
Wild horses along Harold Creek west of Water Valley, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

While they are, technically, domestic horses that have bred and multiplied without any human influence, they just look wild. There’s something about their alertness, the way the carry themselves and move through the open, unfenced landscape and their unkempt manes and tails that just says, yep, we take care of ourselves without any help from you guys.

The other reason I knew they were wild is … I recognized them.

Way back last May, nearly a year ago, I was in this same spot and I came across a little band of wildies. The stallion was dappled white and blond with a dark forelock and he was accompanied by two mares, one a sorrel and the other a creamy white. A fourth horse, a younger stallion, wandered around a little farther away.

But the most striking horse was a little foal maybe a month or so old. It was pure white, with white eyelashes and hooves and pale, pale blue eyes.

And now here it was again, along with its family, barely a hundred metres from where I’d last seen it almost 11 months before.

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It made me so happy that it was still here and, apparently, healthy.

I don’t know if this little guy is a true albino but the lack of pigment that made it so white is generally not a great thing for long-term survival. Needless to say, white animals really stand out from their environment — things like white birds and polar bears excepted — so they are easy for predators to target.

But this youngster had made it through its most vulnerable time, not only safe from the cougars and wolves that might try to take it — thanks, no doubt, to its vigilant family — but surviving the first winter of its life. It filled me with joy to see it again, this time heading into its second spring.

Fresh snow
Fresh snow among the tall trees north of Water Valley, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I continued down the road until the frustration of dealing with the slush and mud became overwhelming, so I made one more stop where the creek runs through a series of willow-choked beaver ponds — had to hit four-wheel drive to get going again — and then turned around. It wasn’t until I hit the pavement closer to Water Valley that roads became tolerable.

But I was back in the slush again over by Bottrel and had to shift the transfer case one more time to pull away after stopping to photograph the open water on Dogpound Creek. Nice to see it flowing, though. And pretty full, too.

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Looking back over the Dogpound valley, I could see the snow clouds that had been up Harold Creek were spreading to the east so, even though I knew any snowfall would be scant, I started to slop my way back to town.

But I had to make one more stop for the eagle.

Something not quite right with the beak on this eagle north of Cochrane, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was perched on a power pole eating a gopher it had just caught and didn’t really seem to care that I was taking its picture. I even had time to change lenses. But when it did finally fly away, gopher still grasped, I took a sec to look at the pictures on the camera.

It had a deformed beak. Even though it had the white head and tail that made it at least five years old and looked perfectly healthy, its lower beak was twisted to the side and flat, extending out past the hook on the upper side. Judging by the gopher-age on the beak, it might have made eating a little tough but it got the job done.

An interesting end to an interesting day. It still felt like winter, back again after a lovely start to spring just a week before. But maybe next week will be spring again. Who knows? This is southern Alberta and at this time of year, anything is possible.

But I do know one thing for sure.

Once springtime does come, I’ll be back to look for that little white horse again.

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